Voluminous, antiquated books go under the knife of Brian Dettmer and emerge as brand new works of art. However these are meant to be viewed rather than read.
Enough obituaries have already been penned on the death of the physical book as we know it, and so when we come across an artist like Brian Dettmer who retrieves antiquated books from their dusty shelves and offers them a chance in the spotlight again, we are compelled to sit up and take notice.
Brian refers to himself as an artist who cuts up books, but of course, he’s just being modest here. This New York-based artist has earned the sobriquet of ‘Book Surgeon’ over the years for his unbelievable sculptures, created out of old, unused books using little more than an X-Acto knife and his imagination. Brian first started cutting up books in the year 2000 and describes his art as a kind of remix, in the same way as a DJ works with somebody else’s music.
This book surgeon cuts into the surface of old books with knives, tweezers and surgical tools carving one page at a time and exposing each layer while cutting around ideas and images of interest. Nothing inside the book is relocated or implanted, only removed. Images and ideas are revealed to expose alternate histories and memories.
The artist says, “My work is a collaboration with the existing material and its past creators and the completed pieces expose new relationships of the book’s internal elements which are exactly where they have been since their original conception.”
A book’s size, age, colour and material are all determining factors when starting on a new piece of work but often it is the content of the book that holds the key to an idea for a new piece. For instance, Brian says, “In a basic sense, if I am working with an anatomy book, I may think of the book as a body. Or if I am working with a history book, I think of the work as an excavation into the past or into our memory of the past.”
The artist admits he rarely ever reads the books he cuts up, especially voluminous reference books, which really is the whole point of his art – the uselessness of outdated information. It is only once he gets to work, cutting, that he really gets deep into the text and images. “This”, he says, “is more interesting for me and also allows for a more spontaneous flow in the work.” When it comes to fiction however, Brian does try and read the book, often listening to the audio-book version while cutting into the actual book.
Work on a new piece starts with sealing of the edges with thick varnish. If you look at Brian’s sculptures, you can see that the inherent problem with this approach is that Brian never really knows what’s coming next and must improvise on the go as every excavation uncovers new text and images.
He adds, “Beyond establishing a design of several integrated books, I do not plan any design. The content and design of the work emerges as I go.” Not only does he find this spontaneous approach exciting but also believes it allows the book to have an active voice in the final piece.
Brian’s process and style of working requires patience along with physical and mental stamina and this itself forms an integral part of his artwork. He explains, “I believe that I need to honour the material if I have chosen to transform it and I need to put enough work to justify the destruction of the book and to call the final work my own.”
While just about every piece created by this artist makes us rub our eyes in disbelief, Brian reveals that the most challenging piece he ever undertook was in 2013 when working on a series of two towers from complete sets of Encyclopedia Britannica. He says, “These were challenging in an engineering sense, to figure out how they could be successfully constructed, but then they were also mentally and physically challenging because of the amount of work and time they required to complete.”
Brian feels that the reason most people feel distressed when they see a book being cut up is because they tend to see books as living things. While he agrees with this view, he finds it impossible to ignore the fact that physical books are losing their intended function and are now misfits as linear forms in a non-linear world.
From his perspective, Brian perceives books as a body, as a technology, as a tool, as a machine and as a landscape. One thing he is convinced about is that books will never die; they will simply evolve into something new and exciting.
Text By Christabelle Athaide
Photographs Courtesy The Artist and P.P.O.W, New York