Phil Space, Santa Fe
In nightmarish political times, it’s important to keep in mind that books are more than just objects, and that the pen is always, always mightier than the sword. Pay attention to who’s reading books and who is not, to who is making them and who is burning them. It’s a good way to pick sides—and to keep a hopeful candle flickering, if only to read by. Michael Sumner and Melody Sumner Carnahan have spent over 30 years imagining and reimagining the function of the book. The texts they’ve published through their imprint, Burning Books, quite literally unleash symphonies and spark revolutionary dinner parties. They’ve been at it since the late 1970s, when they fell in with San Francisco’s avant-garde. Just a few chapters later, they were collaborating with internationally notorious troublemakers, including John Cage, Yoko Ono, and Steina and Woody Vasulka.
The local duo’s latest title is called Twice Through The Maze (Burning Books, 2013), and it’s the trapdoor to a vast network of catacombs. Michael examined a trove of 35 mm negatives and color slides from their lives together and worked with Melody to craft two alternate narratives. There’s a mythological tale written in the style of an opera synopsis, which casts their friends and family in roles such as Dionysus, Hermes, and Icarus. Then there’s a “street level” mystery written with frank, quotidian flair, in which Michael (The Investigator) and Melody (The Defector) scamper across the globe investigating suspicious characters and mysterious objects.
The book metamorphosed into an exhibition at Phil Space this fall, with the images and stories filling the gallery’s walls in an immersive timeline. In a smaller room, artworks by the people featured in the book further expanded the labyrinth. Woody Vasulka (The Minotaur, or The Minister) depicted himself as a nude, lumbering beast in a video piece, and Serena Rieke (Aphrodite, or The Minister’s Illegitimate Daughter) presented self-portraits. As a whole, the show plays like a West Coast version of Nan Goldin’s oeuvre—but with a surreal, cinematic twist in the vein of Guillermo del Toro. Bravely follow Burning Books into the winding darkness, and they won’t lead you wrong.