concrete slab Over a foot, ten inches wide, and two inches thick. Weighing about 20 pounds, it is cataloged in the University of Chicago library system as a book.
This unusual book is titled Betonbuch (tangible book), in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1971 by experimental artist Wolf Vostell. It was one of 100 copies he created at the time, Fustel explained, encasing a 26-page booklet in concrete. Such “improvements” were, as he called them, the artist’s signature work during the late 1960s and early 1970s, nods to post-war urbanism and challenges to the traditional understanding of the materials needed to make art.
The University of Chicago has long owned one of the most famous concrete formations in Vostel, concrete movement. It’s, unequivocally, a concrete-covered car—specifically, a Cadillac Deville sank into slurry of sand and hard rock in a crowded Chicago commuter parking lot one morning in 1970. But when the university got hold of an 83rd copy of Vostell’s Betonbuch In 2016, Patti Gibbons, head of collection management at the Hannah Holborn Gray Center for Special Collections Research, began to wonder, “Was this a joke or was it real?”
Feustel was known for his artistic imagination as well as for creating actual artistic objects. Gibbons read the brochure that purportedly came with it Betonbuch; The library also owns a loose copy. he claims Betonierungen (petrification). “It’s a sketchbook of realized and unrealized concrete projects,” Gibbons says. “Some of them are really imaginative. He wanted to personify West Berlin. He wanted to paint the clouds.”
But this does not mean that a copy of the brochure is already inside the concrete block today. After all, Vostel seemed to have an artistic sense of humor. It’s also possible that something happened to the brochure paper in the last 50 years. Opening up the work to discover the truth is not an option, so Gibbons and a team of art historians turned to science.
Using a custom-built display cart with pneumatic padding and wheels, Gibbons rolled the concrete book—”covered, so you don’t know what I’m carrying”—from section to section on the University of Chicago campus. Ultrasound in one laboratory failed to penetrate the thick slab, and electron microscopy analysis in another provided insight into the formation of concrete, but nothing beyond the surface layers. X-rays at the University Medical Center offered some hints; In the black and white photo, handcrafted rebar, crossed with the block, is visible. But equipment designed for dental care could not detect the presence or absence of the brochure.
Finally, the team turned to Argonne National Laboratory, a process known as energy-dispersive X-ray diffraction. (The concrete book was driven by car to a DOE facility outside Chicago, strapped into a seat belt.)
“This was outside of what we normally do,” admits John Okasinski, a physicist at Argonne. Okasinki spends most of his time studying materials and their stress response for automobile and aviation companies. But the same science that allows Okasenki to study inside, say, a battery at the atomic level, will allow him to peek – non-destructively – inside the concrete book. Using a powerful beam of X-rays about the thickness of a human hair, Okasinki first scanned the other bulk copy of the pamphlet believed to be inside the piece of art, to determine what data he would produce. Then he scanned the concrete book for the same signature, which his previous scan suggested would look like a void in the concrete. The whole process took several days. The researchers also later conducted similar experiments on controls – new concrete books that certainly had paper inside.
Unfortunately, the results so far are inconclusive. “Science does not show a complete, sound, definite handbook,” Gibbons says. “But there are these strange bubbles.” She hypothesized that the paper may have decomposed in wet concrete when it was first created or had deteriorated over the past 50 years.
Okasinsky calls the analysis a “work in progress”. He’s not only thinking about the technical thing, but also what his study could contribute to the scientific understanding of concrete, a ubiquitous substance that emits large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “If we can understand tangibility, we may be able to reduce its environmental impact,” he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, the world would be okay with the idea that we may not know for sure if something is inside the tablet. “Art helps stimulate discussion and ideas,” he says. “‘What’s your opinion?’ And what does that mean?’ are more interesting questions than “is there something in there or not?”