Amid days filled with management and meetings, there is still time to steal away to the special collections. It’s there that the sublime sneaks in, peeking through the humdrum. As we prepared to create a video of the unfolding of The Philosopher’s Stone by Daniel Kelm and Barbara Fahrner, I was concerned about clean hands and short-filed nails, in order to handle the work smoothly. Weirdly, I didn’t worry about knowing what I was doing, because I had viewed this book-object many times. As we were positioned the piece and opened it, it revealed itself in magical ways. I realized that every time I look at The Philosopher’s Stone, I see it differently. I hope that the clip on our website shows how the piece works, and perspectives from which it’s viewed.
The subject is alchemy, and the artists have strong affinities for this search for arcane wisdom. Kelm is an accomplished and original binder and self-described “poetic scientist”; Fahrner frequently collaborates with contemporary poets in her innovative and imaginative books, which are often inspired by early books and manuscripts. Both have lengthy experience making books that express their content not only in images and texts, but also—and more importantly—in their materials, shapes, and construction.
This work reveals their sympathies with earlier scientists’ searches for the Philosopher’s Stone, the mythic material used to make precious metals such as gold and silver. For centuries, alchemists recorded their recipes in books of secrets; not published or printed, these were handwritten like early cookbooks, and filled with enigmatic texts and images. Similarly, in The Philosopher’s Stone we discover a deep world of strange signs and symbols. Kelm designs a book which comes unhinged as it’s revealed and read. Fahrner sketches a floating world of the four elements: earth, air, wind and fire, populated by ghosts and monsters. Captions (“aqua,” “SOL”), brief texts, and micro-writing are in multi-colored inks.
Just out of the box, The Philosopher’s Stone is about 6 by 8 by 6 inches closed. Not a rock, but a stone, it’s not very big. People never forget it, but they tend to remember it as larger. I think this is because it has such a strange shape. Comprised of eccentrically angled sections, the peculiar structure looms in memory. As I approached it this time, I had just boiled some eggs and was thinking how much this book-object is like an egg. Very concretely, it reminds me of how carefully I crack one open, not wanting to gouge the white. In other words, I am being extremely cautious, just touching the flaps of The Philosopher’s Stone with my fingertips. It feels like I should cup it in my hand protectively, for this truly seems like one of the basic elements in creation, the beginning of life and knowledge. Normally a perfect oval, this one is misshapen and imperfect, more like an awkward baby bird. But it’s also a little like a globe, with eccentric sectors like map gores.
The irregular geometry attracts and makes you want to figure it out. The evocative, allusive shapes and images shift depending on the sides and openings of the piece. I can’t decide if it’s oddly perfect, or beautifully and crookedly imperfect like a stone or shell you find while beachcombing.
Taking The Philosopher’s Stone apart is relatively easy. Putting it back together is hard. You learn that one of the Stone’s secrets is its own appropriate alchemy. Opening up the Stone and then closing it back up follows classic alchemical processes: compose, decompose; build it up, break it down; create, destroy. Each section is held together with pins as thin as guitar strings, with a bend at the end to pull. Each has a specific place in the Stone. Not only am I plucking the pins carefully, but I am keeping them in order.
For some strange reason, it’s always missing a couple of these pins, although, heaven knows, I am careful to put them back! It’s good to think that others are similarly drawn to taking it apart, disturbing its small world, but then they’re careless or hurried about reconstructing it. No worries! At the Getty Research Institute, our genius book conservator has a steady supply of replacement pins in different lengths. That’s another feature: no two pins are the same length, so the Stone is a bit of a puzzle to solve.
Deceptively simple at first glance, this unique book object displays the seamless artistic and intellectual collaboration of its creators Kelm and Fahrner. Their fabrication of words and images is intended to be seen from diverse angles, shifting like a kaleidoscope as it opens up. The work calls out the importance of tactility in artists’ books—touching and holding them—revealing how this is part of reading and understanding them.
In 1992, when I first saw The Philosopher’s Stone at Steve Clay’s Granary Books in New York, there was no hesitation about its acquisition. It is perfect for the Research Institute because of its subjects, which parallel our strong collections on emblems, alchemy, and enigmatic signs and symbols. As an alternative form, a book-object, its shaped text and images have a distinctive creative unison and pages that fall in successive petals. Handling The Philosopher’s Stone is an intensely absorbing and ultimately satisfying experience that contrasts with the flat vacuity of reading or viewing on your phone, poking at texts with your fingers, flipping with thumbs.
Somehow, until this piece became the star of its own short film, I never realized how truly meta it was, in all senses. It’s both meta and physical, visual, legible, deeply experiential, and meditative. Like many of the modern and contemporary works in the Getty’s special collections, it looks back to memories of many earlier illustrated books and manuscripts, especially books of secrets, recipe books on materials for glues, colors, paints, and alchemical materials and processes, which were also essential to making art.