Helmut Draxler / Klaus Scherübel

Art for Art’s Sake for All
A Conversation about the Sustainability of the Non-existent

Helmut Draxler: Klaus, you’ve been interested in Stéphane Mallarmé’s Le Livre / The Book for quite some time now. What does this work mean to you, and how do you relate to it?

Klaus Scherübel: An interest in Mallarmé can easily become an addiction. This is especially true regarding The Book, which despite or precisely because of its non-existence as a text is capable of posing a sustained challenge to our powers of imagination. When we talk about The Book, we’re talking about Mallarmé’s central “work,” even if there’s no work as such for us to refer to. The theoretical and practical considerations generated around The Book were decisive not only for the development of his own work.

The origins of The Book can be traced back to Mallarmé’s experience of “the void” and a concurrent creative crisis in 1866. From this time on, he continued, over a period of decades, to work on the idea and plan of a “critical” work of poetic art that was to publicly dismantle “fiction,” and “consequently the mechanism of literature,” in order to found what he called the “truly modern cult”—a form of worship which he proclaimed as the solution of a spiritual crisis in an increasingly secularized culture, meant to aesthetically enlighten key aspects of the lives of its readers in a mass democracy.

Mallarmé’s many comments concerning The Book point to a rigorously calculated—although far from consistent—operation. In these statements, Mallarmé attempted to substantiate his idea of this magnum opus as a cosmic text architecture, as a “single” book without bounds, totally liberated both from its author and from chance. As a book in which language itself speaks, it would finally have become identical with the sum of all books.

HD: The aims formulated for this book are so high that Mallarmé could only fail. How do you relate to that?

KS: Considering the extreme demands of the project, it’s no wonder this one world-book never got beyond the concept phase. But this doesn’t mean The Book should be considered a failure. Mallarmé, who often doubted the feasibility of his ambitious undertaking, also mentioned the possibility that The Book already exists; in this context, The Book can be read as a metaphor for a world completely rendered in language. Due to Mallarmé’s early death, the composition of The Book was not definitively fixed.

The question of how to create an adequate reminder of the often-forgotten existence of The Book was the point of departure for my work Mallarmé, Le Livre. Based on a first publication, it developed into a long-term project that uses standardized means of production and distribution in an attempt to operate at the threshold between fine art and literature.

HD: In the reception of The Book, one can distinguish between very different aspects: on the one hand, the aesthetic of the work, which tries to distance itself from both author and reader, and on the other the media aesthetic, concerning the way things are written, printed, and published as a precondition for speech and thought. Which of these aspects is the decisive one for you, and how can they be related to one another?

KS: In a way, a reception of The Book which tries to maintain a distance to both author and reader strikes me as dubious. Although Mallarmé proclaimed the autonomy of the work, these statements are at odds with his idea of the importance of author and reader in constituting the work. He considered their roles as substantial if sometimes negative agencies. The “pure work,” says Mallarmé, “implies the disappearance of the poet speaking, who yields the initiative to words, through the clash of their ordered inequalities. . .” Logically enough, in his manner of writing, Mallarmé refuses to impose a predefined meaning on words; instead of lining them up in the form of sentences, he would—we may assume—have scattered them over the page in such a way that their meaning would only have developed out of their encounters—in both space and time—with other words. He demonstrated this in part with his poem Un coup de dés / A Throw of the Dice, which, in formal terms at least, shows similarities with The Book.

HD: But how can the collages or “cut-ups” of A Throw of the Dice be related to the design principle of the void in The Book?

KS: His design principle quite clearly aims for a radical destruction of the conventional reading process. Instead of performing a linear reading movement—a successive back and forth—the reader would be called on to navigate the flickering constellations of words, with the graphic design of the pages causing frequent changes of timing and direction, as well as standstills caused by the “blanks.” Freed from the principles of causality and continuity, the act of reading would then have developed into a process of decision-making and awareness-building in which the reader would have been literally forced to engage with the full variety of language. Mallarmé says that reading The Book is The Book. At the same time, he cautioned the reader not to adopt the role of the author. But as Mallarmé himself also refused the role of the author; in The Book it was to remain unoccupied—but only seemingly: in the public readings from The Book which he had planned, Mallarmé was to appear in the privileged function of the “opérateur,” the person who choreographs and comments on the presentation, thus retaining control over the “unpredictable” connections, movements, and significations in The Book.

HD: There’s also an existential-political dimension that advocates a “restricted” form of action between “suicide and abstention,” and then a cultic dimension where the book is viewed as a counter-model to the mass media. How important are these dimensions in Mallarmé’s work, and what is their significance for you?

KS: “Suicide and abstention” are constant themes in Mallarmé’s life and work. He viewed “suicide” as the expression of total self-determination and of total negation. Instead of killing himself, he killed the empirical ego of the author, whose silence was to become the precondition for the creation of the “absolute work.”

Mallarmé held an ambivalent view of the mass media, in his case the daily newspapers which in the second half of the 19th century were exerting a growing influence on the everyday experience of broad sections of the population: on the one hand, he felt them to be a threat as they visibly advanced the instrumentalization of language, and on the other he saw in them a model for a totally new way of reading and seeing based on creative combinatorics.

The concept of “restricted action” comes from a late text of the same name (published in Divagations) in which Mallarmé—on the insistence of fellow writers—addresses the question of poetry as a means of political action. “Restricted action” refers above all to the necessity for the poet to focus his action on the space of the book, which should by no means be confused with a lack of trust in the impact of his activity on society. Alluding to the anarchist Félix Fénéon, Mallarmé compares the effect of The Book to that of a “bomb.” The text also contains implicit criticism of naturalistic theatre based on immediacy, which according to Mallarmé rather paralyzes than stimulates the viewer’s mind. Instead, he privileges the medium of book and the active form of reception associated with it. For Mallarmé, The Book is the exclusive space in which the “theatre of the spirit” can unfold for the reader/listener in a personal and lasting way. As such, it was meant to represent an alternative model to religion—which had become discredited—and to the daily newspapers. Conversely, he appropriates specific aspects from these two institutions—from the newspaper the structural and visual organization: the juxtaposition of totally different themes, the graphic design, and the sequence of folded, unbound pages, but also the large print run and commercial strategies such as the placing of advertisements; and from religion the ritualized public presentation of The Book, which for an ironist like Mallarmé would have meant a new form of theatre.

HD: One striking thing about the notes on The Book, only published in 1957, is that they make almost no mention of content, addressing only production and distribution. Loose pages are intended to undermine any clear linear reading, any circumscribed or conclusive meaning, offering instead an “endless network of links.” At the same time, however, The Book as a whole is affirmed in a substantial understanding as the “essence of all literature.” How do you see the relationship here between the literalness of production details and the claim to universality?

KS: For Mallarmé, language is a system of endlessly complex spatial connections. For him, literature is poetry. Poetry, in turn, is synonymous with music, which in Greek, as he points out, has the meaning of “idea” or “rhythm between relationships.” Asked how “the totality of all existing relations between everything” could be presented in The Book, Mallarmé responded with the design of this mobile structure, meticulously thought through, that would have facilitated an endless sequence of new combinations, juxtapositions, and contextualizations of individual words, text units, and genres. It is the structure of The Book that would have guaranteed the emergence of this endless work as a result of words “light[ing] each other up through reciprocal reflections.” Mallarmé had been aware of its fundamental importance for the functioning of his project from the outset. So it is no surprise that he worked out the formal aspects before even beginning to sketch out the content.

As you say, Mallarmé’s notes are by no means limited to the structure of The Book. They also include highly detailed plans for the number of volumes, the format, a bestseller-like edition of 480,000 copies, ticket prices for the planned theatrical readings, and the size of the audience at these events, which in turn was to depend on the number of assistants required and the number of pages to be presented.

As well as trying to address all of the basic parameters of literary production and reception and make them part of the Book project, Mallarmé saw the book project itself as a mathematical equation in which aesthetic, economic, and social aspects enter into a quantifiable interrelation.

HD: Reception of Mallarmé has cast him both as an elitist founding figure of modernism, and as a radical avant-gardist. Recently, the emphasis has been on intermedia aspects, for example between literature and painting. Where does your interest lie? How would you situate your own project within this history of reception?

KS: With the material version of The Book at least, Mallarmé was trying to break down the antagonism between modernism and avant-garde, doing so before the conflict could even have been labeled as such. What I find suspicious is that even today, he remains an attractive target for supposedly “engaged” positions. This is clearly linked to the fact that reception of Mallarmé’s work has largely ignored The Book, in spite of its central position within his oeuvre, as well as other works with an unmistakably culture-critical dimension. I hope that my proposal helps to focus attention on Mallarmé’s utopian approach, a program that would have to be called “l’art pour l’art pour tous.”

HD: What has your approach to The Book been? How does this project fit into your work as a whole?

KS: Reception of The Book has most often focused on one of the two forms in which it exists: either as a book or as a purely conceptual proposition. With Mallarmé, Le Livre, I’m trying to merge both options, thus making explicit its fundamentally split character—in terms of its form and its claims. Initially it was about replacing the verbal representation of The Book as far as possible with an equivalent object. In other words, it was about adding a volume to the complete works of Mallarmé, an object whose resistance to usage would allow it to question the definition of The Book in an evident manner.

I had been aware of Mallarmé’s Book since the early 1990s. With hindsight, it may already have influenced Melvin, a work from 1993 that consisted of announcing and mass-promoting an art event about which no further information was offered. In this context I also produced my first Cover edition, produced in the format of an exhibition catalog, that could be used as a jacket for other publications. An initial element of institutional critique was already present in my work in fashion. When I began engaging more intensively with Mallarmé’s Book—after moving to Paris—I was also working on very different, mainly genre-specific projects such as my structural situation comedy SCHERÜBEL (a sitcom) and the photo/text-based series Untitled (The Artist at Work), which deal self-reflexively with the definition of artistic work, as both activity and object. For relaxation purposes, I have occasionally produced a monochrome Hobby Painting. . .

I’ve always seen my work as an opportunity to react to different conditions and constraints. To avoid being labeled, I considered it essential to pursue the idea of diversity in my activities, in terms of both form and content, but also, and this is important, concerning the functions and roles in which I could operate as an artist.

HD: What specific means have you deployed in your approach? Do you borrow aspects of Mallarmé’s method or do you rather work against them?

KS: At first glance, it might look like I literally applied Mallarmé’s creative method of destruction to his own project. But it’s actually more an attempt at a reconstruction—under difficult conditions. The various means deployed are primarily paratextual, more or less as direct references to Mallarmé’s own ideas concerning the realization and presentation of The Book.

With a gesture that underlines the paradoxical status of The Book as both impossible to realize (as a book) and completely realized (as a conceptual work), I began by producing a jacket for The Book in the format laid down by Mallarmé. The publication, now available in four languages, has all the hallmarks of a normal book cover, including ISBN number and blurbs. To get The Book into regular book distribution, I had the cover wrapped round a polystyrene block and sealed in plastic. It is available in this form from bookstores—for a relatively modest price, another direct reference to Mallarmé’s democratic endeavors.

The Bookstore Editions later became part of the Reading Rooms, a presentation format intended as an allusion to Mallarmé’s public “readings.” In their hybrid appearance between advertising presentation and space for information, they shed light on the conceptual foundations of Mallarmé’s project, at the same time as focusing attention on the possibilities and processes by which a book usually achieves a public profile. The blow-up version of the cover refers in formal terms to the dummies often found in French bookshops (supplied to booksellers free of charge for promotional purposes). In my case, it also works as a model for a collective form of reading. Introductory Remarks on The Book can be heard in the form of a lecture on video. A selection of enlarged pages from Mallarmé’s manuscript with my annotations, mixed up with pages of my own notes, constitutes a kind of frame of reference to Mallarmé’s approach, but also to my own. In addition to this, the Reading Rooms also contain a series of photographs documenting the growing presence of the Bookstore Editions in bookstores and libraries, thus recalling the way the project functions outside of art institutions. The Reading Rooms exist in different languages, the most extensive to date being the Dutch version shown in 2009 at S.M.A.K. Wherever possible, I also use these presentations to organize symposia and lectures on Mallarmé, which are an integral part of my project.

HD: With the book covers, bearing the names of Mallarmé and Klaus Scherübel, you create a link between Mallarmé and yourself. How should this relationship be understood? Homage or appropriation? Quotation or incorporation?

KS: I would call it a kind of “critical” homage. Or, taking it a step further, it could also be called a collaboration: after all, there is a double authorship. Although Mallarmé wanted to separate himself from The Book as an author, ultimately his name has become identical with the project. As an artist, I appear in the role of the editor. The different positions of our names on the cover express this relationship.

From: Helmut Draxler and Klaus Scherübel, “Art for Art’s Sake for All. A Conversation about the Sustainability of the Non-existent,” in Klaus Scherübel, ed., Klaus Scherübel. VOL. 13 (Montréal: Fonderie Darling, Ghent: S.M.A.K. Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, 2011); translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell