Karen Ann Myers is expecting people to freak out at her Halsey curatorial debut. She's organized a show that challenges the most sacred possessions in human history, the Bibles and the Great Gatsbys and the Twilights of the world: books.
Some books can be written off as carriers of information, while others are simply beach-read trash. But many are actually objects of desire and value — that's why whenever Myers moves somewhere new, she packs and unpacks her two huge bookshelves, even if she has no problem throwing away plenty of other belongings.
"Books are really sacred," Myers says, which is why the works featured in Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art may be so jolting to its audience. "[Viewers] will not be able to see the work as an artwork. They are only going to be able to see mutilated text. But books are conversations, books are living material. That's why people value them and why they're so disturbed by their destruction. This understanding of the importance of the book is so remarkably ingrained in human psychology."
On its most basic level, book art is a long-standing medium (think of the artfully bound scrapbook, for example). But the works in Rebound push books beyond the limits as we know them, transforming them into something new. Essentially, this kind of art is giving books a second life.
When Myers first started putting together the show, she wanted to focus more on actual interventions with books. That generated a list of nearly 200 artists, all of whom were taking book art and turning it into something more. In the end, she wanted artists who used the book in a sculptural way, and she eventually settled on the five who are featured in Rebound. Using tools like scalpels, pliers, and tweezers, these artists are picking apart the pages of books layer by layer, exposing their architecture for a greater purpose. "They're all making a statement about our information age and the digital media's impact on that, and I would say that they're all interested in remixing preexisting works to create something new, transformed, and a sculptural work," Myers says.
Doug Beube, one of the participants and a forerunner in this kind of book art, doesn't even consider himself a book artist. "I don't think anybody in the exhibition considers themselves a 'book artist,'" he points out, "and the reason is because we're working from collage and sculpture."
While he kept journals throughout his life, Beube discovered book art as a grad student in 1979. At first, he wanted to learn how to bind, but soon he was more fascinated by the idea of pulling the book apart. Now he approaches the materials like another artist would a block of wood. "I began to work with individual pages and cut them so you could see through them, and then eventually I went from cutting singular modalities into working with power tools," he says. "It was like drawing on books, but I'm using a belt sander."
Technology and the internet also play a role in Beube's work. Early on, he tried to reference the systemic nature of the book, looking at it as a form of technology itself — one that had limits, unlike a computer or the internet. Still, he tries to apply quasi-ideas of cutting and pasting, hypertext, and hyperlinks to his analog books. "It doesn't work, because the book is still linear," he says, "but it's the attempt to do it."
Ultimately, for Beube, it's like going on an archeological dig, but he still strives to maintain the book's functionality. For many of his pieces, the viewer still has control over turning the pages, which gives the audience a different visual experience as they move the sheets back and forth. The viewer has to slow down, because the pages are now more fragile than before. "We're very quick with our computers and scanning and et cetera, so I'm playing a lot off that idea if you want to handle my books, you've got to turn the pages slowly," he says.
Although Beube's Halsey pieces will be much too delicate for interaction on the massive scale that a Spoleto exhibit can guarantee, the institute will create an animation to recreate the experience of page turning.
Beube is joined by Guy Laramée, who has a standing love affair with landscapes that he carves into the books. He shaves away at the material to create mountains, hillsides, and seascapes. Meanwhile, Brian Dettmer works frequently with antiquated books, like dictionaries and encyclopedias, transforming them with knives, tweezers, and other surgical equipment. "As he's going through the book page by page, he can't really control what's on the pages below, but he can control how he reacts to it," Myers says. "[It's] kind of like reading, how one would read a book — you can't really control what's on the next page." And nothing is ever added to or taken away from Dettmer's book.
Francesca Pastine uses copies of the arts and culture magazine Artforum to create her sculptural interventions. She cuts away at them, but always preserves some aspect of the cover, creating an unofficial collaboration with another artist. "When featured on the gallery walls, Artforum, which is an arts and culture publication commenting on the art world, becomes the subject of criticism and adoration instead of being the commenter," Myers says. "It's also a way for Francesca to insert herself into the art world conversation, which she may not be a part of otherwise."
Long-Bin Chen will serve as the artist-in-residence for the show. He carves Buddha heads from phonebooks that, at a distance, look almost like marble or stone. They're meant to represent the looted heads of ancient Asian figures that have been sold to Western museums and collectors. He calls them "caring Buddhas," since they end up containing hundreds and thousands of names in their heads.
While each artist will have roughly eight to 15 pieces in Rebound, the Halsey's curator of education Lizz Bizwell and local company Bibliolabs will create anthologies for each artist, immersing viewers in the artists' worlds. Bibliolabs is sponsoring the show, despite their focus on digital publishing. Still, their anthologies will let viewers see an in-depth version of their collections to help immerse them in the artists' worlds. Guests will have the chance to learn more about the participating artists by browsing previous works, watching videos, reading press clippings, and seeing photographs of studios.
"The thing that's great about this project with Bibliolabs is that it allows us to present the information in very high resolution," Myers says. "You could zoom in and get crazy details on each of the artist's works, which is something that's difficult to do in other ways."
Despite this addition of digital technology, Rebound is a celebration, an exploitation, a redefinition, and a resurrection of the book. The artists are honoring the book, but they're also forewarning viewers about the fine line between their role as monuments and their potential as ruins. Myers hopes that viewers realize that the artist interventions are making the books even more sacred, returning the books to a new life without destroying them.
"Artists often cause us to ask questions about things that we didn't know we needed answers to," Myers says. "This is a really exciting time for books, because books are kind of in a state of limbo, existing somewhere between life and death, certainly because of the age of technology and the digital media ... It might seem that books are under threat because of this, but it's more realistic that they're at a point of transition."