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I’m trying not to press my nose against the glass like a child outside a sweet shop, but it’s hard because I feel a bit hungry around the eyes. I make my way round the ten paper sculptures sitting quietly on an upper-floor of the Scottish Poetry Library. There’s a simpering tide of superlatives attempting to break free from my biro. Having been to many unsatisfactory exhibitions in my time – rows of hanging windbreaks and unintelligible conceptual scrawlings and anything Jeff Koons has ever vomited out – I know what a rare thing this is. And best of all, the sculptures are made out of books.
If you live in Scotland and have an interest in words, there’s a good chance that unless you’ve spent the past year or so trying to read Lanark, you’ll have heard of these sculptures. First appearing on the literary scene back in March 2011, they continued to do just that – mysteriously appear – in various arts venues around the capital throughout the months that followed, accompanied only by an unsigned note, the words “in support of libraries, books, words, ideas . . .”.
Even if you don’t live here, it’s fair to say that the Edinburgh book sculptures have been of great interest to the press, with write-ups in New York publications, the BBC and the Guardian. Given anonymously and without payment, the artist has made a political statement; championing free institutions like museums and libraries that have suffered of late as a result of new funding restrictions imposed by the current government.
The charm of a magnifying glass made from a cross-section of pages from Edwin Morgan’s poetry or a forested landscape cut from a James Hogg novel is undeniable, and the way they are cut is both precise and astonishing. While large parts of the text have been swallowed up in the construction, key phrases and words leap out, shining a light on the meaning behind each piece. The gift sent to the Edinburgh Book Festival, for example, features a sculpted cup and saucer accompanied by the statement “Nothing beats a nice cup of tea (or coffee) and a really great book”, composed of cut-out letters in the familiar style of an anonymous note.
The beauty of these objects, coupled with the spirit in which they were given, makes it very difficult not to rave about them. I left the exhibition having written just that in the guestbook, although ironically, this was because they had left me in such a state of woolly-brained awe that I couldn’t think of anything else to put.
It’s easy to think that this is possibly the only place in the world which could have produced such fervent and altruistic support for literature. This is Edinburgh; where you’ll find graves, monuments and museums for the city’s numerous literary offspring, a city whose streets wind and twist on top of one another like a ready-made set piece. Not to mention the most bizarre of tourist attractions: the café where Harry Potter was written, in which there’s nothing to photograph, but people still come.
Of course, it’s not the first time someone’s sculpted with a book. In fact, it’s already a common and well-received art form. There are those like Thomas Allen, who proudly go by the title of ‘book artist’, making precise, witty cut-outs from encyclopedias and other heavyweight non-fictional tomes. Consider also the miniature theatrical stages of Brit Su Blackwell and the complex map-made reliefs of South Africa’s Barbara Wildenboer.
This anonymous artist admits however that books are not her usual choice of material to sculpt from. Unlike the afore-mentioned artists who are using paper, found images and text as a means to an end, these book sculptures are made of books because they have to be, to highlight how vital the sharing of ideas is. This was the artist’s true and only aim, which makes them all the more life-affirming. In a world becoming more virtual and intangible by the year, where the arguments over e-readers and online publishing rage on, they stand as solid reminders of literature’s legacy.
It is interesting that these works do not represent a traditional marriage of words and pictures, the usual channels through which writing finds visual expression. There is no parallel here with John Tenniel illuminating Lewis Carroll’s great imaginings, or Mervyn Peake who does it all himself. These book sculptures unite art and literature on such an elemental level that the book itself has become illustration. There is no seam where one ends and the other begins. As someone who has studied and practised both art and creative writing exclusively, it’s unsurprising that this would make me so happy.
On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that the artworks hold something of an inherent contradiction. They seem to say that the books themselves, whether as reading tools or as art objects, are only the jumping-off point from which imagination takes the reigns. Take the note left with the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s gift, a paper dragon sitting on a nest of Ian Rankin’s prose:
“Once upon a time there was a book and in the book was a nest and in the nest was an egg and in the egg was a dragon and in the dragon was a story.”
The sculptures pay tribute to the value of books, while acknowledging that they cannot really express the true value of reading and of storytelling. As works of visual art, the sculptures are attached to the tangible, a stepping-stone to the ineffable. Only the individual can determine the rest of the journey. These works can get close to describing the experience of reading but ultimately they are merely the form. As the captions suggest, to put a price or a limitation on ‘books, words, ideas’ is impossible.
Despite this, these works are the best attempt I have seen to depict what happens when you dive into a book, escaping the world and simply going somewhere else. It may be this that makes me want to rave, but at the same time makes me realise that no raving is necessary. The sculptures are so eloquent in themselves that perhaps, in this case, words are not required.
I pass three of the sculptures several times a week, in their current home at the Central Library, as I go in search of a quiet spot to work. They’re sitting in the foyer, in front of the security desk, which is a pity because a large part of me would like to pick up a podium and scuttle off with it. But that, I fear, would be missing the artist’s point by several miles.