Sunday, August 24, 2014

Turning Books Into Art

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

'A Bit Of Paper Art' /

Earlier this month, a Mumbai gallery showcased a book collection featuring volumes designed not to be picked up and read, but to be viewed as works of art. Here, there were “book sculptures”, pages with gold leaf illustrations, books embedded with bullet casings, pages folded into shapes of waves, butterflies and more. Ironically, if inexactly, the show was entitled Reading Room.

Artists have been using books as material for a while; last year, hurrying through an overseas mall, I was brought up short by a large installation in the foyer featuring the work of Los Angeles-based Mike Stilkey, who paints surreal figures of horses, dogs, cats and people, among others, on the spines of discarded books stacked together. (The highest of these is 24 feet tall and made up of 3,000 volumes.) “Books don't hold the same amount of power that they used to, because of the Internet and whatnot,” says Stilkey, “and [people] throw them away at an alarming rate”.  With the rise of the e-book, it’s the physicality of the printed book that has become its defining characteristic.

This is also reflected in the increasing attention paid to book covers: look at the ingenious and impressive designs of Chip Kidd, for instance. The apotheosis of such efforts so far could well be graphic novelist Chris Ware’s acclaimed Building Stories, comprising 14 separate printed works -- broadsheets, magazines, pamphlets and more – enclosed in a box.

The case of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, however, shows that such attention to presentation can go too far. In addition to the striking cover, there’s also a sheet of stickers designed by Japanese illustrators pasted within, supposed to represent Murakami’s characters and their concerns. (My copy’s sticker sheet remains within; I haven’t bothered to remove or inspect it, before or after reading the novel.)

Interior designers and fashionistas have been quick to capitalise on the nature of the book-as-object. The website of one design firm affirms that there’s “nothing like a well styled bookcase filled with books, accessories, collectibles, and photos that add warmth, intrigue, and uniqueness to a space…They can make a bare wall go from blah-to-beautiful”.  Coffee table books have long been seen as elegant decor accessories, and one can only avert one’s eyes from bookshelves where volumes have been arranged according to the colour of their spines. More evidence of form over content comes in a recent New York Times article which mentions that NYC’s Strand bookstore is one of the places you can order books by color or spine size; further, on Etsy, the online crafts marketplace, retailers offer “instant libraries”, colour-co-ordinated books in “ocean hues” or “custard to cream colored.”

Elsewhere, there are people who choose books as fashion accessories; presumably, if you’re in a nostalgic mood you can venture outdoors with a copy of a Victorian bestseller -- after ensuring that the shade of the jacket matches your own jacket, of course. (Authors, too, aren’t immune: an online men’s clothing store recently held up Samuel Beckett as a style icon, pointing out that “Gauloises, Jameson and tweeds make the Nobel Prize winner a paragon of geezer cool”. One can’t go on, one goes on.)

Leaving such fashion-forward folk aside, artists are, of course, entitled to choose whatever objects they think best suit their purposes.  One can’t, however, help but feel a sense of unease at treating a printed book purely as raw material. Such volumes are manufactured objects, yes, but certainly not in the same category as, say, the urinal that Marcel Duchamp famously employed for his own artistic ends. Such is the minefield of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. You know things have gone too far when you hear of German artist Dieter Roth’s installation, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Work in 20 Volumes. Roth ground up the philosopher’s complete works and used the results to stuff sausages, creating what’s been called literawurst. Cheeky, but hard to swallow.

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