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The Blank Page

By Kit Monkman, artist, filmaker and creator of People We Love

In 1759, in Stonegate, only yards from York Minster, in what was then John Hinxman’s bookshop, the first two volumes of local clergyman Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman went on sale (in a print run of 200). The book became a global success, a favourite of Karl Marx and of Friedrich Neitzsche, hailed by Goethe and Schopenhauer, and has never been out of print since. 

 

 

York Minster
York Minster is the second-largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, completed in 1472. The setting for the People We Love art installation

Tristram Shandy (which eventually ran to nine volumes) is remarkable in many ways. Most notably (at least for my purposes here) in the way that it weaves a playful, complex, digressive, almost interactive relationship between author and reader. Unsurprisingly, Sterne is increasingly hailed as the forefather of hypertext and other non-linear narrative techniques. 

I’m going to offer up one example of Sterne’s inquisitive exploration of the relationship between author and reader, one which has had a significant impact on the ideas behind People We Love

In Tristram Shandy, vol VI, p. 147, as one of his characters falls deeply in love, Sterne asks his reader to ‘paint’ to their own mind an image of beauty (as it appears to them) on a page which he has left entirely blank for the purpose. Sterne’s use of the word ‘paint’ is ambiguous, the suggestion being that you (the reader) can render your vision of beauty by whatever means you choose. 

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, vol VI, p. 147
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, vol VI, p. 147

In his acknowledgement of the reader as an active participant in the creative process, indeed asking his reader, if only for a moment, to do all the work themselves, Sterne’s blank page is arrestingly prescient. 

More specifically, it’s also an acknowledgement that love for each of us is exquisitely different, and that each and every blank page in every copy of the book, if Sterne’s invitation were to be accepted literally, would prove to be unique. 

I have no idea what proportion of Sterne’s readers did indeed take him at his word. I’ve never yet seen a copy with a blank page that isn’t, well, blank. I suspect that’s because it’s as an appeal to the reader’s imagination that the device works best; as a private communion between the mind and the page. 

The transaction at the heart of People We Love is based on a similar appeal to its viewers to engage their imaginations. However, the private communion here is not with an author, or a page, but with the eyes of another. Whatever beauty People We Love’s transaction may engender in the minds of its viewers, it is a creation, made in the moment, between the viewer and the viewed. The meaning is theirs and theirs alone. The art lies in that private transaction. 

To quote Sterne, “Let love therefore be what it will…” 

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