Elemental at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia showcases the oeuvre of Atlanta-artist Brian Dettmer to dazzling effect and reveals his fascination with linguistic and visual matrices. Dettmer plows through the pages of discarded tomes, distinguishing himself from the many other artists who merely manipulate books through his attention to the content. Where other artists merely treat books as a medium to be sculpted, Dettmer interacts with the text to reveal its synaptic structures and in turn, the very workings of the human brain.
To make his intricate artworks, Dettmer glues old books shut and proceeds to carefully incise them, discovering words and images along the way that he decides to expose rather than excise. There is nothing additive in the process; instead, Dettmer exposes subtleties in the physical page as well as the text and images within. One Word at a Time, 2012, is a particularly stunning display of this. In this work, several books are shellacked together and sheared at an angle, exposing the sides of typed letters. This view of typed letters on thin pages as three-dimensional forms with sides is shocking and revelatory. The delicate yet discernible traces of letters have the appearance of wood grain, a visual ode to the origins of paper.
Though the visual effects Dettmer produces are stunning, the works display a keen fascination with the information held within the tomes. Tower I (Britannica), 2012, stands like a totem pole of knowledge. The volumes of a complete Encyclopedia Britannica set have stacked to form a cylindrical tower; their spines face inward and the guts of their contents thrust out towards the viewer. Dettmer exhumes dazzling layers of illustrations and words too numerous to name here, each highly potent due to his choice to include it. The encyclopedias represent the entirety of facts known to man … at least, at the time of publication. (Alana Wolf’s article “Brian Dettmer: Are Books Dead?” details the significance for Dettmer of using outdated books.)
24 Bit, 2012, a triptych of books opened to their front endpapers, combines form and thought to describe the workings of the mind. These inner covers feature a print of angular intertwining lines which Dettmer used as a template for the overall work. Dettmer cut along these lines and pieced the books together in a similar pattern, creating a tripartite repetition of the design. The regularity of these shapes bears similarities to computer graphics, a fact obviously not lost upon Dettmer given the title of the work. The cut-outs in 24 Bit open a window into dense layers of images, weaving and crowding each other like a busy party of thoughts. Peering into these orifices, I could not help but think of Inception, a movie that aimed to depict the depths of the human mind yet relied on flat-albeit expensive CGI-imagery and flatter characters, and felt that Dettmer’s works achieve greater depths.
A large part of this arises from Dettmer’s chosen medium of books and his elegant treatment of them. In Nicholas Carr’s essay “The Dreams of Readers” (contained in the book Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!), he describes the psychological effect reading books can have on the mind. He describes the act of reading as interacting with “narrative emotions” which send sympathetic tremors throughout the human nervous system, meaning we actually feel as if we are entering new worlds through literature and are affected by the experiences we find within. Dettmer’s excavation of books evokes this same idea of reading. His artworks serve as illustrations of the mind as it enjoys a book, building new connections and creating structures of thought based on the content within.