Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gutenberg's End: Brian Dettmer's autopsy of the book

So books lose their worth. is full of used books on sale for 1 penny. Last week I bought a first edition of David Sedaris's book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, for 17 cents. This is a first edition, pristine, beautiful dust jacket. It originally sold for 24.95, now it's worth 17 cents.

Thrift stores all over the city have bales of encyclopedias, old dictionaries and cast off bibles. Romance novels, detective novels, science fiction, nature non fiction, travelogues, biographies, professional handbooks, works of theology, and law books all sit cheek by jowel gathering dust, cast offs from some use me once toss me aside kind of ink and fiber economy.

Even hardback books published just last year are offered for a dollar. Students are losing their ability and desire to read books. Young professors claim that all the world's knowledge is swimming in the air around us in this Wifi enabled environment and refuse to pay for new text books. Aging print addicts moan that the world is changing, that we are losing 500 years of culture.

A world is coming to an end.

A new world is being born.

Wikopedia writes; "Dettmer's early art work incorporated codes and language, such as paintings based on braille, Morse Code, and American Sign Language. He then began to make work by repeatedly pasting newspapers and book pages to canvas and tearing off pieces, leaving behind layered fragments. In 2000, Dettmer began to experiment by gluing and cutting into books."

"Dettmer's current work involves the alteration of preexisting media to transform the physical form and/or to selectively remove and reveal content to create new works of fine art. Dettmer explains: 'Old books, records, tapes, maps, and other media frequently fall into a realm that too much of today’s art occupies. Their intended role has decreased or deceased and they often exist simply as symbols of the ideas they represent rather than true conveyers of content.'"

"When an object's intended function is fleeting, the necessity for a new approach to its form and content arises. A large body of Dettmer's current work is created by altering books. Dettmer seals, then cuts into older dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, science and engineering books, art books, medical guides, history books, atlases, comic books, wallpaper sample books, and others, exposing select images and text to create intricate three-dimensional derivative works that reveal new or alternative interpretations of the books."

"Dettmer never inserts or moves any of the books' contents. An early example of Dettmer's unique altered books is his 2003 work, New International Dictionary which is an original 1947 unabridged dictionary sealed and carved by Dettmer to expose images within the dictionary. In more recent work, Dettmer has augmented his artistic process by folding, bending, or rolling one or more books before sealing and cutting them or, in some instances, sanding them."

Something in me reacts in the way Maplethorpe describes the response we have to Pornography. In the Whitney Museum Catalog of his work (1988) Ingrid Sischy records in her essay, "A Society Artist," his thinking about his sexual pictures. Maplethorpe says: "I would see a young kid walking down 42nd Street and then go into a magazine storefront, which were places I didn't know anything about. I became obsessed with going into them and seeing what was inside these magazines. They were all sealed, which made them even sexier somehow, because you couldn't get at them. A kid gets a certain kind of reaction, which of course once you've been exposed to everything you don't get. I got that feeling in my stomach, it's not a directly sexual one, it's something more potent than that. I thought if I could somehow bring that element into art, if I could somehow retain that feeling, I would be doing something that was uniquely my own".

We are drawn to it, we want to push it away. It is this push-me, pull-me feeling I get when I look at Dettmer's autopsies of books. The dead body of print has been laid out on the artist's slab. His knives and saws have exposed surfaces we had not seen, altering permanently the artifact.

It is like the stories we hear about Ruskin who took scissors to his copies of William Blake's prophetic books to create greeting cards from the pretty pictures, leaving the "obscurant" text on the floor, mutilating treasures we now regret are lost.

How many times do we go into the Print seller's shop and see books reduced to framable art one page at a time? How many times to we go to the antique shop and see vellum sheets from Medieval song books sold one page at a time? I imagine that in the 18th century there would have been pages of the Gutenberg Bible on sale in the print seller's shop, too.

So the book is being reduced, expanded, transformed, made into wall art, into yet another look pretty. Better a meditation on books and their cultural value to us, I suppose, than pulping them and turning them into toilet paper.

Here is a video of a Detimer exhibition which in some odd way feels more like a wake than an art exhibition.

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