Derek Sullivan, Albatross Omnibus 

Kathleen Ritter
The Power Plant, Toronto,
September 24–November 20, 2011
Everything in the world exists to end up in a book, Stéphane Mallarmé proposed in his far-reaching aspiration for Le Livre — the ultimate book that would encompass nothing short of the world in a single tome. This statement could double as a primer for Derek Sullivan’s practice, where everything that passes through his hands seems to find its way into or out of a book. 

Sullivan’s recent exhibition Albatross Omnibus is designed from the outset as a book. An eight-foot-high concertina wall snakes through the first gallery, bisecting the space into two irregular shapes. On one side, framed drawings are hung like illustrated plates from an encyclopedia on modern-ist abstraction; on the backside, large photocopied images of an awkwardly bookish woman holding a novel are postered directly on to the drywall between exposed metal studs. Viewers’ movements through the space per-form the act of reading, physically moving from one page to the next.

Sullivan uses the form of the book as a repository for the intersecting histories of modernism, architecture, graphic design, and the literary and visual arts. His drawings likewise bring together disparate references and aesthetic signifiers — colour, pattern, shape — especially ones that inherit specific, vernacular meaning through their use in culture. Sullivan’s drawings capitalize on the arbitrariness inherent in abstraction, leaving the work open to numerous associations that extend into the past and the future. A gingham pattern, for example, could refer equally to Martin Kippenberger’s paintings, Rei Kawakubo’s clothing design, Brigitte Bardot’s famous bikini. . . and the list continues.

The concertina wall that weaves through the first gallery cuts into the second, which opens up into a large space. Sullivan produced a suite of fifty-two artist’s books, one for each day the exhibition is open. Though monumental in number, the books assume a modest format — pocket- size and paperback, with large type on sky blue covers — and invite an intimate reading. The content of each volume plays on the very idea of the artist’s book — its conventions, its histories, and its possibilities — and underscores the idea of the codex as a formal and conceptual apparatus where a diversity of text, images, and subjects (from concrete poetry and art to anagrams and garden design) can seamlessly cohabit.

Yet as a serious foil to the ease and intimacy of reading, the books are suspended on cords from the ceiling, high out of arm’s reach. Three mobile platform ladders are available for adventurous visitors to mount and thumb through a dangling book. In so doing, the act of reading becomes conspicuously performative, evoking the idea that the work is inflected by our “readership” of it, and the reader becomes a co-author in the production of meaning. Sullivan’s investigation into the form of the book illuminates a persistent desire akin to Mallarmé: a longing for the ultimate book that is just beyond our reach. 

Derek Sullivan, Kathleen Ritter
This article also appears in the issue 74 - Reskilling

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