First published in Art Monthly
Become is a book of becoming. Telfer Stokes work is widely recognised in the field of artist books, but he prefers to describe his publications as visual books, and to his art as ÔbookÕ. This latest work exemplifies the term, although, paradoxically, the process of becoming is guided by song as much as it is by the visual image. The reader is drawn forward by the text, which is a phonetic transcription of the Muslim call to prayer (transcribed by Luay Al Khatib). This first sounds appear a few pages in, printed in purple ink over a dawn skyline, and the prayer continues, rising and falling, fading away as an ochre red a few pages from the end. On the final page dawn breaks through, and the sunÕs rays shine directly towards us for the first time, from behind a tall archway.

For much of the book the reader’s viewpoint is called upward, as we look out over the dark outlines of columns, city buildings and silhouetted trees, towards a gradually lightening sky. Dawn, and the feeling of spiritual and sensual awakening is beautifully suggested. This visual beauty would however be too easy, too achieved, too much a delight of surfaces and the play of light, if it were not for the rather clumpy typesetting, typical of Stokes work. A small detail which jars, catching the eye, are the ellipses, as the prayer call fades away, which loop over some pages. The tension here, between seductive visual images and awkward typesetting is typical of Stokes work, and serves to remind the reader that the work is an artifice of surfaces. The eye is delighted by effects which come to represent the experience of a song we can only imagine.

Stokes has achieved a successful resolution of text and image in this book, in a way that his last, Song of the Thrush (Weproductions, 1998), which responded to the prolix confusion of a visit to India, did not. Where that book was caught up in the heat of his experience of the East, here the artist finds and holds to one meaningful idea. His interest is still with the subcultures of urban life, but he returns to the episodic structure of his early books such as Passage and Foolscrap. The scale of Become is that of a novella, one which progresses through distinct episodes. The imaginative key are the three connected episodes which lie at the book’s heart. In the first of these we see beautiful coloured flags and fabrics, draped across the page. Then, in the most surprising passage, circles of wound hose, blue, yellow, purple and green plastics, which suggest inner qualities: the cochlea, or a cave filled with magical treasures. The final episode, which features time-lapse photographs of neon signs, is, like his last book, a response to the ceaseless movement and confusion of the contemporary city. These pages are rich with the world of men.

The effect of these distorted images, which are like a dazzling vivid circuit-board of the imagination, is to remove the reader from the linear narrative of the dawn prayer; remove them from any specific sense of place, or culturally located experience; and immerse them in an imaginative response to an unfolding, liberating becoming.

Alec Finlay
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