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Monica Oppen

Monica Oppen.jpeg
Monica Oppen is the owner of Bibliotheca Librorum apud Artificem, an artists' books library in Sydney, Australia. Photo courtesy of Monica Oppen.

Interview conducted by Anisha Kaul, Scripps College ‘20


Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be both an artist yourself as well as a collector? Are you more so one than the other?

Primarily I am an artist. However the first books I collected was when I was still a student in the 1980s and I had started making books as major works– but there was no one else in my classes who was also doing books. There was no book arts classes. I went to two art schools, one after the other. At the first school I was a printmaking major student and because there were a couple of students also interested in books the drawing teacher set us a project which was to make a book with 13-14 drawings leading to a final print. At the second art school there was no one. I was still majoring in printmaking. I think my teachers thought I was a bit unusual. One term instead of handing in the necessary 6 editioned prints for assessment I handed in a proof copy of a book which was 56 individual prints. They didn’t mind. I was working hard. I finished this book (Rebecca’s Diary) after I finished art school. I considered it to be a serious work and I didn’t want a class assessment on it!

I start collecting books in a small way in the 1980s when a friend and fellow student from art school #1 told me about friend who had made some books. These books by Alison Kubbos were the first books in my collection. Alison is no longer making books. The last time I had contact with her she was working as graphic designer.

I had never heard the term artist’s books until another friend put together an exhibition. This was just after I finished art school. I didn’t really think about it that much and had no idea there had been a whole genre developing and “boiling" with contentious issues and definitions!

Because I needed to bind my books I sought out binding classes at the technical college and then landed a job working part-time for Daphne Lera, a hand binder in the city. I learnt the core of my binding skills from Daphne doing hundreds of case bindings. But through Daphne I saw into a world of fine binding and this lifted my standards, made me set my sights higher.

A couple of years after I finished art school (1990) my son was born and then my daughter. I slowly stopped making art during this time and focused a lot on writing. It was simply easier to fit in some time for writing than to fit in time for printmaking or book making. But at this time I came across the work of Peter Lyssiotis and started to buy his work. They were very beautiful books and I think I was feeling nostalgic for the book making I had put aside.

When I returned to books in 2005 I would soon be blown away with how the field of book arts/ artists’ books had changed and grown “while I was away". I started to collect seriously at this time.

Sometimes when I commit a larger chunk of time to updating my catalogue I realise that I could make it a full time job (with no pay mind you!) I sometimes dwell on the idea but then usually decide that I still want to make books!

Do you think that your perspective on artists’ books changed as both an artist and a collector?

Yes definitely. I feel that I’m always standing in two camps. The collecting has made me look at a lot of books and also delve into the history of book making. All this “research” was about becoming more familiar with the genre– where did it come from and what are people doing with it? I tend to stay away from the term artists’ books and think about books by artists. It’s a way to get away from all the curly questions of definition!

My work as an printmaker and bookbinder and book maker means that when I look at books I see things relating to the quality of the crafting of those books that perhaps others who were not artists would not see. The art practise thus informs my looking and seeing and engagement with new books. Also because of my research I’ve seen a lot of books, so books in exhibitions that some may think are new and edgy, I might see as not that interesting because I’ve seen those expressions (for want of a better word) before.

Also being a collector has made me think a lot about what is a good, interesting, exciting bookwork to me. I can’t collect everything so I’ve had to do some hard thinking about where to draw the line. For example I generally don’t collect book objects. It is not that I don’t like them but they don’t represent my core interest. Having said that and why I say “generally”, is because I do have works which are book object. But these usually enter the collection because I have other bookworks by this artist. (e.g. Julie Barratt) (also you can check out my category of “non-books”!)

To sum up, being a collector means I have to have a perspective which is perhaps tighter and thought through than if I was only an artist. 

As a private collector, do you have a personal connection with each of the pieces in your collection?

In a way yes but with some books the connection is a lot stronger than with others. Some books I simply can’t help liking more than others. Some I think are more powerful than others. The process of cataloguing the work, photographing and putting the data online is how this connection is enhanced. (I am currently very far behind with the photographing!)

What efforts do you go to seek out new artists’ books?

Initially I put a lot of effort into seeking out exhibitions and through these exhibitions seeking out artists. Basically I went to as many exhibitions as I could. I travelled quite a lot! This was to become familiar with the book arts world here in Australia. After a while I began to notice the same names that kept cropping up so it was not so necessary hunt for them.

Here in Australia, as you probably know the land mass is big (almost the size of the US) but the population is small (about 22 million). This seems to mean that very few events keep regularly happening for longer periods of time. So there might be a flurry of exhibitions, symposiums and some awards and then this wanes and there will be less happening. Also because to the distances to travel, an event has to be big enough to be worth travelling to, both cost and time. This impacts on the coming and going of events I think. It takes a lot of time, energy and money to get a bigger event off the ground. They depend very much on the huge passion of the organisers for the genre.

There is no book arts centres here. Just think in the US there are several, one in New York, one in San Francisco, one in Minnesota etc. I have discussed the possibility of setting up a centre here in Australia with colleagues and always the question is where? It seems the general feeling is there is no one place with a big enough book arts focus and community to sustain a Centre and generate enough power to have people travel to use it. I mention all this here because it is through the activities of all these “organisations" that new artists’ books would appear or come to light in a context where book collectors might see them. They are the channels.

With filling in the historical work I have developed a relationship with a book dealer in Melbourne who shows work to me, Australian historical works that I might be interested in. He is also the only book dealer who is willing to take on the work of artists making books today. I have come to new contemporary artists through this dealer too.

With historical international work I have sought out many books through Ursus Books in New York. Contemporary works have come through Joshua Heller and Priscilla Juvelis and also through direct contact with artists. Also when I travelled I have visited bookshops and book fairs.

When looking for additions for your collections, are you looking for a particular piece to fill a gap in your exhibit, or do you do a broad search and choose whatever strikes you as a "good fit”?

More the latter than the former. I have general areas of interest I like to collect in. But then there are particular artists whose work I continue to collect because I simply like it. Usually also because it fits an interest. I might collect the work of an artist because it fits an interest or theme that I’m interested in but then continue to collect that artist’s work even if the new work does not fit to the same theme. I become interested in the progress and development of the artist’s work.

This collecting of the works of particular artists, I have recently read, is very much normal collecting practice. True collectors don’t collect for financial gain!!

Do you try to seek out artists’ books with certain political or social messages?

Yes. Social justice is one of the themes I’m interested in and how it is expressed the work of artists. Also environment, that’s another theme I’m very interested in. I’m interested in other voices to the mainstream media, the mainstream historical accounts etc. I’m interested in the alternate point of view. How the public world of politics etc. impacts on the private lives of individuals and communities.

Content is important to me even if the content is formally artistic, i.e. the mark on the page, the interaction of colour (e.g. Theo Strasser).

Books can hold a lot of substance in terms of content. Often what disappoints me with work is the lack of the big enough idea to fill the space.

Do you think that your collection caters to a specific audience? How much do you consciously create that audience?

Perhaps if I can say the audience is me! But also perhaps the person who is interested in the breadth and depth of the book production of artists. But because of my interest in bookbinding and love of bookbinding I’m very much interested in book books!

No I don’t consciously create an audience.

Do you make an effort to represent artists of diverse backgrounds? Or do you prioritize good content over diversity?

I had to pause and think about this question! The answer is yes. Hopefully there is no need to prioritise and the two come together. But having said that I don’t just buy a book because it is by a person of different race or culture. It is important that the work can stand for itself, has something to offer, has voice, the voice of the artist, truly, deeply and complexly. That doesn’t mean it has to be a serious work! I am always looking to build the cultural diversity of the collection– to have books not in English, interesting works from other countries, not necessarily of different race. Some works show the artist’s background and others don’t. It is just interesting connecting with a broad group of people.