From Trash to Treasure: Turning Discarded Books Into Art

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Recent posts by Megan McArdle and Daniel Indiviglio on the rise of e-books -- and the MacArthur Foundation's funding of a think tank dedicated to the future of the book -- reflect a heightened consciousness about the role and function of the conventional book in today's society. What will happen to romance novels and travel guides as we press forward into the age of eReaders? What if the proliferation of digital books renders home libraries and bookstores obsolete? Even if paperbacks and touchscreens ultimately coexist in harmony, what will we do with all of those outdated Encyclopaedia Britannicas?

Brian Dettmer has an answer: make art.

Part artist and part surgeon, Dettmer uses knives, blades, tweezers, pliers, and custom-mixed adhesive to painstakingly carve three-dimensional sculptures out of old reference books and textbooks. The result is a set of literary monuments that embody the complexity of knowledge and language through the purposeful manipulation of printed texts.

Dettmer began his art career at Chicago's Columbia College, where he focused his energies on painting and sculpture. A part-time job at a sign shop inspired him to incorporate letters and text into his work and, after graduating in 1997, he began manipulating other text-based media, like Braille, Morse code, and newspapers. Newspaper pages gave way to pages torn from books, and it wasn't long before Dettmer's scoring of individual pages morphed into the carving of the books themselves. In "The Cut Up Artist," Ellen Firsching Brown explains:

In 2000, Dettmer turned his creative talents to a stack of left over books. He glued them together, painted them a uniform black, and then he gouged out a jagged hole. The result of this experiment was as if a small bomb had detonated destroying the interior of the books. Dettmer described the work as "a meditation on the dichotomy of learning through reading versus learning through experience." Excavating the text, he said, refers to "a more tactile way of learning by actually having an experience with the material"

For his next series of experiments, Dettmer glued the page edges of books together to create a solid block with the idea of carving geometric patterns into them. A bit of serendipity changed his course. "I was playing around with a block I had made out of an old encyclopedia-. As I carved down through the cover and into the text, I came across an image of a landscape. I left it in place and carved around it. A few pages dawn, another figure emerged." He left that one in place as well and continued on cutting through the pages, selectively revealing images and text. Dettmer had found what would become his signature technique.

Dettmer's book sculptures make forgotten material relevant in a new way. By selectively cutting away at the text and leaving an assortment of words and images behind, Dettmer reflects the often haphazard and piecemeal way we acquire knowledge.

All images courtesy Brian Dettmer.

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Monica Raymunt is a writer currently residing in Washington, DC.

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