Winter 2002

Charming book of clever circles (extract)

Re-inventing the Wheel

By Jessica Helfand
Princeton Architectural Press, £17.95

What goes around, comes around and now it’s the turn of late antique (mostly twentieth century) paper wheel charts ‘notched, spun, stacked, sliced, sub-divided, and die-cut’ amassed and displayed with texts by Jessica Helfand. Helfand’s ‘combined interest in geometry, interactivity, and cultural history’ drew her to this form of printed ephemera. Paper wheels are an early example (the earliest known dates from the fourteenth century) of what she calls ‘kinetic thinking’.

In John Lanchester’s novel, The Debt to Pleasure, unreliable narrator Tarquin Winot praises the menu as a vehicle for the transmission of information. His paean might also be applied to the volvelle, the rotational paper wheel which Helfand’s book celebrates and enshrines. As Winot says of the menu, the wheel ‘lies close to the heart of the human impulse to order, to beauty, to pattern.’ The menu, (says Winot) ‘draws on the original chthonic upwelling that underlies all art.’ Well, sure! Helfand’s wheels, too, invite projections from our unconscious . . .

[The] book demonstrates the good uses to which an obsession can be put. ‘Over the years I have come to believe that really serious collecting demands not only a rigorous commitment to a particular set of ideas, but demands, too, a keen curatorial eye for amassing a series of potentially unrelated artifacts and making sense of them.’ Walter Benjamin would have approved.

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