Books Fall Apart: On Nancy Perloff’s “Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art”

By Eugene OstashevskyDecember 9, 2017

Books Fall Apart: On Nancy Perloff’s “Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art”

Explodity by Nancy Perloff

AS WE WERE COMING OUT of a Kinko’s on Market Street in San Francisco on an evening in 1995 with a box of 50 freshly photocopied, cut, and stapled chapbooks, my collaborator, Darin Klein, said: “You know why we make our own books? It’s because we’re punks.” It’s that you don’t submit to publishing houses, you don’t let the industry take control, he said. You make it yourself. That’s what being a punk is about. Klein, now a book artist in Los Angeles, was then curating underground shows of DIY books, handmade books, books that existed in only one or several copies. The show I remember took place one evening in a garage. A large crowd of people came. Books had been sent by mail from other countries: strange products of hands and cheap technology, lavish and fragile. There was a colorful one-of-a-kind book with a 3D plastic eye — it came, I think, from Norway. Most pieces in the show fused images and words in some way that went far beyond mere illustration. They had emerged from the zine scene and remained punk by preserving its cheap production values and democratic ethos. They too were made in garages and bedrooms, or else in offices by people who were supposed to be “working,” but instead were commandeering photocopy equipment. You could imagine the hands that made them.

I imagine that the exhilaration of leaving a small shop with the entire run of your newborn book in a box was something that the Russian Futurists knew well, in the years preceding World War I. They too were the beneficiaries of a democratization in printing technology. They used print shops rather than copy shops, but, like photocopying, transfer lithography — printing from a damp stone surface onto which a drawing on special paper had been pressed — allowed for the fusion of words and images. Turnaround was quick: leaflets could be picked up after several hours and books after several days. So they too made their own books, they brought them to stores themselves, and they sold them by mail and presumably also at poetry readings.

Nancy Perloff’s Explodity: Sound, Image, and Word in Russian Futurist Book Art describes the most zine-like, crude, handmade, non-uniform chapbooks produced in 1912–1913 by the Russian Futurist poets Alexey Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov in collaboration with the avant-garde artists Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich, and Olga Rozanova.

Natalia Goncharova with face painting, 1913.

Lavishly illustrated with reproductions of covers and spreads of Russian Futurist publications, as well as with photographs of artists and poets, Perloff’s book is based on an exhibit she curated at the Getty in 2008–2009 called Tango with Cows: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910–1917 and her subsequent research that compared copies at the Getty with those in Moscow and St. Petersburg libraries. The book has an online component at the Getty site, and another on PennSound, and the Getty Research Institute has also made a large number of Russian Futurist books available for download as PDFs.

The Futurist manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” demanded that Pushkin and other classic authors of Russian literature be thrown off the steamship of modernity, but the real targets of Futurist subversion weren’t the writers of the past: they were contemporary bourgeois expectations of what literature, art, and the book ought to be. At the time, books were simply vehicles for delivering a well-laid-out literary text that was rational, logical, legible, harmonious, and linear. The author and the visual artist, when there was one, were unitary with respect to themselves and separate with respect to each other, since the spaces allotted to the visual and the verbal were clearly delimited. Stylistic consistency and transparency were expected of both language and image, but the verbal dominated the visual, which was conceived of as illustration. The book as a physical object was to be uniform and interchangeable across copies in the manner of any machine-made consumer good. Basically, this is still our notion of the commercially available, industrially produced book. The Futurists violated that notion on every count.

Take the book Mirskontsa, or Worldbackwards, which Perloff ably and imaginatively analyzes in a separate chapter, but which also provides the conceptual and material features that she returns to throughout her study. Instead of one author, it has two — Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov — each represented by separate texts that are not united by any common story, and that are even quite different stylistically. Why are they in the same book? Instead of one illustrator, it has three artists — Goncharova, Larionov, and Nikolai Rogovin (strictly speaking, it’s four, since Vladimir Tatlin also provided a page) — working in separate spaces and without stylistic consistency. Although certain drawings seem to illustrate the matter of certain poems, others are abstract and independent, while in the case of at least one, as Perloff suggests, the drawing may have preceded the poem or both may have been done “simultaneously as part of a give-and-take between painter and poet.” Luckily, the work of all five, or rather six, collaborators would have struck bourgeois readers of the time as deliberately crude and infantile, even crazy, so at least there’s that.

Natalia Goncharova, Cover of Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh, “Mirskontsa” (Worldbackwards), Moscow, 1912.

Printed lithographically on “cheap, brittle paper with rough edges” and front staples, Mirskontsa took being infantile very seriously. It was made in the print shop, but also at home — with scissors, glue, rubber stamps, and even potatoes! Goncharova had pasted the book title onto the cover and, above it, a flower or leaf or human-like figure that she scissored out differently and from different kinds of paper each time. The application of collage, or papier collé, mere months after Braque’s invention of the technique, is a first in book-making. Inside, the texts are not printed but handwritten by artists, not always very legibly, and, in one instance, backward, with mirror script.

Mikhail Larionov and Velimir Khlebnikov, Design and poetry for “Nash kochen’,” from “Mirskontsa” (Worldbackwards), Moscow, 1912.

In a dismissive gesture toward type, other texts are rubber-stamped, with isolated letters added by the sophisticated technique of potato printing. The ink differs from copy to copy, and the deficits were filled in by hand. Every copy is thus the unique result of mechanical and very manual processes, with none being exactly like any other. (The print run was supposed to be 220 copies, but only a small number have survived.) Instead of the uniformity and consistency of the industrial book, the reader gets messiness, multiplicity, and variability. The whole thing — the images and the poetry together — looks as if it were done sloppily, in a hurry, but of course those who really cut corners don’t cut out flowers, and rubber stamp, and do potato cuts; rather, they just hand the text to the printer. Therefore, Perloff assigns the end product a different kind of unity: a unity of conception, and of a collaborative and interdisciplinary artistic purpose. For her, “Mirskontsa represents neither poetry nor painting nor graphic art; rather, it is a hybrid form called the artist’s book, defined in this case by its use of sound poetry, collage, hand lithography, and the deliberate production of variant copies.”

Kruchenykh’s parts in the chapbooks are especially notorious as being the hotbed of abstract sound poetry, called zaum (“beyondsense,” in Paul Schmidt’s translation), although Khlebnikov had been coining neologisms derived from Slavic stems and affixes for years. While Kruchenykh composed his classical demonstration of abstract sound poetry in December 1912, probably days after the assembly of Mirskontsa, Perloff rightly sees an eagerness to dispense with legibility and reference in Kruchenykh’s violations of syntax and orthography for the sake of the poem’s sound (and, one might add, for the sake of its shock value), as well as in Khlebnikov’s more obvious forays into word-making. However, her study breaks new ground in making multiple connections among the physical, linguistic, and visual materialities of Mirskontsa. Materiality interferes with reference by calling attention to the supposed signifier at the expense of the supposed signified. The poems, with their thick sound clusters, are presented in the artist’s none-too-legible hand; the lithographed drawings, even harder to interpret mimetically, incorporate allusions to sound, often in the form of letters. Perloff describes the resultant interdisciplinary play of image, sound, and sense as a “verbivocovisual” multiplicity (James Joyce’s term, later used by Marshall McLuhan and the Brazilian concrete poets). Russian Futurist poetry and visual art move toward nonsignification in tandem, encouraging and mirroring each other’s obfuscations, fragmentations, and departures from the causalities and consistencies of common sense.

The title Mirskontsa, pronounced Mirz-KON-tsa, is a neologism that literally means “world from the end” or “world starting from the end,” hence the customary translation Worldbackwards. Perloff employs the word to indicate a central concept, or rather configuration of concepts, both technical and metaphysical, in Russian Futurism. Khlebnikov had written a play with that title but did not include it in the book. Its protagonists age backward, as in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Khlebnikov’s plot illustrated time reversibility in the equations of Newtonian mechanics. Kruchenykh answered Khlebnikov with a poem where time was not linear in reverse but nonlinear and scrambled. “[I]nstead of 1-2-3 / events are arranged 3-2-1 or / 3-1-2 that is exactly how it is in my / poem,” he helpfully offered. Perloff sees a broad “mirskontsa principle” as embracing both reversibility and nonlinearity, as well as — by consequence of the latter — “the accidental and the noncausal, [and] the nonsignifying.” Hence, pretty much all the formal features that make Russian avant-garde art avant-garde are, at the same time, interpreted apocalyptically, as expressions of millenarian mysticism, more appropriate in the East than the West. Is this right? Yes and no.

Following Linda Dalrymple Henderson’s fascinating study of the effect of the spatial, pre-relativity concept of the fourth dimension on avant-garde art in the 1910s, Perloff attributes much about the principal concept of mirskontsa to the influence of Peter Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum, published in St. Petersburg in 1912, which argued that time does not exist but is rather an effect of three-dimensional creatures’ perception of a spatially four-dimensional world. While admittedly Kruchenykh’s collaborators like the composer and painter Mikhail Matiushin were avid readers of Ouspensky, the denial of linearity and sequencing that Perloff sees as fundamentally mystical is already implied in the exceptionally rich, powerful, and manifold concept of simultaneity that characterized avant-garde art all over Europe, rather than just in Russia, precisely (and ironically) in the years after Einstein debunked absolute simultaneity in physics. A primitive example of simultaneity — taking two objects out of their context, placing them side by side, and thereby creating a new context — already harbors an aggressively nonlinear gesture. To think of it as just, or even mainly, Ouspenskian is, I believe, too narrow. Whatever mystical frisson there was to the interpretation of simultaneity by the Russian avant-garde, it was largely self­-induced — not inherent but ideological. It had to do with the Russian artists’ interest in peasant life and art, as well as their identification of mimesis and rationality with Westernization, which inspired the argument, especially among members of the Larionov group, that the Russian people were “Asians” rather than “Europeans.”

Perloff’s study also includes a fascinating comparison of the two editions of Kruchenykh’s Vzorval’, customarily translated as Explodity. Kruchenykh “sharpened the disorderly, nonlinear appearance” of the second edition “by scattering the pages at multiple angles and then stapling them so that they appear off-kilter.” Her comparisons of copies of the same edition in different repositories show deliberate variations in not just the handmade parts, like the collages of Mirskontsa, but also in page order, paper type, and the look of writing. Indeed, the main contribution of this painstakingly researched, visually striking book lies in its treatment of the Futurist books as interdisciplinary and multiplicitous wholes, where the book art, the visual art, and the verbal art all inform each other, resonate with each other, and gesture toward each other in rebellion against the mechanically reproducible, the rational, and the clear.


Eugene Ostashevsky is a Russian-American poet and translator. His poetry collections are The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, part of the NYRB Poets series, and The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza and Iterature, both published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

LARB Contributor

Eugene Ostashevsky is the author of the poetry collections The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, part of the NYRB Poets series, and The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza and Iterature, both published by Ugly Duckling Presse. He is the editor and co-translator of OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern University Press, 2006) and Alexander Vvedensky: An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets, 2013), and the editor and translator of The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, and Daniil Kharms (NYRB Children’s Collection, 2017). Ostashevsky teaches in the liberal studies program at New York University.


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