If I were an art collector — if I could afford to be an art collector — my art collection might look like a supermarket. I’m so attracted to artworks consisting of packaging on shelves that I would probably purchase nothing else. (See: On the Shelf)
The ad hoc assortment of jars and bottles in this 2012 artwork by Kirsten Pieroth (sometimes spelled “Kiersten” Pieroth) is more reminiscent of pantry than retail shelving, since the jars are hand-labeled.
But they contain something else that we are accustomed to seeing on shelves: books.
Well, not “books,” exactly—more like the liquid extract derived from boiling a book in water. A process which naturally renders a book unreadable.
An earlier precedent for this type of destructive distillation of literature might be John Latham…
In August 1966, Latham had assembled a group of students at his home where together they dismembered a library copy of Clement Greenberg’s book [Art and Culture]. After removing the pages, they each tore the leaves into smaller fragments. They then “ate” the American’s prose – or, rather, chewed it over, the paper being masticated, pulverised with saliva into a pulp and spat out. The resulting mess was carefully collected and then, using various chemicals and yeast, left to ferment. When Latham received his overdue notice from the library at St Martin’s School of Art he responded by returning a phial containing the distilled “essence” of Greenberg. For this gesture, Latham was dismissed from his teaching post at St Martin’s. But in this instance, he had the last word. He went on to transform his record of the action, comprising letters, the overdue notice and the phial itself, into a work of art titled Still and Chew: Art and Culture 1966–1967 (now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Paul Moorhouse, And the word was made art, 2005, Tate
Where Latham’s process — chewing and spitting out the pages of a book — can be read as a rejection of its contents, Pieroth’s process — boiling books down to their essential nutrients — seems more like pragmatic magical thinking.
Where Latham’s book selection is quite pointed, Pieroth’s choices seem more neutral. One doesn’t get the sense that her book choices constitute a repudiation.
(More of Pieroth’s liquefied literature, after the fold…)
Kirsten Pieroth, Untitled (Essences), 2014, 25 jars, liquid from boiled books and personal documents
Kristen Pieroth’s magic manifests in the alchemy of Untitled (Essences)  which consists of twenty-five hand labeled jars containing the boiled, strained and distilled matter from books essential to the artist as well as Pieroth’s personal documents (passport, driver’s license, diploma) and ephemera (her washing machine manual, a credit card contract).
Kelby Vera, Flaunt Magazine
Conservation Piece is part of a larger series called Untitled (Essences) (2010-ongoing), in which Pieroth literally distills various collections of printed documents into liquid essence to preserve the words written on the paper. In Conservation Piece, thirty collected jars containing a yellowed, cloudy liquid appear randomly arranged on a shelf. Pieroth boiled down daily editions of The New York Times for the month of September 2010, and stored each edition in a different jar.
The New York Times was established in 1851 and is America’s second highest-circulating newspaper, written in a politically independent and analytical style. The jars are labelled with the day and date of the edition, as it would appear on the newspaper’s masthead, and are not arranged chronologically, but more like a pile of rummaged newspapers… The colours and remnants of the newspapers in the jars vary, although each edition was boiled for the same amount of time, in the same volume of water. The Sunday editions of the paper were the most voluminous, appearing as the darkest colour.
By boiling and reducing The New York Times to its essences in Conservation Piece, Pieroth comments on the controlled nature of contemporary media, and the decline of print media, whilst preserving a history of media that is disappearing. Pieroth has described her approach as an investigation into “the relevance of media and a critique of it as such”… , stating she was interested in media as a system of power, with content carefully selected by editors.
Eliza Devlin, The Biography of Things, 2015
Kirsten Pieroth, “Conservation Piece” (detail); (photo from: Hyperallergic)
In 1877 (or thereabouts) the NY Times ran a satirical column by W.L. Alden entitled “Bottled Books.” Although the books, in this case, were not liquefied and were still readable and intact, the intention was to deliberately remove them from circulation, none-the-less.
An odd story is current concerning an eccentric Englishman who… has freighted a vessel with ten thousand tightly corked bottles, each containing the story of the Garden of Eden, and has sent them to the Arctic regions. There the bottles are to be imbedded in the snow, where it is supposed that they will remain until the gradual shifting of the earth’s axis brings about a climatic change, and the consequent melting of the snow sets the bottles free to drift down to regions where their contents will be read with astonishment and gratitude by future generations.
Whether the alleged Englishman and his bottles have or have not any existence, is not a matter of very great consequence. The real value of the story consists in the hint which it gives to authors who desire to secure a republication of their works thousands of years hence. Books which were published yesterday, and are dead and forgotten today, can be called in by their authors, packed in air-tight cases, and buried in the Arctic snows. When these books finally float back to the descendants of the public which now scorns them, they will be sure of the notoriety which they have so far failed to secure, and their republication by the Arctic current will be vastly more to their advantage than would be their possible reissue by a reckless publishing firm.
It is greatly to be hoped that the merits of this plan of bottling undesirable works for future consumption will be perceived by certain authors now living. With what joy would the intelligent part of the public learn that Mr. Tupper had bought up all existing copies of his Proverbial Philosophy, preferring the certainty that his wisdom would be supplied in quart bottles to the public of the thirtieth or fortieth century, to the chance that readers of the remaining twenty-five years of the nineteenth century might care to continue to draw it, so to speak, from the wood. How heartily could we, for the first time, applaud the gushing and grammarless “Ouida,” were she to pledge herself to bottle all her future novels, and to keep them on Polar ice for the delectation of posterity. In our land there are novelists whom the public has utterly rejected; poets without number whose works vainly lie in ambush for readers in second-hand bookstores, without ever finding a victim; and not a few humorists whom the world would not willingly let die in any slow and peaceful way, were there only a beneficent provision of law allowing any one to kill them with promptness and impunity. These should gather their works together and ship them to the Polar continent. What though some venturesome Polar bear should chance to devour a five-act tragedy, or a volume of humorous police reports, and perish miserably in intestinal anguish ? What if even an Esquimaux were to stimulate his sluggish mind with bottled Tupper, and so fall into sudden and hopeless idiocy? The welfare of civilized men must be preferred to that of casual Polar bears, and the happiness of whole nations must not be hazarded through fear of the possible ruin of an occasional Esquimaux.
But, it may be objected by humane men, that this scheme entails frightful consequences upon posterity, since it is ridding ourselves of a vast burden of oppressive literature, only to heap it upon the devoted heads of unborn generations. It is true that the philanthropic mind cannot contemplate without a shudder the thought of a tremendous cataclysm of Tuppers and Ouidas, sweeping down from the North, and carrying mental devastation throughout the civilized world. And yet we may justify ourselves in some measure by the same argument with which we excuse the heaping up of a national debt which our children will be compelled to pay. In either case, the immediate necessities of the present take precedence of the remote contingencies of the future. Perhaps a few thousand years hence, men will be strong enough to endure books which now burden us beyond our strength. At any rate, there is no doubt that the majority will be willing to let the future take care of itself, and to secure their own happiness by sowing the Arctic fields with bottled literature. It remains for ambitious authors to take immediate measures for preserving their fame on ice. We now see that the desolate Arctic lands were not created in vain. Let us hope that there will be no delay in the use of so capacious and trustworthy a refrigerator for tainted and intolerable literature.
Domestic Explosives and Other Sixth Column Fancies: (From the New York Times)
William Livingston Alden, 1877