Who wants to pay €2,500 for an art book?
A limited-edition hardback of artist Robert Ballagh's new tome is doing surprisingly brisk business, reports Damian Corless
Hard times are hitting hardback sales. Unwilling to pay €25 for a doorstep, bookstore browsers have been going paperback. But there is no paperback version of Monograph, the new book from renowned artist Robert Ballagh, and a hardback copy will set you back not €25 but an eye-watering €2,500.
Reason suggests that Ballagh might have priced himself out of a shrinking market, perhaps seeking credentials as a genuine mad artist. The opposite has proved the case. At a time when a couple of hundred sales at €25 can place a book at the top of Ireland's best-seller lists, he has already notched up an eye-opening 190 sales -- which means that over half of the 350 limited-edition print run has already sold out.
Of course, Monograph is more than just any old book. For a start, it is two linen-bound volumes which sketch a portrait of the artist as a young man up to 1986; and from then to the present day. The signed, hand-bound volumes come with 24 original glycee prints embossed with Ballagh's monogram. For protection, each book has a handmade solander case. To protect the case, the whole package is wrapped in a monogrammed black canvas sheath.
Both books were written by veteran arts critic Ciaran Carty, whose biography of Ballagh was published in 1986. This, with tweaks, makes up the first volume of Monograph. The second brings us up to date. Carty's dilemma must have been what to leave out because Ballagh has hewn a mazy, some would say wayward, path through five decades of Irish arts, culture and politics.
Ballagh made his grand entrance as an artist in the late 1960s with an exhibition that featured reproductions of Pollock, Lichtenstein and others which were indistinguishable from the originals. He'd already had a previous career, which also required the ability to copy. As the bassist with the Chessmen showband, he'd played raucous covers of the latest chart hits. There was huge dosh swilling around the showband circuit in the mid-1960s. Ballagh himself has told of how musicians would fly to London just to see a movie that was banned in Ireland, and be home for last orders. Why did he quit at the top? He responds: "It was a very dangerous game because of all the car crashes. My friend Paul Williams of the Greenbeats was killed. Another friend, Keith Donald (later of Moving Hearts) was badly injured. When we went from semi-pro to pro we had to drive down the country much more.
"When people leave bands they always say it's down to musical differences, and it was. But my differences weren't with the band, but with the Irish public. Playing around Dublin we knocked out good rock 'n' roll. In rural ballrooms they just wanted country 'n' Irish. At the end of one gig I realised I hadn't liked a single song we'd performed so I said I'm out of here!" At the time, many of Ballagh's fellow performers thought he was crazy to walk away from the bright lights and the big paydays. Within a decade, however, the showband scene was dead and he was getting into his stride as one of the country's most provocative artists. In 1972, for instance, he caused a stir by sloshing animal blood on the floor of Dublin's Project Arts Theatre as part of an installation marking the recent Bloody Sunday massacre
His republican sympathies were strengthened when he took up an invitation to participate in a Belfast festival in the late 1980s. There he met Gerry Adams, describing him at the time as "a very intelligent person". A written article on Gerry Adams is included in the Monograph package. While Ballagh's political leanings went down badly with part of the Irish establishment, losing him at least one state commission, his talent won out and to date he has designed over 70 postage stamps and the last set of punt banknotes, Series C, which circulated for 10 years before the advent of the euro in 2002.
But what is an article about Gerry Adams doing in a biography of Robert Ballagh?
He clarifies: "It's not a biography of an individual, namely me. A monograph is a piece that places the emphasis on the visuals. You could think of it as a retrospective of my life and work in a box. It includes material on molecular biologist James Watson who won the Nobel Prize for the double-helix. I spent a week submerged in the world of genetic research while I painted his portrait."
The final piece of the Monograph package is a pair of white gloves, of the sort handed to experts to turn the pages of fragile ancient tomes.
Is this because Robert Ballagh fears his elaborate artefact will never be removed from its packaging, and will never be read? Instead, is it destined to go straight into a glass case or a wall-safe to gather dust and resale value ?
Well, yes, it seems.
He replies: "The white gloves tell whoever acquires the Monograph that it's okay to turn over the pages without damaging them. However, I do think that the text has something worthwhile to say so we hope to bring out a bookshop version. But if people think they'll be getting white gloves with that one they can think again."
How did Ballagh arrive at a figure of 350 for the limited print run?
"We settled on 350 because it's neither too big nor too small. If the print run is too big, it's not special. If it's too small, you don't make any money."
With 190 copies sold, he's clearly found his target audience. Does he know who that target audience is? "That's very difficult to know. It wouldn't be me. I don't have €2,500 to spare."