One of my greatest interests is working with a specific material and using its characteristics, such as the objects popular associations, physical qualities, or structural integrates to help define a sculpture or installation. While in my undergrad, I spend much time talking with my professor, Chris Lavery, and fellow students during critiques about how to use a material to your advantage. In art making, especially sculpture and installation where you can use pretty much anything, the materials you choose can easily make or break your work. In other words, the materials bring a lot of meaning that cannot go unconsidered because it greatly influences the meaning of your piece. With that said, this presentation is about looking at a specific material, the book, and exploring how this object can be worked with, against, and surprisingly transformed.
Working WITH a Material
artists: Brian Dettmer, Maya Lin
Organic Chemistry, 2008
This first image titled Organic Chemistry is the work by Chicago born artist Brian Dettmer. He currently lives and works in Atlanta and received his BA in Art and Design/Art History from Columbia College right here in Chicago. Dettmer is known for working with objects that are slowly becoming less significant in our ever-evolving world. He describes the used books and old cassette tapes he uses as artifacts of the pre-digital technology era, which gives us a glimpse into how these once popular objects are slowly moving into the background while digital technology continues to advance. Many people refer to Dettmer as an archaeologist of contemporary objects, as a surgeon, or dissector of the disused and an excavator of objects near extinction.
Others view Dettmer’s excavations as creating new relationships and meanings from the alteration of text and image, forcing us to respond with our own loaded impressions and interpretations of books. Since he keeps the books recognizable, the viewer can respond from their own positions, and provoke feelings and memories they have with old books.
Webster’s New Inter Diction
Dettmer uses xacto knives, tweezers, surgical clamps, needle-nose pliers, straight-edges and even pieces of metal that can bend into shapes while creating his sculptures. Can you see why people are referring to him as a surgical master? He also uses glue to help harden the outer surface enabling more concise and easier carving. As he carves deeper into a piece, he continues to add glue to preserve the work he has already done. The process is rigorous and time-consuming, but produces a result that is well worth the time invested.
Dettmer’s objective while he is working on a piece is to keep the inherent qualities of the items intact, while highlighting specific aspects of the book. This can be seen in the first image, Organic chemistry, where he deliberately carves out certain areas to highlight the content of the book. He often creates complex compositions and layers to help communicate what the books is all about. To put it simply, he is working WITH the book.
Another artist that is a great example of working with the book is Maya Lin. A trained artist and architect, she is most known for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial to built Washington, D.C. but has also created large installations, parks, monuments, and sculptures that explore how the individual can become part of the landscape. Above is an image showing how she has used carving into a topographic book as research for her projects. Lin has followed the contours of the topographic lines, transforming the 2D version of a mountain into the 3rd dimension. You can check her out on the ART21 website.
Working AGAINST a Material?
When it comes to sculpture, I often think about problem solving because the artist has the responsiblity to consider the materials being used and come up with ways to either enhance, hinder, or transform the material’s meaning with a purpose in mind. Asking the question, What does it mean to work against a material? can be a fun excercise and challenge for students. This question has the potential to open up the art making process and act as an oppurtunity to explore the possibilities of a material. Below is another piece by Brian Dettmer. I look at this piece and wonder about his intentions. The treatment of the books has led me to think about going against the properties of the book in order to create specific message. What do you think?
Brian Dettmer, title unknown
TRANSFORMING a Found Object
Transforming a found object can be a difficult task since the goal is to surpass the objects original meaning in order to create something completely new. I have not been able to accomplish this endeavor myself and have seen many artists successfully and unsuccessfully work with transforming everyday objects. I have great appreciation for pieces that have moved beyond its original form and have come to possess a certain level of mystery. I love to approach an art piece to be engaged in its story instead of being distracted by what it was made out of. Below are some works that in my view are some great examples of transformation. Enjoy.
Brian Dettmer, Mound 1, 2008
Brian Dettmer, title unknown
Georgia Russell, title unknown
Georgia Russell is a Scottish artist who also uses a xacto knife to create her works. She cuts into books, music scores, maps, newspapers, currency, and photographs to create her incredibly intricate pieces. They are often encased into plastic or glass containers, bringing a hint of scientific inquiry to her work. Her work has also been perceived as an exploration of the relationship between the right and left hemisphere of the brain or how time often causes the dissipation of memories. I look forward to learning more about his artist.
The Story of Art iii 2009
Below are two more images I want to show as examples of transforming an object. These last two pieces by Brian Dettmer, the featured artist in this presentation, are not made out of books, but of old cassette tapes. I may have chosen these pieces due to my recent fascination with antler and animal skulls, but I also believe these works to be great examples of using an object’s physical characteristics over its original form. He has cleverly used a symbol of retro, pop culture art for his own purposes. The cassette tape’s charged meaning does not over take the fact that this piece is inherently an animal skull. The choice of materials and form are appropriate for each other, creating a solid piece with many layers of meaning. I think Brian Dettmer is my new hero.
Ram skull, 2007, altered cassette tapes
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