Brain Pickings

Carving Culture: Sculptural Masterpieces Made from Old Books

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“The infinite ways a book can be explored with our minds and our tools has just begun.”

As a fervent lover of papercraft, book sculpture, and creative repurposing of physical books, I was instantly taken with Art Made from Books: Altered, Sculpted, Carved, Transformed (public library) — a compendium of extraordinary artworks from the around the world, using the physical book as raw material for creative contemplation and cultural commentary. Sensual, rugged, breathtakingly intricate, ranging from “literary jewelry” to paperback chess sets to giant area rugs woven of discarded book spines, these cut and carved tomes remind us that art is not a thing but a way — a way of being in the world that transmutes its dead cells into living materials, its cultural legacy into ever-evolving art forms and creative sensibilities.

Guerrilla book sculpture made for the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival by an anonymous artist.

In the preface, the inimitable Brian Dettmer, himself a celebrated master of book sculpture, recounts growing up in the 1980s with his brother next to a school for the developmentally disabled and building a massive library in their attic from the school’s discarded books. A decade later, he started carving books as a celebration of the enormous mesmerism and stimulation with which they filled his childhood. But, he laments, our collective relationship with the book has changed:

The book is no longer the king of the information ecosystem. We can now access almost anything instantly online, and bound encyclopedias have become large land mammals that can’t compete with the newer species. They have collapsed and they can’t go on. Do we feed from the carcass? Ideas, like protein, are valuable and shouldn’t go to waste. They should be consumed by someone. Or, do we treat them through taxidermy to preserve them in an inanimate state for future generations to view in museums?

[…]

Most of this book work has emerged as a result of, or a response to, the rise of the Internet and the fact that the role of books has dramatically changed in our current information ecology. Many nonfiction books, specifically reference books, have lost their original function.

[…]

We have an excess of old material we no longer use and an emergence of new ideas about the book. By altering the book, we can explore the meanings of the material and the idea of the book as a symbol for knowledge. We can explore questions about the history and the future of books and the impact of new technology. We can contemplate and illustrate ideas about literature and information technology.

It is not about nostalgia. It is about the richness of its history and the beauty of its form, though more often it goes far beyond this. The infinite ways a book can be explored with our minds and our tools has just begun. We are at an exciting and pivotal moment in the way we record and receive our information. The form of the book, a symbol for ideas, information, and literature, may be the most relevant signifier and richest material we can work with today. We need to take advantage of this moment and respect the history of the book while contemplating its future in the face of shifts to digital technology.

'Skulduggery,' James Allen, 2012. (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking)

'Stuart Little,' Thomas Allen, 2011. A weathered and discarded copy of the E. B. White's classic was gently manipulated to make big pictures of a little mouse.

Another sculpture by the same anonymous artist was left at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse in 2011 to celebrate an iconic venue, invaluable to those who also enjoy their books on the big screen.

'Alice: A Mad Tea Party,' Su Blackwell, 2007. Deconstructed book in a box.

'Paper Typewriter,' Jennifer Collier, 2011. Vintage typewriter manual pages, gray board, machine stitching.

'El orden y el caos,' Arián Dylan, 2010 (detail). Trimmed book (laser and hand), binding material.

'Prove It,' Jennifer Khoshbin, 2009. Cut book.

'Thesaurus,' Pablo Lehmann, 2011. Paper cut out with text from 'The Unconscious' by Sigmund Freud.

'Flights of mind,' Vita Wells, 2007. Book, hair, lights, fan, key, screws, hinges, glue.

Find more such whimsy inside the pages of Art Made from Books — pages that maybe, just maybe, would lend themselves to transformation one day.

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