Thursday, 19 July 2012

When is a book not a book?

When it becomes a piece of artwork... Have a look at this:
It was posted on Facebook from a site I have I get updates. It reminded me of a number of occasions at art school when fellow students created artworks out of old books. I could never quite get my head around the concept of destroying a book - even an old, unloved one - to make something out of it - and I must clarify, these people did source their used books from thrift shops, so in theory, they'd eventually have been recycled or just binned anyway, I guess. They let me check over the piles first in case there was a treasure there, and I don't remember ever finding anything madly special. However, watching one of them hacking into the pages of an old hardcover with a stanley knife one day felt like watching something I shouldn't. It was very strange.

And then, there are the artists who make books - the 'artist book' is a genre all of its own. They can be made by artists who traditionally work on paper, or not. I've seen artist books made by ceramic artists - in clay (you can actually make a clay body incorporating paper pulp - it's light and strong, and offers a flexibility for sculptural pieces that can be very useful) - and all sorts of other mediums. The basic criteria is that the work needs to be in, or derived from, book form. While I was looking for examples I found this beautiful work by Gabriella Solti. You can see more of her work by going to her site.
Years ago, I was involved with a women's art group, and there was a member who worked in many different media. I have a wonderful felted scarf she made from the year she made each of us one for our birthdays. She also made paper - something I've never done, but always wanted to... Some of her paper could be written on and used in other artworks. But I do remember her bringing in books she'd made of her really experimental papers. The pages were thickly crusted with all sorts of things embedded in the pulp - feathers, threads, bits of fabric, anything she could get to stay put in the process. There were odd, isolated bit of text on random pages, but the books were all about the paper itself. They were beautiful, tactile objects and we sat pouring over them for a very long time that day.

But, artist though I am, mixed media artist at that, I can tear up all sorts of things to incorporate into artworks, but I can't tear up a book. Where I've used pages of text in odd pieces, I've made copies and used those pages instead of the originals... There's something, for me at least, something almost - and I use this word with some degree of caution - sacred about a book. This does, of course, fly in the face of any number of conventions, not least my own - not worshipping idols...! Maybe it's something to do with the notion of destroying ideas. Think back to when the Nazis burned 'un-German' books, and the quote that was used at the time, "They that start by burning books will end by burning men." Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), from his play Almansor (1821).

As I said in an earlier post when I was playing with ideas around what books actually are, books can be many different things to different people. For the artist, they can be truly many things - from a resource to becoming, literally, material for further creative endeavours. We artists are scavengers - anything is fair game. I still don't think I could destroy a book to make something else out of it...!

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