artist's book, Book Reviews

Figuring Absence, pt 4: Long & Freeman’s Chicago Stock Yards Book

We left off our discussion of absence with Stalin’s revisionist approach to history and the question of whether or not he succeeded in erasing the past through willful obliteration.

Chicago Stock Yards Book by Brad Freeman and Elisabeth Long

This leads me to our last book which is about different kind of historical absence, one not imposed by a political agenda and layers of ink, but rather the result of obsolescence and layer upon layer of time passing.   The Chicago Stock Yards Book was a collaboration between Brad Freeman and I on the subject of the Chicago Stockyards, an infamous area on the south side of Chicago that was finally closed down and razed back in the 1970s.  One of the themes of the book is this way in which things manage to persist even in their apparent absence – how hard it is to eradicate a vibrant past. We started by comparing two maps – one from the 19th century, an old birds-eye view engraving of the stockyards in its heyday, and one from the present day – a satellite view of the area as it looks now. What the maps showed us was that you could see the footprint of the old yards still evident in the modern statellite view. That as a place changes over time, the things that are apparently absent have actually left all sorts of patterns and traces.

Chicago Stock Yards Book: Opening spread

And as we explored, map in hand, the area that had once been the stockyards and was now an industrial park, we found that if we looked closely enough we could see these traces of the past.  But the looking required the right distance—different distances render different truths.  Our usual kind of looking, the one that simply shows us the present laid out before us, is a view of the middle distance. But if you pull back far enough (like the satellite)  or examine the details closely, that is where you find the flickerings of the absent still evident all around us.

This artists’ book was an attempt to reintroduce the absent to the present.  Taking inspiration from rephotography projects, we searched for places that were on our maps—the hair drying fields, the manure pile, the packing factories, replaced now by overgrown rail tracks, a Chinese food packaging plant, a Tyson’s Foods warehouse. The book itself then reinterpreted the experience—printed on the back sides of our two maps it is filled with images both from our sojourn and from historical books on the stockyards, facts about the stockyard’s production and textual reflections on all the relationships therein.  The act of folding this map/pagelayout sheet into codex signatures resulted in an interspersing of old map, new map, text, modern photograph, historical image all mixed up together as they were in our minds and in the space around us.

Page spread. Left page: Brad taking pictures near an old packing plant; Right page: News photo of Bubbly Creek, 1913 overlaid on picture of the cattle pens

Text and image expresses the vibrancy of the stockyards—a gruesome business that nonetheless was teaming with life—and contrasts it with the nondescript quiet of the current-day industrial park.  The layering of new on old (or old on new) was explored further through the collage of modern day and historical images and the repetition of image such that as you turn the pages and each spread appears to be a new set of subjects, ghosts of previous images still remain—a visual resonance used to express how our past is never quite absent from our present.  [No matter what Stalin may have thought he could do.]

These four very different books that were each about absence in one way or another show us just how complex and multi-faceted a theme can be.  What makes an artist’s book work well is that many facets of the book form are actively brought to play in the foreground of the work. (text, image, format, texture, the 3dimensional aspects, etc). None of these plays the crystal goblet in an artist’s book.  It is this complexity of foregrounded components that makes an artist’s book such a good vessel for expressing the complexity of our experience.  I hope this [talk] essay has give you a small taste of that.