As physical books are increasingly supplanted by their digitized counterparts, the trend of sculptors transforming books into art objects has taken off. Whether as an attempt to preserve some element of a dying tradition or repurpose items that many now see as disposable, book art is everywhere. And although many examples of it are twee or fetishistic, every once in a while, a particularly bizarre, original, or aggressive work catches our eye and makes us reconsider books as we know them. We’ve rounded up some remarkable examples after the jump, from The Catcher in the Rye encrusted in crystals to a book armored with sharp nails.
Alexis Arnold, The Catcher in the Rye
Yes, that’s J.D. Salinger’s most famous novel, splayed open and covered in crystals. And it’s not the only book Arnold has transformed into a gem-like object — she’s decorated everything from Crime and Punishment to the San Francisco phone book, as well as several periodicals, in sparkly clusters of Borax. According to her artist statement, the sculptor is fascinated by “visual displays of decay and growth,” and by speeding up these natural cycles in her work, Arnold seeks to explore “the aesthetics of these once-utilitarian objects that are entering the world of obsolescence, as well as acts to suggest past narratives and post-human futures laden with nostalgia, wonder, and the interminable progression of time.” See more of her crystal-covered books at Beautiful/Decay.
Doug Beube, Xpulsion
Don’t feel bad if you’re not sure what’s going on in the sculpture above — it’s one of Doug Beube’s many exceedingly strange works that incorporate books (yes, that’s what the Rolodex-looking thing on the right is) in unexpected ways. In Xpulsion, the book is connected by a rubber tube to a bowling ball covered in tiny springs to evoke a land mine. “The original book, Xman, by Michael Brodsky, has no indented paragraphs and appears to be a continuous and endless line of printed text. The life threatening implication of reading or touching the altered book could explode into the surrounding area leaving its indelible mark of shattered black letters, broken phrases and tattered pages,” Beube explains. Visit the artist’s website to see more of his work, including quite a bit more book art.
Noriko Ambe, A Thousand Self
Japanese artist Noriko Ambe has made several works that involve cutting an already existing book, but this one is by far the most unsettling. A Thousand Self finds the artist slicing into Neil Selkirk’s 1000 on 42nd Street, which compiles 1000 photos of faces, thereby transforming two of the photographer’s subjects into odd alien creatures with multiple eyes. See more of Ambe’s work at her website, and try not to dream of these guys beaming you up tonight.
Barton Lidicé Beneš, Censored Book
Dating back to 1974, well before book art was a full-blown fad, Beneš’s Censored Book clearly expresses the artist’s feelings on freedom of expression. Bound and pierced with nails, the volume is as much a martyr as any saint — but the piece is also wittier and less self-righteous than that might suggest. Telling the story of how the sculpture came to be, Beneš said, “I was once on a train going to Philadelphia reading a biography of Nixon, and I started scratching it out as I read it, and by the time I got to Philadelphia I had scratched the whole book out. After that I started nailing books shut and tying them up.” Meanwhile, if you’ve never seen Beneš’s more recent work, we encourage you to take a look.
Brian Dettmer, The Household Physicians
One of book art’s most skillful and prolific practitioners, Brian Dettmer uses an X-Acto knife to slice into all manner of vintage tomes, from art monographs to encyclopedias, often fusing together multiple volumes to create one sprawling monster of a book. While his work often has eerie qualities — the sculptures remind us of that moment in so many kids’ stories when a child opens a book and something magical flies out — the 2008 piece The Household Physicians is the one we’d most expect to see in a horror movie. Veins, organs, and bones, oh my! To see more of Dettmer’s work, visit our feature on the artist or peruse his website.
Nick Georgiou, Five Eye Bouquet
Troubled by the death of print media and our increasingly digitized world, Tucson-based artist Georgiou makes often surreal and morbid sculptures entirely out of books and periodicals. Inspired by the motifs of his Southwest home and evoking such masters as Van Gogh and Picasso, he has created some seriously nightmarish masks and statues out of newspaper. But what really caught our, um, eye is this piece, which disrupts our expectations for that cliché still life of a vase of flowers while also rivaling scary clown paintings for the title of “scariest thing you could hang on your wall.” See more of Georgiou’s work at his website.
Jonathan Callan, America in Ireland in Invertebrate Structure
When it comes to book art, English artist Jonathan Callan has a knack for making the familiar strange. In giant sculptures, he twists paperbacks into enormous accumulations, coloring their edges to create patterns that sometimes recall Bob Dylan’s hair in that famous Milton Glaser poster. A smaller piece, Mass, finds an unidentifiable black blob oozing out from between the pages of a vintage Penguin title. But 2002’s America in Ireland in Invertebrate Structure strikes us as particularly strange, giving the sense of a book that’s both been ravaged with rot and bursting forth with new life. See more of Callan’s work here.
Sasha Meret, Aggressive Book
Part of a series called Precious Aggression, an Obsessive Reflection — in which Meret covers such household items as computers, shoes, and bottles in metallic paint and nails — Aggressive Book seems calculated to highlight our relationship to the everyday item. The New York-based artist’s sculpture also provides a fascinating contrast to Barton Lidicé Beneš’s Censored Book, its nails projecting outward with the intent to harm, rather than piercing and binding the book itself. See the rest of Meret’s Precious Aggression project at his Picasa page.
Georgia Russell, Lust for Life
What is it about delicately shredding a paperback into tiny strips that recall feathers and then displaying it in a bell jar that recalls a 19th-century science experiment gone surreal? (Well, you know, besides the obvious fact that a bell jar is a common piece of lab equipment.) By placing the slashed book in this rarefied environment, Russell suggests that it’s both vital and fragile — or maybe that’s just the meaning we’re imparting on the piece, because that’s exactly how we feel about literature these days. See more of Russell’s book art here.
Alicia Martín, Biografias
Finally, we know we just recently spotlighted Alicia Martín’s Biografias — a series of giant sculptures in which books seem to pour out of three buildings’ windows — but it is as weird as anything else on this list, and so wonderful that we’ll use any excuse to give it a shout out. Behold, the life-changing power of literature!