The purpose of books is to spread information and ideas with relative rapidity, economy, and ease, but what purpose do these objects now serve if the Internet performs their task more efficiently? Underneath the wonderment and joy created by the works in Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art, is a sense of fear and anxiety at the book’s possible demise [Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC, May 23-July 6, 2013]. The curator, Karen Ann Myers, astutely notes that many of the works by the five artists—Brian Dettmer, Long-Bin Chen, Guy Laramée, Francesca Pastine, and Doug Beube—featured in the exhibition “are treated as surgeries or dissections; scalpels and needles are used to carve away the books’ exteriors.” One can take this observation even further by speculating that these three artists are putting the form of the book very much “under the knife;” the book is a technology in desperate need of a medical intervention or cosmetic touching up, lest it lose its youth, health, and vitality.
Along the lines of an intervention, all of the artists featured in Rebound either change how books function or how the spectator thinks books should function. Most of the works in the exhibition are made from utilitarian textual materials, many of which are losing their usefulness: phone books, encyclopedias, manuals, magazines, or dictionaries.
Brian Dettmer’s Manual of Engineering Drawing (2010) reflects his masterful ability to find hidden structures within books. The book itself appears to be propelled by the gears and machinery that Dettmer exposes by carving in the pages.
Guy Laramée fashions out-of-date encyclopedia sets and dictionaries into caves, mountains, and islands. By making these man-made objects into natural landscapes, Laramée implies that the book is a natural resource waiting to be discovered. Moreover, much of his work, such as the breathtaking The Way Out (2013), disturbs the duality between creation and erosion. Upon first look, the work appears to have suffered from an act of violence: It almost appears as if a cannon has shot through the book. Upon closer inspection, the viewer sees how the wound is actually an intricately carved cave lit by a small lamp, and the work then conceptually dramatizes “the way out” of the obsolescence of the book form through his poignant metaphor of weaving through a landscape.
That being said, the book art on display at Rebound literally pulsates. While these works may behave more like sculptures than books with pages one traditionally leafs through, it is not as if these pieces move and behave in ways unexpected by the museum-goer. Amidst the electrified murmurings of the large crowd gathered at the exhibition’s opening, it was nearly surreal to see Doug Beube’s altered phonebooks fluttering serenely with the drafts from the air conditioning system, or to behold the illusion of Francesca Pastine’s carved stacks of Artforum magazines melting with the viscosity of cooling lava along the gallery’s walls. The books that are a part of Rebound feel alive; unlike most books, they move on their own accord, without the provocations of a reader to stimulate them.
Once a viewer gets past the tension between books and technology implicit in the exhibition’s thematic concerns, I think a more pressing question emerges: What is the difference between an artist’s book and a book object? In Rebound, the objects are not forms that a person can flip through; these pieces do not behave like “normal” books. In this sense, the exhibition alludes to a rather contentious debate in the book arts community: What is the difference between a book created by an artist and a book that an artist has manipulated into a different form? I mused about this a few weeks ago and ultimately I concluded that the most appropriate distinction between artists’ books and book-shaped objects, or BSOs, is that “artists’ books play with the constitutive elements of “normal” books—pages, text, image, binding, folds, covers, and so on—while book objects are made with the idea of evoking and working with the physical shapes that books occupy in space.
Long-Bin Chen in particular as asked this question of how books can occupy space by actually creating spaces out of books. With Peeper, Chen has viewers look voyeuristically into a hole that has been drilled into the spine of a book. This reveals a space, usually a room, hidden within the book that Chen has populated with small figurines, furniture, and decorations that usually dramatize a scene in the book’s pages. Chen calls attention to the imaginative spaces that books fashion.
What is more, Chen was commissioned to create an installation for the exhibition to be housed across the street from the museum at the Addlestone Library. After collecting discarded used books around Charleston, Chen shredded, carved, glued, and sawed into the books to create a full-size Zen garden. The work, Set In Stone (2013), perhaps could be seen to be the result of an egregious offense to books because of the acts of destruction that were necessary to the installation’s making. In this sense, there is something incredibly taboo about Chen’s installation and all of the pieces in Rebound. The exhibition is a showcase of violence against the textual object, but the results are stunning to see.
More images from the exhibition can be viewed online here.
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