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The Word Returned

Reviewed by Cathy Courtney
Art Monthly, London, 1997

'The Word Returned' finds Ken Campbell, the erudite blacksmith of the book art world, in full command. Rightly, the book lacks page numbers; it would be absurd to think of it as anything but a totality as the eye moves through the dos-a-dos structure. The closed work gives nothing away, not even a title. One experience of the book is to move quickly through it, catching images and phrases like lightning flashes as they rise from the darker surfaces. Arrested by the opening spreads, I didn't take the latter route until I had learnt the vocabulary by going through it slowly, and it was almost two hours before I came across a text, towards the end of the first section, that had been written by Campbell to record an extraordinary Yorkshire sky; so clearly had the book communicated by then, that I found in the poem seven of the words I had noted in response as I travelled towards those lines. Equally impressive and a signal of Campbell's mastery of 'The Word Returned' is the fact that the juxtaposition of poetry commemorating a personal experience in the years of making the book (1994-96) with archaic quotation appears to be quite natural.
 
The archaeology of the book mines Campbell's past work and his printing processes as well as cross-cultural literary and religious traditions. There are technical quotations from 'A Knife Romance', and 'Tilt: the Black-flagged Streets', and the structure of each page was first defined by the subdivided sections achieved by printing from one or other side of a wooden board used in the past as a 'stage' to hold level the printing plate. Crucially, a section of the comet's tail from 'Night Feet on Earth', was discovered impressed within the board and it was this detail which went on to provide the key emblem for the work, first undergoing transformation under the influence of an Apple Mac. Having scanned the image onto the computer screen, Campbell manipulated it to represent a pair of angel's wings (everything in this book is paired not just once but repeatedly, creating a continuous incantation that rises and falls as the leaves flow round). The book's smaller images ultimately move to enfold a Jewish blessing which builds gradually throughout the book in tandem with the line 'on my left the great angel Michael ... on my right the great angel Gabriel', but the symbolism is stretched still further by distorting a section of the wing image within the computer to achieve a pixillated version that looks like a simplified city skyline...
 
The use of computer technology is itself integrated in 'The Word Returned' with an image of the screen and its menu overprinted upon the page surface. Given the layered nature of Campbell's visual vocabulary, the screen seems but a logical addition; the artist is sufficiently in control to chance, via the computer, a joke levelled at one of the crucial conceits of the book: the creation of the golem - in Jewish legend, a clay figure supposedly brought to life by a Rabbi to be his servant, and which grew every day until it became so autonomous and threatening that it had to be destroyed is a notion central to Campbell's message. In differing manifestations the golem is manipulated here to suggest not only God's creation of the doomed Adam and then man's own creative impulses and unforeseen limitations, but the relative potency of language itself. Campbell's computer joke underlines our ability to confound ourselves in the quest for ultimate knowledge - this time the familiar format of frustration on the screen bears the message 'The document "Golem" could not be opened because the application program that created it could not be found.' The boxed command 'OK' is waiting for the finger's submission and, neatly, 'OK' is picked up again at the base of the page, running into a quotation of a completely different quality.
 
At another juncture of the book, the suggestion is floated that golem-making takes place in our heads, and this in turn connects with the repeated inclusion of a section from a radio broadcast on Jung's theories of perception and our ability to function on differing levels simultaneously, thus reflecting back on the activity of 'reading' 'The Word Returned'. … Amalgamating the golem theme and the notion of God creating Adam and the return of dust to dust, Campbell has created a lament in which living juices flow out of the marble statue and back into the natural rock, again reinforcing the cycle that is echoed in the book form and which corresponds to the Celtic practice of celebrating death and mourning birth; this is, after all, 'The Word Returned', just as in the Beginning was the Word.