Illuminated Manuscripts in the Age of Social Media and Texting (2021)

I was holed up in Burgundy as Covid began to rage. In a corner of the vaulted furnace room of my house, I began working with gouache, tiny brushes, gold leaf, and calligraphy pens, standing in my own scriptorium in a little village in the Morvan forest.

This is my first foray into the world of illuminated manuscripts. My work for many years has incorporated text and art-historical imagery. But I didn’t realize until I was well into my new work that the decision to mash up texting, social media, and an ancient art form was eerily in tune with the times as well as my own history.

Glowing screens on cellphones, tablets, and laptops were, I realized in retrospect, the obvious illuminated manuscripts of the digital age. Back in Medieval times, the best they could do to generate light was gold leaf.

We live in a fast-paced age, yet everything ground to a halt as a result of Covid. Contact with others became difficult, even dangerous. Illuminated manuscripts seemed to be an invitation to slow down when the world is going a mile a minute. I surrendered to the labor-intensive techniques seen in precious pages hidden away in rare book rooms.

When I stumbled into this rather neglected art form, my manuscripts reflected my intense desire to communicate something of our radically changed lives. Now in 2024, working in my new studio on the top floor of my house as I write this, I see how they allow me to give expression to melancholy subjects, political frustrations, and the lunacy of everyday life.

All sheets are 22-1/2” x 22-1/2” gouache, ink, 22 karat gold leaf and/or silver leaf on Arches 300g paper.

2021 Heavy machinery alert!
[Text exchange between some trees and the mycorrhizal network]

Suzanne Simard, a tree biologist, studies the way trees communicate through the underground mycorrhizal
fungal network, their very own “social network.” The namesI used on this text-exchange are sly references
to that network (“Mike O’Riseley”) and the scientific names of certain trees. The threat to the environment of clearcutting forests is a global problem.
[Cecilia Robur=Quercus Robur, a common species of oak tree; Douglas Pine=a common species of pine tree; Mike O’Riseley=the personification of the mycorrhizal fungal network by which trees communicate with one another]

Text: Cecilia Robur: Wood wide web, ha! Can’t get a rise out of Douglas!

Mike O’Riseley: Whassup?

Cecilia Robur: Heavy machinery alert!

Douglas Pine: Can feel the rumble. They can’t stop us!

Mike O’Riseley: Wouldn’t be so sure, pal.

2021, Twenty-two carrots are better than one, [FaceBook post]
Text: Ken Aptekar is with Nestor, 4h, Twenty-two carrots are better than one… Like Comment Share
2021, In the Soup (Stanley Miller), [Facebook re-post] New York Review of Books article about Stanley
Miller, the son of Jewish Latvian immigrants.

TEXT: Ken Aptekar
Just now.
L’chaim! After a grueling year of confinement under mortal threat from an invisible enemy, my thoughts turn to beginnings (and life elsewhere in the galaxy)….

In the Soup by Tim Flannery December 3, 2020 Like Comment Share

In 1952 Miller ran an experiment attempting to replicate the conditions on Earth around 4 billion years ago, when life is thought to have begun. His work revolutionized our understanding of the origins of life on our planet. The Hebrew letters, which contain the citation from this NYRB article, spell out the word “chaim,” (“life”).

Text cited in the Hebrew word “Chaim,” from New York Review of Books article: The first real advances in the search for life’s origins were made by Communists. This is because, according to Marshall, while Western society was still half in thrall to Christian ideas, “Communism was built on a philosophical materialism, which entailed explaining everything in terms of material objects.” The oldest undisputed fossils are stromatolites from Australia dating back 3.5 billion years. And indeed earlier hints of life have been unearthed. Tubes and strands in rocks dating back at least 3.77 billion years have been found in Canada, and carbon atoms preserved in a crystal that is 4.1 billion years old seem to have originated in a living thing. Currently the best guess is that life arose within a half a billion years of Earth’s formation some 4.46 billion years ago. If life originates early in the existence of Earth-like planets, there may be at least thirty-six alien civilizations in our galaxy. Little real progress was made beyond the early speculations of [the Russian Communists] Oparin and Haldane until the fall of 1952, when Stanley Miller, a young Ph.D student [and the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Belarus] and Harold Urey, his Nobel Prize-winning supervisor at the University of Chicago, decided to run an experiment. The Miller-Urey Experiment as it is known, became one of the most famous scientific experiments of all time. The two researchers attempted to reconstruct in a lab the conditions that existed on Earth when life arose here at first.
2021, Happy Birthday Al-Khidr! [Facebook birthday post for Al-Khidr, a legendary Islamic figure endowed with
immortal life]

He’s celebrating his 900th-something birthday. The Farsi at the top means “Happy Birthday!” Here Al-Khidr is shown with the prophet Elijah who has led him to the Fountain of Life. Alexander the Great is seen behind him with his guide,
unable to find the Fountain. Zamzam water, the source of eternal life in Islamic lore, is believed to be blessed and holy amongst the Muslim community.

Text: HB Al-Khidr! It’s your what? Who’s counting?? Consider the alternative!! Whaddya expect after 70. Plus Covid-now-Delta, cancer scares, suicides close to home, lunatic shooters, killer fires and floods. DEATH everywhere you look. TOO BAD for Alex-not-so-Great up on the hill. HA! Couldn’t find the Fountain of Youth. You get last laugh, Al. Show me the ZAMZAM!

2021, The code to validate VISA purchase [Telephone text message]

Text: The code to validate VISA purchase at of Clorox Disinfectant Wipes 2-pack Fresh Scent for $6.19 is 66581372 The code will expire after ten minutes following receipt.
2021 Shadi Hamid, [Twitter tweet]

[Text of two tweets joined together, from Shadi Hamid, religion and politics expert, and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution]

“Instead of promoting a system that took into account Afghanistan’s history and the long-standing preference for Sharia-based and community-driven dispute resolution, the US spent nearly a billion dollars creating a formal legal system….and the United States dutifully supported courts, judges, and other such trappings. Meanwhile, it
invited resentment by pushing programs that were meant to reengineer Afghan culture and gender norms. All of these choices reflected the hubris of Western powers that saw Afghan traditions as an obstacle to over-come, when it turns out they were the life-blood of the country’s political culture.”

[Image source after an Islamic 16th c. illuminated manuscript from the region where Afghanistan is located today]

2021, Holy Moly Diptych [Twitter tweet posted by “Holy Moly”][Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, was the grandson of a Catholic priest.]

Text: Total disaster, complete success, all-time high, worst ever, massive Failure, tremendous job, boring, wild, very bright, dimwit, scary, incredibly safe, off the charts radical, sensible for once, Sucker, grifter, winner, loser, pathetic, forceful, best, meh

[Based on The Black Hours (Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1480, Morgan Library and Museum]

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