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recycled library: altered books exhibition

Alex Selenitsch's Schach #1 (circle) / Schach #2 (triangle) / Schach #3 (square), 2006

It was with trembling knees and more than just a little trepidation that I entered the State Library of NSW to check out the exhibition Recycled Library: Altered books. I’ve always been taught to treat my books with care (even second hand books bought for $1 from Vinnies) and I was about to enter what some have called a land of book torture. I was horrified. I felt worried on behalf of the book that lay within the safety of my handbag. Was it too late to break these books out and sticky tape them back together to their former glory? This exhibition seemed to be attacking something that I love dearly. Or was it actually celebrating these objects that seem to be drifting out of people’s lives?

When you enter the exhibition you are greeted with two cavernous, dark exhibition rooms filled predominantly with books. It feels quite strange at first as most works are (obviously) book sized and it feels rather empty. There’s also the problem of a touring exhibition of books, turned artworks, which is that you can’t touch them, despite the importance of the fourth dimension of these works, “with the fourth dimension being time taken to handle, open and ‘read’.” Where these artworks usually live, at Artspace Mackay, visitors are allowed to experience this relationship between the viewer and the work by touching them and thumbing through them. Obviously in a touring exhibition this can’t be achieved so the artworks become even more like objects in an old-fashioned curiosities cabinet. It almost makes you feel sorry for these captured, battered and beaten books in their little glass resting places. Is this where books are heading? Savaged by kindles, ibooks, audio books and online publications (yes, I note the irony). I know that for me books will always have a special place on my shelf and in my hands, but this exhibition makes you think about the object that is the book as it’s ripped and torn apart, bound and nailed.

Kylie Stillman's Buff-tailed thornbill, 2005

In Stigmata and Codex Series coloured nails are driven through books to sacrifice one object: the book, to make another: the artwork. The books are impaled with nails and the words within them, where meaning is derived from, are obscured. There is also a strange rhythmic aesthetic beauty created from the pattern of the nails and there is also a secret code made from the letters that each nail touches. In Schach #1 (circle) / Schach #2 (triangle) / Schach #3 (square) Alex Selenitsch carves into books and in Maltheism Archie Moore creates a pop-up church in the folded pages from the Bible. These artworks delve into the creation of meaning found within the object that is the book in an interesting way.

Whether it is celebrating the printed page or announcing its death, this exhibition is working checking out before it finishes this Friday, 22 June at the State Library of NSW or on tour elsewhere. Just make sure you hide your books.

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