Artists across the globe are adding their personal stamp to books by turning them into sculptures. Brian Noone examines the trend
The first thing a viewer notices about Su Blackwell’s astonishing The Baron in the Trees is its fragility. It seems as if even a faint breeze could topple the whisper-thin trees and scatter their linguistic leaves like confetti. Its delicate poignancy is also a private one, much like the transportative reverie a good book can induce. Small wonder, then, that the piece was created entirely from a book.
As a medium for art, the book is hardly new: illuminated pages fill some of the earliest tomes in existence. But altered books, like Blackwell’s Baron, approach the medium differently. When the printed page becomes the material stuff of art, the point is no longer to read the author’s words, but to experience the artist‘s vision. Part sculpture and part collage, the pieces are also always conceptual – because the choice of the printed page over plain paper always means something. Increasingly, this combination of meticulous craftsmanship and theoretical whimsy is making waves in the art world. In the past decade, altered books have gone from unusual crafts for artists in their spare time to centrepieces in galleries across the globe. The art world is notoriously fickle, but with print media confronting an increasingly digital age, there has never been a more relevant time for artists to grapple with the meaning of books.
The biggest name in the field is Brian Dettmer, an American who has been making virtuosic creations for more than a decade. His sculptures, typically carved from older, out-of-print books, work like collages, overwhelming viewers with playful juxtapositions and incidental significances. A recent work on display at Kinz + Tillou gallery in New York, Saturation Will Result, comprises an entire set of encyclopaedias that appear disembowelled, their inexhaustible contents hanging out for public consumption.
What astonishes most about Dettmer’s work is his craftsmanship. Each project requires at least a week of full-time work, and when sitting in front of some pieces, like his monumental American Peoples, the viewer can’t help but be in awe of the meticulous consideration each cut represents.
London-based Blackwell shares this virtuosic appeal with Dettmer, though her penchant for ruminative scenes leads to different effects. Where Dettmer separates and recombines information, Blackwell’s creations are both literal and metaphorical storybook worlds, self-contained universes meant for solitary indulgence. Her 2009 show in Edinburgh was entitled All the Things I Love Are Going to Disintegrate, encapsulating the privateness and reflectiveness that are present in each of her pieces.
In contrast, Robert The’s book guns are attempts to smack viewers in the face. Begun initially 20 years ago in New York, The took found books and carved them into the shape of a weapon in order “to assert themselves against the culture which turned them into debris”. The title of the book and the shape are typically at play with one another, as in Poetic Justice, which is particularly apt, as the book was made unreadable with the carving yet has turned out to have quite a significant effect on viewers – perhaps much more of an effect than the writer had imagined, and certainly of a different sort.
The experience of standing in front of Georgia Russell’s works is like watching a flower blossom or a piece of fruit grow. The organic forms of the sliced paper seem constantly in motion, as if the object is in a permanent state of re-creating itself. The books titles are referenced in the works, but not aggressively, as in The’s book guns. Russell’s sensational The Story of Art does not try to shred the history of art, or even Gombrich’s interpretation, but rather gives new possibility and meaning to the volume. Russell, who has works in the permanent collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, has done the same for pieces of music, most recently exhibited at Paris’s Galerie Karsten Greve. The music is not rewritten or ruined – there is no desecration involved – even though the individual copies of the music have been transformed and are no longer usable as music.
The tension between the artist’s individuality and the author’s claim to the work, la droite d’auteur, runs through most altered books. Seen from one perspective, the books are mechanically mass produced, so the destruction of a single copy hardly seems a serious violation, as would be, say, using a Michelangelo drawing in a typewriter. Yet still a violation does occur: someone else’s work has been repurposed to serve an artist’s ends.
The tension is nothing new in the art world – from Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of a drawing by Willem De Kooning in 1953 to David Mabb’s contemporary mash ups of William Morris textiles and Russian Constructivist motifs – but books present a case particularly relevant to our modern world, where the structure of ownership rights of music, words and photos are being daily rethought.
One artist whose works offer no authorship commentaries or challenges is Long-Bin Chen, a Taiwanese sculptor who works exclusively with discarded printed materials, or as he says “the cultural debris of our information society”. In contrast to The, Chen concentrates not on the contents of the medium but on its sheer volume. His most iconic works are Buddha heads made from New York City telephone books. Like Ai Weiwei’s recent Sunflower Seeds at London’s Tate Modern which involved 100 million hand-crafted porcelain seeds, the heads are compelling both in their immediate physicality and as objects of contemplation.
The works of Italian artist Albert Coers share this duality, but for different reasons. Coers constructs pieces of furniture and architectural elements from books. Ornately balanced, the removal of even one volume would topple the whole. The structures are inviting and many appear initially not so different from the bookshelves that line homes, but the impossibility of removing any one book to read it distances viewers from the tomes. They become anonymous bricks that we know – but can’t prove – are filled with other people’s words.
These sculptures are the inverse of Blackwell’s fairy tale dioramas: they make viewers uncomfortable, and very few buy a piece for their home after seeing it in a gallery. And yet the respect both artists show for books is palpable. Just as Blackwell delights in the private significances, Coers probes their public ones. And what of the writers, without whom the works are impossible? Altogether elsewhere, they keep on writing.
Only, Spring 2012