There is no doubt that “the relevance of physical books in our culture is diminishing” according to curator Karen Ann Meyers. Rebound, presented by the College of Charleston‘s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, shows five artists who use books to create sculpture. Books provide a mass of free material for these artists. Encyclopedia sets were once functional objects from a different time and culture. These discarded books are given new life.
When I attended the artist’s tour, the five spoke of the narratives of their texts, the translation of the symbolic language to sculpture and image, and compressing the narrative. A book’s structure can be compared to snakes, a river, a labyrinth. These artists break the temporal and spatial barriers of the linear text.
Guy Laramee‘s lush valleys sparkle as we assume the aerial viewpoint looking over verdant landscapes. Within an unreadable text, a cave glitters as though looking into a geode. I imagine mountainous islands, the kind of primitive area imagined in stories of the south seas and exploration of new lands.
Guy Laramee was born and lives in Montreal. He says, “I still have a hard time considering myself a book artist” because it’s only a portion of his work—he was first a composer then went back to school at 40. “I had the idea of putting a book in the sandblaster.” He dug holes in the books and coated them with shining pigmented ink. When he spoke of his art, he told the story of a people, “after the fall of the Great Wall of America, they find stories of their own culture.” He invents stories to make meaning for these works, so that his projects have purpose, and to delve into the unknown. He names his “Caverna” after Saramago’s latest book and refers to Plato’s allegory. “One gains true knowledge through erosion, not accretion,” the catalog says.
Long Bin Chin says, “I create another space for the book.” He has carved many heads of warriors and Renaissance men. Here are fantasy artifacts, looking like carved stone with sedimentary layers. A little color has been painted on, dusting the faces like makeup.
Not pictured here is a pile of books on a shelf. Within his dioramas, he gives us fantasy worlds, the kind of thing we hope to enter when we read a book. In a pile of books on a shelf, Chin has made a tiny series of stages within the books, amplified by a peep hole. He says they are maybe nonsense or maybe a reaction to the title. These little figures remind me of one of Duchamp’s later pieces, installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Étant donnés. When looking through the peep hole, you see an erotic scene, bizarre with its flowing waterfall and pastured grounds. Within Chin’s carved book “The Scalpel and the Sword,” a woman lies naked on the floor, maybe dead in the middle of the room hung with images of Christ and two women. Two women stand over looking at the figure, whose hand lies across her chest. “On the Outskirts of Hope” shows a big Mickey Mouse and a soldier, both with articulating gestures. I recalled reading one of the last chapters in Errol Morris’s collection of essays, Believing is Seeing. Chapter 5 describes controversy over the placement of a Mickey Mouse doll and other children’s toys in Lebanon warzones.
Brian Dettmer was born in Chicago and lives in Atlanta. His postcard rack of books shows modernity overlapping. He began making art as a painter, loving its tactile qualities, and exploring the “difference between art and communication.” Some say, “art is a universal language,” but “nothing is universal” he says. “I was feeling really guilty about ripping up books,” but “I continued to carve—it was literally like reading, going one layer at a time.” It’s a collage, a sculpture, and like a painting. His characters come alive from the pages, lines thickened in 3D.
Dettmer spoke about how “we are losing access to having our files on our computer” because of cloud storage. Our data is vulnerable and there is a “threat of loss” with our modern digital technology. These books, on the other hand, are obsolete. He says his “Standard American” is a “multicellular landscape” and an homage to Duchamp’s urinal. He is “breaking out of that box…that Joseph Cornell type box.” “I peel back the cover and seal the edges.” “The book is a machine.” “These little fragments break apart a story.” He references a totem pole and the labyrinth of Borges’ library.
Francesca Pastine, from New York to San Francisco, says “I tend to take my time with my work. I like time-intensive activity.” She came of age in the 70s and was exposed to Civil Rights, the Women’s Movement, and the Vietnam War. In 2005, she started using Art Forum because her “friends had a tremendous amount of Art Forum magazines in their houses and no one wanted to throw them away.” She describes her process: “I take my inspiration from the cover and use a #11 exacto knife to make a topography.” Using the thick glossy packet of icons, dripping with gravity, Francesca says she is “manipulating cultural production” in order to “manipulate something that supposed to be manipulating me.”
Doug Beube was born in Ontario, lives in New York and works as a carpenter. His background is in photography where he modeled himself after Diane Arbus. His “sensibility as a photographer is to collapse space then expand it in the imagination.” He’s fascinated with a sense of the “other” and transforms obvious objects into something very sensuous, “like a body.” He created a “tract” on the floor of the gallery, a path, but don’t walk on it. Made from 50 romance and mystery novels, it shows a sequence of cut layers, like the narrative, a single forward moving line but seen at once. He tells us that it resembles a sine wave and also the GI tract of a human body. The work is like a “hyperlink” allowing us to move between temporal states.
He used a paper guillotine for the sliced works. For his maps, he used a belt sander to erode the paper. They are layered, looking moth eaten. His disaster series looks like birds. He calls them twisters. It reminds me of seeing body builders who rip phone books in half on tv.
All of these works are subtractive; they carve away the book pages. They also stack and reconnect the cut pieces, so they amalgamate edited parts too. Sometimes editing brings together the most poignant content of the book, and for others, new narratives are created. Rebound is on exhibition until July 6th in Charleston, SC. This project is sponsored by Bibliolabs and supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.