Old Books and the Seven Artists

By Sarah Rose de Villiers

“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Words on white pages transport us to worlds of wonder and wisdom, and we lead lives entirely unlike our own. With each turn of the page, our imaginations take to the skies and black ink paints characters and colours in our minds. As we celebrate National Library Week, we realise books can be bewitching and beautiful, without having to be read. Instead, they can be cut up, sliced through, stained, torn and sculpted. They are not destroyed, they are art.

1. Su Blackwell

Su Blackwell, The Master and Margarita Sourced

Su Blackwell, The Master and Margarita Sourced

A haunting beauty, a whispering dream, a fragile fantasy. A loss for words.

Su Blackwell’s book sculptures are entirely indescribable.

In 2003, a Chinese legend of two moths that rose from the burnt ashes of two lovers’ souls inspired Blackwell to cut moths out of a secondhand book called The Quiet American. Since then, she has been involved in larger projects like designing the set for The Rose Theatre’s production of The Snow Queen, whilst continuing to cut out and build onto old books, especially those of fairy-tales and folklore.

These book sculptures conjure scenes of sailing boats and rabbit holes, paper forests and cathedral roofs. Brushed with golden light and climbing from the pages, the stories are both visual and ephemeral. They possess the power to mesmerize even the most disinterested person. They are utterly enchanting.

Su Blackwell, Treasure Island (Sourced)

Su Blackwell, Treasure Island Sourced

2. Long-Bin Chen

Long-Bin Chen, book sculpture of Budda

Long-Bin Chen, book sculpture of Buddha Sourced

When East meets West; when books become Buddha; when paper sculptures look like polished stone – then you must be looking at the work of Long-Bin Chen.

Chen’s works combine Asian iconography with cultural debris of the Western world, such as telephone books, novels, newspapers and magazines. Buddha heads and Japanese warrior figures are harmonized with Sotheby booklets and Investment manuals. The figures appear as solid as stone, but on closer inspection, one can see the supple pages and bound books. By merging material with meaning and combining cultural concepts, Chen’s art is an amalgamation of breathtaking beauty.

3. Guy Laramée

Guy Laramee, Adieu Sourced

Guy Laramee, Adieu Sourced

Encyclopedias line up and volumes of history books stand to attention. Leather covers bind antique texts and promise specific knowledge. But these books are not to be read. Instead of mapping worlds in the mind, the books themselves have become the majestic mountains and lush landscapes.

Guy Laramée’s topographical literary etchings are spectacular carvings of valleys, caverns and caves in obsolete encyclopedias and discarded dictionaries. His work draws on the idea that erosion, as well as accumulation, could be ultimate knowledge and aims to project the viewer into “the thick cloud of unknowing”.

Without having to read a word, the viewer is transported to another land of pastures and paper. A magical realm of mountains and manuals.

Guy Laramie, Larousse Methodique

Guy Laramee, Larousse Methodique Sourced

4. Alexander Korzer-Robinson

Alexander Korzer Robinson,  Larousse Universel Vol 2 Sourced

Alexander Korzer Robinson, Larousse Universel Vol 2 Sourced

Buried in the heart of a story, and found deep in the mind of man, there is a place called the “inner landscape” where all the magic of life is found. While writers try paint this place with words, Korzer delicately dissects antiquarian books, revealing layers of fantasy, reality and self-discovery.

He works through the books, page by page, cutting around some of the illustrations while completely removing others. In the end, the pictures stand exposed and juxtaposed, and the book is sealed so that it can never be opened again.

The story is no longer buried in the book because the book has become the story.

Alexander Korzer Robinson, Brockhaus 13 Sourced

Alexander Korzer Robinson, Brockhaus 13 Sourced

5. Ekaterina Panikanova

Ekaterina Panikanova, Book Art Sourced

Ekaterina Panikanova, Book Art Sourced

Don’t draw in books. Only paint on a canvas. Never break these rules. Unless you are Ekaterina Panikanova.

In which case, you can use a collage of documents, books and diaries as your canvas, and across the yellowed pages you can paint scenes of floating cakes, bicycles with antlers and leaping hares.

With ink and print and scribbled pages, Panikanova breaks all the rules. She paints cakes over recipes and draws clouds on calculations. She maps the magic of other worlds and new stories come to life on old pages.

Ekaterina Panikanova, Book Painting Sourced

Ekaterina Panikanova, Book Painting Sourced

6. Alex Queral

Alex Queral, Dalai Lama Sourced

Alex Queral, Dalai Lama Sourced

Once upon a time, a man wanting to make a sculpture went on a search for wood. Instead of finding wood, he found a stack of discarded phone-books. In a moment of inspiration, the man gathered the pile of printed pages and returned to his studio. And then his story really began.

For the last 19 years, Alex Queral has been carving portraits of famous people out of old phone-books. To make these three-dimensional relief sculptures, Queral sketches the face (which is usually characterised by wrinkles, twinkles or beards) and using the sketch as a template over the phone-book, he then patiently whittles away at the layers of papers until he uncovers the unique portrait. To save the face from further ravages of time, he seals the entire book with acrylic.

The final portrait is a famous face, lined with listed numbers and unknown names. It is a story of countless characters.

Alex Queral, Jack Nicholson Sourced

Alex Queral, Jack Nicholson Sourced

7. Wim Botha

Wim Botha, Generic Self-Portrait as a Heretic (Carved Bibles printed in South African indigenous languages) Sourced

Wim Botha, Generic Self-Portrait as a Heretic (Carved Bibles printed in South African indigenous languages) Sourced

South Africa is our past, present and people. We are our religions, our languages, our politics and our possibilities. We write our stories with our words and movements, and we revisit the past to find our place in the present.

This is precisely the concept explored by South African-based artist Wim Botha in his sculptures of busts made from books.

Botha carves into stacks of texts so that faces emerge from piles of papers and question the power of printed pages. The materials he uses are fundamental to his project, as they give his works a specific social context. By using official texts, such as prison release papers, school dictionaries and government gazettes, as well as religious texts, like Bibles (specifically those printed in South African indigenous languages), Botha comments on the role of language and literature in our nation’s history. He looks at the stories we have written, and asks what story we write today.

Wim Botha, Portrait 2 (Carved Afrikaans dictionaries and vocabulary books, wood, stainless steel) Sourced

Wim Botha, Portrait 2 (Carved Afrikaans dictionaries and vocabulary books, wood, stainless steel) Sourced


Clearly the power of paper and printed words is not limited to the literate. Books can question and captivate, intrigue and interrogate, challenge and enchant without having to be read. Books are proof that the world is not only made of words, and we make our own magic.

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2 thoughts on “Old Books and the Seven Artists

  1. Pingback: Old Books and the Seven Artists | Life is an exhibition

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