There is a fair bit of history behind the artist’s love affair with literature and books. In the 19th century artists illustrated for authors as a side job and then in the 20th century, artists’ work was published, moving the focus from the text to the visual compositions within the pages of these books. Such limited edition books were better known as the livre d’artiste. Quite simply published art now refers to printed work by artists, either on a wider or limited edition scale. Illustrations in a writer’s book don’t quite qualify. In the 21st century, we see a further evolution in our wireless digital age, where the ‘museum without walls’ is no longer confined to the book, instead available as digital limited editions on websites such as http://www.seditionart.com, where one can purchase a work by the likes of Damien Hirst for just a fraction of the artist’s market price. Thankfully, there will always be some of us who would much rather browse the pages of a well-printed book or anticipate a trip to the framer with a poster in hand; this is the world of published art as it presents itself accessibly to the collector in Sri Lanka today.
In Sri Lanka we have various forms of published art, but as the overall art scene veers more towards the traditional, it is only in recent times that published art is receiving attention and recognition locally. Art galleries are always the best places to source any form of published art, keep in mind we are referring to printed art, most often posters and books. As all art is subjective there are some works that just about fall under this category, the ‘Book of Faces – Saskia Pintelon’ published in 2007 by Clam is one such piece. This accordion style publication contains an interview between the artist and her daughter while it poses as a captivating object that mimics the nature of Pintelon’s work. The postcards of Dominic Sansoni are also in a sense published art, though none are limited edition and some more commercially inclined, the image of brightly coloured saris is typical of a photographer who has captured the essence of a country for decades.
The Sri Lankan born independent curator, Sharmini Pereira, runs a publishing house in London and every year she presents two book projects, collaborating with artists from South Asia. Pereira’s most recent project with Jaffna artist Thamorampillai Shanaathanan, was titled The Incomplete Thombu, and consisted of a series of stories retold from 80 people who lost their homes in the north of Sri Lanka during the war. The book presents itself in a cardboard cover, made to resemble a government file. Within this file sits a beautifully bound series of stories and homes redrawn by an architect and translated into a artistic drawing by the artist himself. The ability of this book to go beyond a mere ‘Thombu’ (registry of land) to translate a history of emotional turmoil is profound. Such is the work of all of Pereira’s book projects, in that they have a tactile presence that is not a replacement for a gallery but a new form of exhibition in itself.
In October 2011, Paper Canvas was staged at the Saskia Fernando Gallery. While poster art is by no means a new medium of art, the exhibition presented itself as the first limited edition poster series of contemporary art involving the work of various emerging and established designers and illustrators locally. The posters were printed offset with 20 of each signed and marked with the edition number. The limited edition aspect of any form of published work ensures that the value of the work will in fact increase in value. These digital manipulations of images and three dimensional software productions became a form of translation for designers anxious to express. Now those posters now belong to both established and developing contemporary art collections.
In the Daily Mirror, the Colombo Art Biennale, began a campaign for their event. Two weeks before the event was set to take place, a double page spread of an artwork was available for anyone to purchase at just Rs.20/-. The value of the work was indeed more than this, it is after all a limited edition piece, printed on the thin yet all too familiar morning paper. It was perhaps the widest form of published contemporary art that Sri Lanka had ever seen, it was perhaps also the cheapest piece that one could buy. The meaning of these images was immense in that the widest spread publication of a nation had been used in the communication of contemporary art.
These examples bring us back to the definition of publishing, in reference to the activity of making art public. Art in any printed form can be seen in the campaign of the Colombo Art Biennale, the postcards of a photographer, the art books of an independent curator or the collaboration conducted by a gallery. Published art makes the world of art more accessible, more affordable and in some cases more communicative. For a new collector it is also the easiest way to access a world that can exclude and intimidate. These published works don’t quite break the bank and they offer their owner an equal experience to a 10 foot canvas.