How does the form, style, composition, or structure of a book inspire artistic practice?


Image: <i>Under the Influence</i> at Art Basel, 2017.
Image: Under the Influence at Art Basel, 2017. Courtesy of Zarina Hashmi.

This past March, Asia Art Archive presented Under the Influence: A Travelling Library of Books that Inspire Artists at Art Basel in Hong Kong.

For the project, we invited artists from around the world to choose a book that inspires their artistic practice. Each contributor shared personal stories related to their selection, thereby providing singular perspectives on these one hundred foundational texts from across genres and disciplines.

Since then, Under the Influence has been touring to schools around Hong Kong.

In this fifth installment of a seven-part series on Ideas, we share the books from the project alongside writing from the artists. We wondered, how does the form, style, composition, or structure of a book inspire artistic practice? How do artists look for methodologies through reading to represent their thoughts, feelings, and experiences? Note that the thematic groupings reflect AAA's interpretations of these texts.

Part I: A Search for Truth

Part II: Activate/Agitate

Part III: Artist to Artist

Part IV: Ecologies

Part VI: Space and Time Travel

Part VII: Ways of Seeing and Being


Barbad Golshiri on The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

Image: Cover of <i>The Unnamable</i> by Samuel Beckett.
Image: Cover of The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett.

Ages ago I started going on worstward. Not a soul to unleash me except Beckett. He rather tethered me, synchronised my heartbeat with his syntax of failure. "The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express [...] together with the obligation to express." Today the ten-ton mammoth is trained to mark time. Thuds of an old plunger.

The Unnamable ends with "You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on." My copy is missing the middle sentence. Is it a rarity that I can't go on?


Beatrix Pang on Archiv Peter Piller Band 10: Bedeutungsflachen (Da Ist Es) by Christoph Keller

Image: Cover of <i>Archiv Peter Piller Band 10: Bedeutungsflachen (Da Ist Es)</i> by Christoph Keller.
Image: Cover of Archiv Peter Piller Band 10: Bedeutungsflachen (Da Ist Es) by Christoph Keller.

German artist Peter Piller is a solemn but humorous image collector. In the mid-1990s, he started collecting and sorting images from different publications to create his artworks. Over the years, these images have been integrated into the series "Archive Peter Piller," which includes more than 7000 images. Bedeutungsflachen (Da Ist Es) is the tenth book in the series, which includes images collected from 1997 to 2007. They have a variety of people in different backgrounds pointing to the front or the back, seemingly aimlessly. Also, the book doesn’t include any captions for the images.


Cao Fei on That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director by Michelangelo Antonioni

Image: Cover of <i>That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director</i> by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Image: Cover of That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director by Michelangelo Antonioni.

Michelangelo Antonioni said his films explore a paradox in that "we have examined those moral attitudes very carefully, we have dissected them and analysed them to the point of exhaustion. We have been capable of all this, but we have not been capable of finding new ones." To me, his desultory "sketches" are not director's notes. They are imagery, perspective, an apocalypse of the "modernity" of an era. I’ve been keeping this book at my bedside for years and I read it every several months, or years. In this book I find ceaseless entanglement. It is an endless discourse on an aircraft wreckage left on the horizon, a working woman struggling emotionally over her divorce on the rooftop of a commercial building, and an ending without an end. My creations share similar microscopic and macroscopic views with his, with similar degrees of accuracy and obscureness, yet my works are films in everything but name.


Chen Tong on Le Miroir qui revient by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Image: Cover of <i>Le Miroir qui revient</i> by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Image: Cover of Le Miroir qui revient by Alain Robbe-Grillet.

The first quasi-autobiography of Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the key figures of the Nouveau Roman (new novel) movement, was my first foreign language book in a Chinese edition. I am constantly haunted by the line "I speak only of myself," especially when I encounter issues associated with the purpose and function of arts. It also helps me generate an idea: If we live in reality, what art does is make us real, instead of showing, revealing, or intervening in reality.


Luke Ching on Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino

Image: Cover of <i>Mr Palomar</i> by Italo Calvino.
Image: Cover of Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino.

This book is my mentor. Do not read it all at once. Place it near your bed, and read one or two chap-ters before going to sleep; it will give you auditory hallucinations.


Cui Jie on Project Japan: Metabolism Talks by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist

Image: <i>Project Japan: Metabolism Talks</i> by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist.
Image: Project Japan: Metabolism Talks by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

This book is about the Metabolism interviews by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Metabolism is an important Japanese architectural movement after World War II, and also the first Asian architec-tural movement. I am interested in the architectural style of Metabolism. This book provides much inspiration and information. In 2014, I did a collection of works and chose some pages from Project Japan, and then printed photos of my oil paintings on them. I chose photos about Chinese urban architectural landscapes affected by Metabolism. This idea came from my interest in "overlapped painting." Orson Welles used this method in most of his movies, where two scenes are overlapped—one fading slowly while the other appears gradually. Likewise, two scenes are in synchrony with each other in my work. This is a retrospective interpretation of Metabolism; I interpreted it as an overlapped shape of the past.


Dayanita Singh on Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino

Image: Cover of <i>Difficult Loves</i> by Italo Calvino.
Image: Cover of Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino.

"Adventures of a Photographer" is one of the short stories in this gem by Calvino. It would certainly be the first chapter in my new reader, alluding to the madness of photography and the obsession of the artist; but also because Calvino is my role model in that he finds a form for each work of his. There is no Calvinoesque formula. If there is one, it is to have no formula, ever. I could have made this entire list from Calvino books, "Six Memos for the Next Millennium" would be the next one. It’s not about "what" he writes, but "how" he writes.


Jyoti Bhatt on The Family of Man by Edward Steichen

Image: Cover of <i>The Family of Man</i> by Edward Steichen
Image: Cover of The Family of Man by Edward Steichen

"The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen." These words of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy may have inspired me most to indulge in photography. In addition, my artist friend Jagdish Swaminathan (he was like an "audio book" for me) once said: "Jyotibhai! Nothing remains totally unheard." These words (that he had perhaps read somewhere) also kindled my enthusiasm to do the kind of photography that I have pursued.

Though I enjoy reading books, I have not read much. Since I neglected (rather stupidly) learning English during my schooling, the books I have read are mostly fictions written in vernacular Gujarati language.

However, Parkamma and Paribhraman, two Gujarati books by Jhaverchand Meghani that narrated his research of Saurashtrian folklore and also his indigenous method of doing research, must have suggested directions and ways for following my interest in photographic documentation.


Kurt Chan on Image Music Text by Roland Barthes

Image: Cover of <i>Image Music Text</i> by Roland Barthes.
Image: Cover of Image Music Text by Roland Barthes.

I am particularly impressed by the notion of the "Death of the Author" because it gives a reason for artists to create freely without literally "knowing" what he/she wants to express, and at the same time encourages the audience to co-create actively with the artist in the process of "reading."

This idea influenced me profoundly, and pushed me to explore the value of non-verbal connections between humanity and the world—perhaps the most important function in art that can inspire both others and the artist himself/herself.


MAP Office on The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin

Image: Cover of <i>The Arcades Project</i> by Walter Benjamin.
Image: Cover of The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin.


Our investigation proposes to show how, as a consequence of this reifying representation of civiliza-tion, the new forms of behavior and the new economically and technologically based creations that we owe to the nineteenth century enter the universe of a phantasmagoria.

The Arcades Project, the unachieved book of Walter Benjamin, is definitely the most inspiring book that MAP Office has been using again and again for the last twenty years. Opened systematically for every new research project, the one thousand pages of quotes, notes, and indexes operate as a source of inspiration to understand the complexity of our civilisation. Not necessarily in relation to the subject or object of our research, the book demonstrates a methodology and a structure of research informing and inspiring our production. With a focus on atmospheric conditions, visibility, and invisibility, our practice often refers to Walter Benjamin's concept of phantasmagoria or the spectacle of making ghosts come alive.


Sampson Wong on Odd One In II: Invisible Travel by Pak Sheung Chuen

Image: Cover of <i>Odd One In II: Invisible Travel</i> by Pak Sheung Chuen.
Image: Cover of Odd One In II: Invisible Travel by Pak Sheung Chuen.

I started making art because of this book, and I still believe it has the power to convert someone into an artist.

Whenever I have doubts in art, I turn to this book.


Tang Kwok Hing on Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne

Image: Cover of <i>Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp</i> by Pierre Cabanne.
Image: Cover of Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp by Pierre Cabanne.


I like living, breathing better than art is that of living. Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral, it's a sort of constant euphoria.


Tsang Kin-Wah on The Antichrist by Friedrich Nietzsche

Image: Tsang Kin-Wah, <i>The Antichrist</i>.
Image: Tsang Kin-Wah, The Antichrist.


Yang Jun on The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks

Image: Cover of <i>The Bean Eaters</i> by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Image: Cover of The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks.

It’s a collection of poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. I chose this book because of the piece called "We Real Cool." It is super short—just twenty four words. I stumbled upon it in a bookshop in NY when I was seventeen. It’s like a haiku—capturing "everything" within very few words, concentrating on its essence and simplicity, with no word too excessive and no word missing. A modern version of a haiku, written in a very different cultural context. In my own work, I always aim to achieve something like this.


Zhuang Wubin on South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

Image: Cover of <i>South of the Border, West of the Sun</i> by Haruki Murakami.
Image: Cover of South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.

I don't remember much of the content of this novel. I only remember reading it during the lonesome and awkward transition from my high school years to compulsory army service in Singapore. A sense of estrangement marked my life then. That was before the English-language hype of Haruki Murakami's work. When the English translation of South of the Border, West of the Sun came out years later, I found it to be rather disappointing. The ever-efficient English version effaced the strangeness and alienation retained in Lai Ming-chu's (賴明珠) Taiwanese translation. As a lover of music (I was compelled to learn the violin until I graduated with a Grade 8 certificate), I found Lai's version better equipped in sustaining those qualities through the rhythm and pacing of her language. Looking back, I wonder if this has affected my way of narrating, composing, and editing photography.


Varsha Nair on Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal

Image: Cover of <i>Too Loud a Solitude</i> by Bohumil Hrabal.
Image: Cover of Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal.

In Too Loud a Solitude, Hanta, the narrator, has been compacting discarded tomes and educating himself secretly using books he rescues. In the opening paragraph, he says:

I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

Books tell me about the world and something about myself. It is an ongoing search that involves many books, and along with all of Hrabal’s magical writings I offer here ones that particularly inspire, motivate, and even disturb me: Ananda K. Coomaraswamy’s The Dance of Shiva and History of Indian and Indonesian Art fell into my eager hands as a student back in the late seventies, opening my eyes and mind to delve into the richness of my own cultural heritage. I read The Laws of Manu to go deeper into the construct of Indian society, particularly to analyse a woman’s position within it, as well as Virginia Woolf’s "A Room of One’s Own," her polemical essay on female creativity. I also reach out time and time again for Atlas of Remote Islands by
Judith Schalansky; Collection of Sand by Italo Calvino; and A Field Guide to Getting Lost and The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit.

These are some of the books in which I find myself and get lost in.




Beatrix PANG

CAO Fei, 曹斐

CHEN Tong, 陳侗

Luke CHING, 程展緯

CUI Jie, 崔潔

Dayanita SINGH


CHAN Yukkeung Kurt, 陳育強

MAP Office

Sampson WONG, 黃宇軒

TANG Kwokhin, 鄧國騫

TSANG Kinwah, 曾建華

ZHUANG Wubin, 莊吳斌

Jun YANG, 楊俊

Varsha NAIR

Research Notes
Mon, 14 Aug 2017
Cite as
Barbad GOLSHIRI, Beatrix PANG, CAO Fei, 曹斐, CHEN Tong, 陳侗, Luke CHING, 程展緯, CUI Jie, 崔潔, Dayanita SINGH, Jyoti BHATT, CHAN Yukkeung Kurt, 陳育強, MAP Office, Sampson WONG, 黃宇軒, TANG Kwokhin, 鄧國騫, TSANG Kinwah, 曾建華, ZHUANG Wubin, 莊吳斌, Jun YANG, 楊俊 and Varsha NAIR, Book Recommendations | On Form, Mon, 14 Aug 2017