'MIMB' Dazzles With Details But Overwhelms With Volume

While most people have long gotten over the loss of music as a physical product, it's not yet a given that everyone owns an e-book reader of some sort, and you can still regularly encounter average readers who treasure the physical object that is a book. The smell of the binding and the turning of the page has likely been enough to make at least one of your friends describe cradling their favorite stack of paper on a rainy day. It's hard not to tie the look and feel of the loved items with the experience of falling in love with them, to use senses to access memories.

The value we place in these objects is what propels and frustrates MIMB: Monumental Ideas in Miniature Books, a collection of tiny works from 141 artists currently showing at the University of Tennessee's Ewing Gallery. As you might suspect, there's a fair amount of intricacy involved in the exhibition, from small drawings with sizeable detail to delicate and deeply layered paper cuts—particularly Hyeyoung Shin's bundle of fish.

But you'll also find simpler images, such as Argentine Liliana Sanchez's "Eyaculaciones," a book of a one-page poem followed by many pages of dripping ink blots, each different, but all in deep blue with colorful highlights. The cover bears nothing but a smiley face and a title; at less than an inch square, there's little room there for anything else.

Sanchez has the smallest book in the exhibition, but the largest measure several inches by a few feet, some suspended on the wall, one laid out in a scroll. It was tough to count binding styles, but ultimately I think the traditional method was the most popular, followed by accordion folds. At least two books employ Velcro fastening.

While nearly every piece chooses a visual emphasis over a literary one, some are more overtly sculptural than others, such as Leticia Bajuyo's "A Wonderful Toy." Bajuyo received her M.F.A. from UT in 2001 and is one of two recent graduates to have work in the exhibit, along with Knoxville resident Daniel Maw. Her piece has text written on a bright pink Slinky, fastened to two thin, honey-colored wooden blocks, hinged together. You're challenged to bend at the waist and twist at the neck to get at the words. I gave up early.

That sort of gallery yoga isn't unique to any one piece, as most books are clustered together on shelves around the periphery of the gallery and are not to be touched. Not that anyone could find the time to handle all of the pieces, anyway. This means even the most open of "books" on display—typed text accompanied by an illustration—take on a sculptural element. In doing so, the intimacy the exhibition purports to create is dashed by both distance and volume. If oversize art works threaten to overwhelm us, these smaller pieces are perhaps supposed to create a warmer viewing experience. But while the majority of these books rely on the size and conceit of the exhibition as a whole to validate their appearance in a gallery—especially so many galleries, as MIMB has been traveling since 2009 and will continue to do so into next year—once there, they begin to cannibalize each other for attention. What could be less intimate than the work of 141 artists in one room?

There are, however, opportunities to involve the tactile experience. The gallery offers two pedestals full of books you can pick up, flip through, cradle, and sniff, though I must admit that I found finally being able to handle the pieces rather anticlimactic—perhaps an old but reliable lesson about intimacy here is that we still want what we can't have. Included among those for touching are Jessica S. Owings' "Google Image Search: Fingerprints," in which the pages are folded and bound so that the viewer is faced with blank pages with text of fun facts about fingerprints that, with a little effort, can be read on the pages on the inside of the fold. This setup would mean that the traditional reading surfaces of the book would be filled up by the many viewers', you guessed it, fingerprints, if not for the curator's gloves you wear while reading it.