When is it okay to destroy a book? Not destroy, perhaps, but alter. To remove its cover, or mark its pages, or even tear some out. For some people, even jotting a note in the margin is literary sacrilege. But others see the stories that go beyond a book’s original shape?the magic that awaits when ink-on-paper is sculpted beyond its expected form.
One of the best around is Brian Dettmer, who creates incredibly detailed sculptures using books as well as ?other forms of antiquated media.? The fascinating thing is that he doesn’t simply alter a book’s original shape. Instead, he works around existing words and images, layer after painstaking layer, to form intricate pieces of art that meld words and images. You can explore photos of his work at his Flickr stream.
Another artist who plays with the overlap between shape and content is Rachael Ashe, a visual artist who works in photography, mixed-media collage, and, of course, altered books. But Ashe takes things in a slightly different direction: not only does she carefully carve away sections of books, she also adds found items to them and experiments with moving parts, creating pull tabs and pop-ups.
These brilliant butterflies are just one of the many examples on display at her Flickr stream. She also sculpts large items, like the ?Tree of [Un]Common Knowledge,? adding things like book pages sculpted into flowers.
For a somewhat darker look at the forces that shape literature, artist Barton Lidicé Bene? turned one book into a concrete symbol of censorship. The piece was displayed as part of a Book Arts in the USA exhibit, and the rusty nails and rope binding convey the message as well as any words can.
Then there’s the mystery of these delicate book sculptures, a series of 10 anonymous works that appeared around Edinburgh in 2011. The first was left at the Scottish Poetry Library, with a message addressed to the library’s Twitter account.
Other sculptures followed, and their creator was clearly someone in love with books and libraries. One whimsical piece, left at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, was accompanied by this cryptic message: ?A gift in support of libraries, books, works, ideas?.. Once upon a time there was a book and in the book was a nest and in the nest was an egg and in the egg was a dragon and in the dragon was a story?..? Other sculptures included a tiny teabag filled with cut-out letters, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex bursting from the pages of The Lost World.
Though there’s a tendency these days to fear that e-books and tablets will carry us far from a love of literature, the opposite seems to be true. The conversation around books, including the question of what a book even is, has renewed our interest in their traditional form?making us think about this age-old object in new ways, like the other roles it can take on.
Indeed, the work of all these sculptors reminds us of the possibilities the traditional book still possesses: ink, paper, and imagination combined to create a story well told.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).