I recently came across the works of Su Blackwell, a British artist who crafts fantastic paper art from pages out of books. From used books she finds at various venues, Blackwell creates delicate sculptures using only the pages from the tomes she utilizes as foundations, inspiration for the visuals derived from the literary works themselves. They are living illustrations from the words and pages themselves.
No doubt the above piece is extraordinary in its detail and visual splendor. However, the first thing that came to my mind when I first encountered Blackwell’s work was not the outstanding craftsmanship or the originality of her work, but my initial aversion to the nature of destroying books. Growing up as an avid reader and a Jew, the book, the object itself, is a sacred artifact. It doesn’t matter to me whether the book is an archaic relic, a classic, a religious tome, a trashy modern novel or anything remotely acquainted with an aura – it is holy to me. In the past I have felt enourmous guilt in taking part in any form of book destruction – writing in a school textbook, creasing a spine, tearing or staining pages. My first reaction to Blackwell’s work was as though I had been punched in the gut – I could not fathom murdering such a hallowed item. Essentially, her art is death.
Of course, Blackwell addresses this problem head-on in the Telegraph profile:
“I began feeling guilty about cutting up the books but I had the integrity that I would create something magical from it. My reasoning is that half of the books have been sat on shelves for years anyway, or that they were about to be thrown away and destroyed forever. It’s very complex working on such a small-scale. They can take up to two months to complete.”
And according to the article,
“She saw paper being used in spiritual ceremonies “to mark the passing of the dead” and says it reminded her of her own work – giving old objects a ‘new lease of life’.”
I believe there is merit to Blackwell’s self-justification. Is it not better for the book to be used to further the object’s artistic value (extending from literary to visual) than for it to waste away its life on a shelf? I’m also intrigued by the idea of words on paper actually becoming visual entertainment as opposed to just inciting it. Blackwell’s work literalizes the ability of the mind’s-eye to visualize from words on the page, something humans take for granted, and provokes a number of debates and questions in doing so. For instance, how do the paper sculptures lend themselves to the idea of a book as objet d’art and the what IS the ontological nature of a book if it can no longer but read but only be viewed? Furthermore, why do Blackwell and I describe books with anthropomorhizing terms such as “life,” “death,” and “rebirth.” Is the book just an extension of the author itself, thus envoking my disgust at the idea of destroying such things? Or is this something I’m going to have to take up with Roland Barthes?