Michael Snow and Experimentation in Book Form
Michael Snow – one of Canada’s most significant artists whose career spans seven decades and counting – is well known for his contributions to sculpture, drawing, painting, film, photography and music. He is less known for his work in the book-format works, which are modest in number compared to his total artistic output. He cleverly exploits the book’s conventions, however, in ways consistent with his work in other mediums.
Michael Snow / A Survey, published in 1970 by the Art Gallery of Ontario in collaboration with the Isaacs Gallery as a catalogue for an exhibition of the same name, openly proclaims the artist’s involvement as “Book by Michael Snow,” on the title/table of contents page. Snow himself designed and supervised the book’s production, and while it is not unheard-of for an artist to be involved in a catalogue of their work, it is less common for this involvement to be of such consequence. Meant to fulfill the traditional function of the exhibition catalogue by providing, for example, an artist CV, list of works and essays, it also includes Snow’s detailed family history, cartoons and family photographs, interspersed with photographs of the works. This merging of the personal with the impersonal is perplexing in a publication of this type, and the further obfuscation of the written word – including upside-down text and pages with multiple texts printed over top of each other – even more so.
Snow continued to be interested in the possibilities for subversion and artist implication permitted by the exhibition catalogue. He worked with the National Gallery of Canada on two occasions to publish catalogues: Canada, published in 1970 to accompany his representation of the country at the Venice Biennale; and, two years later, with About 30 Works by Michael Snow, an exhibition organized by the NGC for the Center for Inter-American Relations. Unusually, both catalogues are oriented like calendars, with images on top and text on the bottom. Typographic and text-block anomalies are present, with some pages composed almost entirely of blank space. On others, the text is dense and mismatched with the image of the work it is describing. Although designed by Eiko Emori, Snow’s directorial presence is clearly felt and utilises some of the same disruptions experienced in Michael Snow / A Survey.
Snow’s best-known book is Cover to Cover. Produced in collaboration with the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design’s esteemed publishing program in 1975, it is an artist book meant to disrupt the ways in which we normally read, calling into question the perception and objectivity of the reader. The art work, in book format, is not simply an intervention into the accepted format of the exhibition catalogue. Composed of 320 pages of full-bleed images and devoid of text, it takes full advantage of each available page. The photobook leads us through a day in the life of its author as he enters his home, drives across town to his gallery, and then leaves through the door he first enters.
Each scene is photographed by two photographers from two distinct vantage points. In order to make sense of what is going on, the reader must consider both sides of the same page, rather than the normal scanning of pages. This reveals a two-sided reality we can’t see from a single viewpoint, a concept he also explored in his earlier film Two Sides to Every Story. Just when one thinks one has figured out what Snow is up to, he flips the orientation of the pages 180˚, forcing the reader to either turn the book over or shift their position in order to continue reading.
The front and back covers are comprised of both sides of the door that the artist first enters then leaves. Arriving at the end of the book, the reader comes to its reverse side, realizing that Snow has implicated us in a continuous loop. By turning the book over, we can start again. As with many of Snow’s works, his sly modus operandi is not easily grasped – this putting the reader to work transforms engagement into self-awareness. As Jon Evans, Chief of the Library and Archives at Houston’s Museum of Arts, so accurately summed up in 2014 in Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, “Ultimately, as the narrative unfolds and we are exposed to the conceit of the book, we learn that we are an active participant in the unfolding of the work and an elemental player in the creation of a new reality. Welcome to the land of Michael Snow.”
All of the books mentioned in this article can be found in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives and can be consulted in the Reading Room during public hours. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.