Monday, December 16, 2013

You Won't Believe This Incredible Art Edition Of James Joyce's Ulysses

by Stephen J. Gertz

James Joyce completed his novel, Ulysses, on October 30, 1921. Ninety years later, on October 30, 2011, Charlene Matthews, the Los Angeles-based book artist and bookbinder recently the subject of a profile in Studios magazine, began work on an extraordinary edition of the book, based upon Sylvia Beach's true first edition with all its typos included.

Two years later, on October 30, 2013, she completed it: the entire text of Ulysses - all of its approximately 265,000 words in eighteen episodes - transcribed by hand onto thirty-eight seven-foot tall, two-inch diameter poles: Ulysses as a landscape to physically move through; the novel as literary grove, Ulysses as trees of of life with language as fragrant, hallucinatory bark, and trunks reaching toward the sky.

Each pole has sixteen 'cels' comprised of four pages, a total of sixty-four pages per pole.  The first cel has the first line in it and then Matthews measured down 9" and wrote that line in the next cel and so on, with the last cel containing the last line on the pole. The whole totals thirty-eight poles.

I talked to Charlene Matthews about the piece, which I've observed in progress since she began. Our interview follows.

SJG: This project involved an extraordinary amount of work and time. What inspired you to begin?

CM: I had to do a sculptural piece for an art show Doug Harvey was doing at the Shoshanna Wayne Gallery.  So I wrote a J.G.Ballard short story (Say Goodbye to the Wind) on a pole I had in the back yard for years  which I hate to say was not very good.  I liked how it looked and I liked the idea of taking the words out of the book and putting them onto an object, I stayed with the pole.  I went through my book collection and found Ulysses.  Nothing else would do but IT, and I had never read it.

Key to the poles.

SJG: Did you have any idea when you began just how all-consuming it would turn-out to become?

CM: I knew the project would take me a while, I researched poles and pens and jumped in. As problems occurred I solved them, like how to write and turn the pole smoothly, how to write without twisting my back, how to exercise my hands to keep them from cramping, how to sand the pole just so to accommodate smooth writing.  The eventual  get-up I rigged was pretty amusing. I also began mapping the characters' movements on my walls.

All typos included, as well as flaws in the medium.

SJG: What is the over-riding theme here? What was/is your intent? In short (from a philistine perspective), what's the point?

CM: Initially I envisioned just a large group of poles standing around with writing on them.  But as I was writing, I had visions of the poles being exhibited in many ways, I am going to publish a small edition book of these drawings this year.  Some of them are pretty basic, most are pretty out there ( Irish Jig Dancers, energy windmills, mirrors etc.).

Also, as I was writing my eyes would look at my process and get memorized in the patterns made by the black pen letters on the wood grain, the letters moving around, the grain going up and down. I saw pictures of faces, and animals and odd formations.

The point?  I wanted to make something beautiful.  That is how I chose to spend my time at night.  I did have some very personal reasons for doing this, but they are moot.  It really is just my most current book art project.

Basically the book is all about sex.  I have A LOT to say about this.

SJG: It seems that the process must have in some way paralleled Bloom's journey, his a walk through Dublin, yours a walk through Joyce. Anything to that?

CM: It definitely felt like I was having a love affair with Joyce. 

SJG: You've read the book, a work of art in and of itself. You've turned it into a work of art in another medium. How has it changed your perspective on the book?

CM: As I was absorbing the story, I was also observing his style, and method of storytelling. I understood what was going on in his head as a story teller, writer and artist.  What he was trying to achieve in his Modernism.  This is when I knew that the book had more than a plot line, it had a picture line, the movements of everyone if they could be seen over head would draw out symbols/pictures.  As I was taking the words off the page, I was in this fourth dimension with Joyce.

Draft schematic plan for exhibition.

SJG: And for the viewer/reader, what is it you expect or hope from them? What do you want people to take away from the experience?

CM: What I want people to take away from seeing the poles is the magic of the hand written word, the beauty of handwriting.  The beauty of a handmade object only they can create, by hand writing.

SJG: Are you looking for or have you found an exhibition space for the piece? Any interest yet from galleries?

CM: I am talking to people about exhibiting them, and welcome any inquiries. Depending on the space will depend on how to show them.  Either anchored to the floor or hanging from the ceiling. All can be done.

Pole #38, with last line.

SJG: You said that "basically the book is all about sex.  I have A LOT to say about this." You can't declare that and not pay it off.

CM: Spoiler Alert! It covers every angle of human sexuality. One interesting point about the Ulysses obscenity trial in America is that the case was won the day after Prohibition was lifted.
•  •  •
The case was won on December 6, 1933. Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933 when the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealing the 18th Amendment was ratified.

"...And what is cheese? Corpse of milk" - James Joyce, Ulysses

And what is Charlene Matthews' Ulysses? Copse of novel.

Images courtesy of Charlene Matthews, with our thanks.


  1. To say it's all about sex because it "covers every angle of human sexuality" is a pretty narrow reading of this book and one that did fuel its banning. That ignores that it also covers every angle of literature, history, interpersonal relationships, familial relationships, economics, politics, even infrastructure. It covers every angle of humanity, of art, and the book is all about that, a pedestal of humanity and art: high modernism at its finest. To ignore including sexuality would be disingenuous, to read it as only that is equally so.


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