The concrete slab is more than a foot high, ten inches wide, and two inches thick. It weighs about 20 pounds and is cataloged as a book in the University of Chicago library system.
This unusual tome entitled concrete book (concrete book), was “released” in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1971 by experimental artist Wolf Vostell. It was one of 100 copies that he had created, Vostell explained at the time and encased a 26-page booklet in concrete. Such ‘concretizations’, as he called them, were the artist’s signature work in the late 1960s and early 1970s, allusions to post-war urbanism and challenges to the traditional understanding of what materials are required to make art.
The University of Chicago has long owned one of Vostell’s best-known substantiations, concrete traffic. It’s unmistakably a concrete-covered car — specifically, a Cadillac deVille that drowned in a fast-hardening mud of sand and rock in a busy Chicago commuter lot one morning in 1970. But when the university acquired copy number 83 from Vostell concrete book In 2016, Patti Gibbons, director of collections management at the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, began to wonder, “Was that a prank or is it real?”
Vostell was known for both his artistic imagination and the creation of actual art objects. Gibbons has read the booklet supposedly enclosed concrete book; the library also has a loose copy. It is called concreting (specifics). “It’s a sketchbook of realized and unrealized concrete projects,” says Gibbons. “Some are just really fantastic. He wanted to give concrete form to the city of West Berlin. He wanted to flesh out clouds.”
But that doesn’t mean that there is actually a copy of the booklet in the concrete block today. Finally, Vostell apparently had an artistic sense of humor. It’s also possible that something happened to the paper in the booklet in the last 50 years. Breaking open the work to discover the truth is not an option, so Gibbons and a team of art historians turned to science.
Using a specially designed display cart with padding and pneumatic wheels, Gibbons rolled the concrete book — “covered lest you know what I’m carrying” — from department to department on the University of Chicago campus. An ultrasound in one lab failed to penetrate the thick slab, and an electron microscopic analysis in another revealed the composition of the concrete, but nothing beyond the surface layers. An X-ray in the university hospital gave some clues; In the black and white image, hand-made rebar was visible criss-crossing the block. But the device, designed for dental care, could not detect the presence or absence of the leaflet.
Eventually, the team turned to Argonne National Laboratory and a technique known as energy-dispersive X-ray diffraction. (The specific book drove to the Department of Energy facility outside of Chicago, wearing a seat belt.)
“That was outside of what we normally do,” admits Argonne physicist John Okasinski. Okasinki spends most of his time studying materials and their response to stress for automotive and aerospace companies. But the same science that allows Okasinki to study the insides of, say, a battery at the atomic level would allow him – non-destructively – to peek inside the specific book. Using a powerful X-ray beam about the thickness of a human hair, Okasinki first scanned the other, loose copy of the pamphlet believed to be in the artwork to see what data it would produce. He then scanned the concrete book looking for the same signature, which according to his earlier scan would look like a void in the concrete. The whole process took several days. The researchers also later ran similar experiments using control objects – new concrete books that definitely contained paper.
Unfortunately, the results so far have not been conclusive. “The science doesn’t show a definitively intact complete hilt,” says Gibbons. “But there are these weird bubbles.” She posits that the paper may have disintegrated as it formed in the wet concrete, or it could have disintegrated in the past 50 years.
Okasinski calls the analysis “work in progress”. Not only is he thinking about the art object, but also what his research can add to the scientific understanding of concrete, a ubiquitous material that emits significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. “If we can understand concrete, we might be able to reduce its environmental impact,” he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, the scientist agrees with the idea that we may never know for sure if there’s anything in the plate. “Art helps stimulate discussion and ideas,” he says. “‘What do you think?’ And what does that mean?’ are more interesting questions than ‘is there anything in there or not?’”