Before and After [Review]

Before and After by Anne-Margot Ramstein and Matthias Arégui is a wordless book that is worth a million words. The simple premise of the effect of time on different things manages to explore myriad themes and ideas. From human development and decay to order and entropy to the age-old question of ‘which came first’, this book tackles it all.

The simple digital images are reminiscent of early PC games with a basic palette and minimal details. This simplicity belies a profound idea: things change, yet stay the same. Day following night, a seed growing into a tree, and ice becoming water are some of the straightforward examples. Others require more consideration to arrive at insights. Among these are ideas about human effort generating order and beauty, destruction as a necessity for creation, the continuity of the human condition, and the interconnectedness of nature and civilization.

Some short sequences remind us of the origins of everday products such as coffee, wool, honey, and chocolate. Longer ones take us on a conceptual and causal journey from seemingly unrelated elements. An octopus in one frame leads us to a stamped and postmarked letter by way of pigeon—twice, for two different purposes—several frames later. And each step makes perfect sense.

The more I looked through the book, the more connections I found. It is a book that can be ‘read’ from cover to cover or picked up and leafed through at random. Or both. You will find yourself returning to it again and again whichever way you choose to interact with it.

Before and After can be used in class as a conversation starter, a prompt for demand or free writing, or an exemplar for similar art projects. Combine all three and you have a cross-curricular afternoon in the making.

If you are interested in wordless books, check out Sea of Dreams by Dennis Nolan or The Red Book by Barbara Lehman which I have wrote about on this blog. Some others that I recommend are Museum Trip, Rainstorm, and Red Again, also by Barbara Lehman, Floatsom and Tuesday, by David Weisner, Pool and Door, by Jihyeon Lee, and Chalk and Fossil by Bill Thompson. Please comment if you have a wordless book that you have used in class or personally enjoy. I would love to take a look.

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