9/11 Novel in Woodcuts
by BK Munn
Book of Hours:
A Wordless Novel Told in 99 Wood Engravings
George A. Walker
George A. Walker is well-known as a teacher, designer and book illustrator who also makes woodcut art in the tradition of Frans Masereel and Canada’s Laurence Hyde. Previously, he edited a collection of classic woodcut artists, Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels (Firefly, 2007), and through his teaching at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto has mentored a new generation of artists working in the same medium. His latest work, Book of Hours: A Wordless Novel Told in 99 Wood Engravings, engages with that tradition most directly, presenting a woodcut novel of his own and placing it in a continuity of graphic narratives that deal with social and political issues of grave import and artistic significance, in this case the traumatic attack on the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001. Walker states his intention in the book’s preface:
“Other artists like Goya and Picasso have used political anxieties as topics for their work, but what sets the Book of Hours apart is its lack of words and its sequential narrative. I was inspired by the work of Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward and Otto Nückel; they, too, struggled with similar injustices and documented their world in a narrative of images. There are no words to describe 9/11’s devastating impact and transformative power in our collective consciousness –but perhaps there are yet images that can communicate the impact.”
In Book of Hours, Walker presents a series of portraits, tableaus, and public and private moments, depicting the imagined likenesses of workers in the World Trade Center office towers going about their business in the 24-hours before the events of 9/11. The organizing principle he uses is that of the ticking clock, in this case represented by the face of a digital clock rendered in Walker’s meticulously carved method (the images were initially drawn in ink on blocks of maple, then reverse-carved using a variety of tools before being inked onto paper using a press). The repetition of the dark inky clockface, with its rubber-stamp, nth-generation-photocopy look, is our only guide through the book, the only repeating image, each time-stamp bracketing a series of mundane, time-of-day specific events (the last minutes of sleep in the morning, commuting, working in the office, eating lunch in a food court, and so on) as practiced by a group of people representing a cross-section of ages, genders, colours and classes.
The plot of Book of Hours is simple. The book opens with a woodcut of the World Trade Center and quickly transitions to views of its occupants. We see these people enact the routines of the day, going through the motions of work and its social interactions and obligations. The narrative, such as it is, pursues this chain of barely-connected moments for 132 pages to the end of the first day (11:11 PM) and resumes again the next day (6:32 AM), following the same pattern. The pattern repeats, but with a sudden, stunning difference: at the 8:46 mark of the second day the image is of the heavily-shadowed twin towers and an approaching jet, pictured suspended in the sky just before the moment of impact. The following 6 images are slightly more anxious versions of the images from the previous day, as office workers shrug their shoulders, point, and talk to security guards –one image even shows a figure bent over a photocopier, seemingly oblivious to the mounting chaos above. The final two pages represent a more radical shift in tone, befitting the tragic events they depict: the penultimate image is of a dramatically lit figure recoiling in horror, perhaps from the unseen threat of fire or the approach of the second plane, depicted in the book’s final image, time-stamped 9:02 AM, a closer and more detailed version of the previous plane-and-tower tableau with the addition of finely-detailed black billowing smoke.
The rest of the story, it is assumed, we know and have experienced ourselves, in one form or another. The fire. The falling man. The collapse. The recovery. Afghanistan. Iraq. Bush. Obama. Lives ended. The world transformed. Walker’s focus is on the moments of ignorant calm and pedestrian clockwork routine that precede these storms and egos, and to this end his series of woodcuts depict, and through the act of depicting achieve, a sort of sublime existential boredom, tinged with inevitability. His subjects are marking time until the apocalypse, metaphorical stand-ins for their fellow countrymen and perhaps for all of us who sometimes live moment to moment, day to day, without thought of the march of history, the greater doom that approaches and the time when our own clocks will stop their forward motion.
Overall, the book’s design is quite effective; from its somber black endpapers and Smyth-sewn binding to its majestic pacing and labour-intensive production of images, the whole artifact, with the possible glaring exception of the discordant use of an actual photograph on the cover and frontispiece, gives the impression of a deliberate and thoughtful composition, very much in keeping with the book’s themes of time and reflection.
Walker achieves this balance through controlled variety. Some pages are made up of simple fluid lines with generous helpings of deep blacks and shadow, while others are complex beaver dams of short, lightly-etched marks. Some images are stand-alone, frozen seconds of time, others are actually part of short two or three page sequences featuring a repeating character or scene. One such sequence, a diptych of a security guard looking bored and then smiling and pointing, appears early in the book as sort of a guidepost to our experience. Another, a triptych, featuring a pair of lovers traveling down a corridor, engaged in passionate lovemaking, and then sleeping in each others’ arms, is the last group of images from the first day, and one of the few emotionally compelling moments in the book.
This lack of real engagement with the people depicted in Book of Hours is its greatest strength but also a weakness. Through these sketches we can identify with the universal nature of structured activity and banality that most days are made up of, but it is difficult to empathize deeply with a nameless, almost generic office worker, whether briefly glimpsed in a crowd scene or painstakingly rendered in portrait form. Who are these people? What do their faces look like when laughing or arguing? Where are they coming from, where do they think they are going? What are their hopes, dreams, fantasies, nightmares? Part of this disconnect lies in Walker’s approach, which is to represent each moment as it’s own separate world, with no place-specific signposts or seeming continuity, either in terms of non-generic objects, distinctive personalities, or strong stylistic markers.
Flipping through the book, the impression is of a jumble of unrelated people and scenes, with only the rare establishing exterior “shot” of the towers and the ticking clock to unify it all. There is no overwhelming collective style to the individual pages: some of the portraits and group scenes have a slanted, expressionistic look, calling to mind the agonized, dramatic heroes of Lynd Ward, while others have all of the style and emotional impact of rejected clip-art from an office newsletter. Some of these tighter, more static images look like they have their basis in photographs, posed portraits with the subjects staring out at the artist “camera” or reader, while others seem candid or cropped from larger panoramic views.
The looser, sketchier figures often depict actual movement, with radiating lines indicative of action, transition or heightened emotional states, but since there is very little in the way of focused continuity between these cuts, we are left on our own to fathom exactly what it is we are seeing. Select portraits (usually the ones that have more of a photographic rather than impressionistic feel) have a superfluity of background detail and depth, others are all foreground, with barely hashed-in lines standing for a cubicle wall or street of buildings. Some sequences achieve a mimetic perfection by archiving the diversity of workaday boredom, while still others seem like they are striving to knock us out of our somnambulistic state through jarring intrusions of extracurricular titillation and office romance. I’m thinking here of a trio of woodcuts that jumps from a realistically rendered, cubicle-dwelling Dilbert-type posed beside his computer to a dramatically-lit, pin-up style woman with arched back and pointed breasts to an expressionistic close-up image of a man kissing a woman, her hand snaked around his neck while the air above them is filled with cloud-like curlicues. The sequence of images is confusing because it is unclear if they are connected in a direct way. Are “Dilbert” and the pin-up queen kissing in the final image? Is the whole thing a masturbatory daydream? Is it even a sequence at all or just a random juxtaposition? These are some of the minor questions Book of Hours confusingly provokes while leading us through its moments-minded narrative.
Walker writes in his preface that besides drawing attention to the human cost of political decisions while critiquing our “complacent adherence” to routine and comfort, he is also reminding us that there is a political aspect to representation and a power dynamic implicit in creating and viewing images, asking “Who is seen and who is not in Book of Hours? Who is doing the seeing?” Looking at his woodcuts, we are compelled to wonder, from what point of view do we engage these images, as omnipotent artist and reader or as fellow officemates and subway riders? Where are we in these pictures?
There have been other works of sequential art that have dealt with this subject matter, such as Art Spiegelman’s highly personal and political, but ultimately flawed, In the Shadow of No Towers. Book of Hours struggles mightily to present a thoughtful, dignified response to 9/11, using the silent tools of the woodcut to address the unspeakable, eschewing melodrama, sentimentality, hyperbole, and even coherent narrative for a largely unemotional, documentary-style prelude to the horror of the attack. Maybe at this far remove from the event itself we may be ready to experience it objectively, through something like the filter of Walker’s hand-carved poetics of boredom.