At age four, I was so taken with the illustrations of one of my favourite books, that I attempted to repeat the designs in the margins of the page, then over the drawing itself, and then over the drawings on every page. So beloved and well used was this one particular book that my mother had to wrap the entire spine in gaffa tape to prevent it from disintegrating completely. It was only years later while cleaning that I found it again, more or less intact, crayola still smeared across each page, and remembered fondly how important it had been to my younger self and how many hours I’d spent poring over its pages.
While modern technology is capable of giving us intuitive access to texts with the convenience of a handheld library, there is something in this fragility of books that I love, their mortality so to speak, and the relationships we form not just with the text, but with the objects themselves. For many of us they represent specific moments of our personal history, and unlike the digital version, they bear the marks of their life with us—dog eared pages, battered covers, notes scribbled in their margins, even crayola stains.
As the role of the book in contemporary society continues to be questioned with the introduction of technology like the e-reader, many artists are making work which responds to these issues of significance. Laying bare the mechanisms of form and function, they work to deconstruct the idea of the book, seeking a new kind of relevance. Their work is incredibly diverse, suggesting that despite the rise of digital media, the book’s place as a means for artistic expression is still evolving.Nicholas Jones is a Melbourne based book sculptor whose work, Peters Atlas of the World is featured on the cover of Meanjin’s Spring edition. His studio is located on the seventh floor of the Nicholas building, which he shares with milliner, Mandy Murphy. The space is divided lazily between them. Bolts of fabric and half finished hats line the wall on one side, while piles of books spill out from small wooden shelves along the other.
Jones himself is tall and mustachioed and recalls a kind of 19th century French flâneur. He is part bibliophile, part bricoleur. His work has been featured in a number of publications, including Make the Common Precious (Craftsman House 2005), Book Art (Gestalten 2011) and Where They Create (Frame, 2011). He has exhibited as a solo artist as well as taking part in group shows across Australia and overseas. Even those who aren’t overly familiar with his work have unwittingly encountered it in public libraries or even window displays in Fitzroy or the CBD.
Sarah Weston: I wanted to ask you about the beginning of your work – you’ve cited Derrida and Deleuze as influences—
Nicholas Jones: I hope you’re not going to ask me about them—that was many years ago, and I was slightly better read than I am now. That’s an interesting point though, the beginning of things. As they gain momentum, as you become more comfortable with the nature of making, it’s almost as if that’s a shell that’s left behind, that whole more theoretical side of things. I think you can begin with some very high flutin’ philosophical ideas underpinning what you’re doing— then the more you go, the more it becomes just about making.
SW: You spent time at the VCA, studying sculpture—what was your time there like, and what role do you feel it has played in your current work?
NJ: Well, it was the mid-90s—it doesn’t sound like too long ago, but in terms of what’s happened historically, I can kind of think that it was quite a long time ago. I guess within the first couple of years of the Internet really taking hold and in terms of the way we were looking at books and information transfer, that was a really interesting time. Everyone said, ah, the book’s dead, people will be reading information off computers or I think there were some very early kindles, digital readers that had been released then. It had that sort of fantasy, ‘end of the century’ feeling to it. And I was naturally drawn to making work with books. That also more came out of a—I had creative block, I just didn’t know what to do. I had been working with more traditional materials, wood, clay, stone, bronze, aluminium, all of these sorts of things that are more what you go to university to study how to work with. It was the end of my second last semester—I had no ideas at all. I was very lucky in that one of my lecturers was an artist who worked with paper and had been working a little bit with books. And she had made a wedding dress out of photocopied pages of a particular book by Lévi Strauss, or someone like this. A really incredible work. So I was always drawn to the more feminine side of things. Then there were the modernist boys who I was being lectured by, who were all about these big triumphal bronze and steel welded things and I was always trying to make the reverse of that. Looking more at crafted things I guess, and that ended up with a really close connection with Craft Victoria, and it’s been quite an interesting, umm… sort of… ah… I just can’t use the word ‘journey’.
SW: I also wanted to ask you about your favourite pieces. Where did you find the original books and how did you choose to work with them?NJ: Well, this doesn’t translate too well to a recording device but…
(Interviewer note: At this point I should probably mention that Jones sort of leaps out of his chair and bounds towards a long bench lying against a wall in the studio. On it rests a collection of his work from the last few years. The ensemble is visually arresting. Some works have been cut with a scalpel, others have been folded by hand, others still, have been torn and sewn together. The book Jones is looking for is a history of sculpture found at Camberwell Market one Sunday morning. Among its many features, instantly noticeable are the thumb-holds cut into its pages, designed to aid in the opening of the book itself. What singles this book out amongst the many others, is the signature of its previous owner, scrawled on the inside of its front cover—’B. Giacometti’. Suggesting that this book quite possibly belonged to Alberto Giacometti, renowned Swiss sculptor, painter, draughtsman and printmaker. Into this text Jones has worked to cut an imprint of his own hand. Painstakingly tracing its outline with a scalpel and removing the imprint page by page. It’s an impressive and beautiful piece.
Once again seated, Jones’ voice takes on a confessional tone as he says, ‘I feel I probably should reserve some things, as I got a lot of my books, (and here his voice drops to a whisper) from the back of the Baillieu library. I’d had an exhibition there and they actually let me go through the back, and god, some of the books I found— a 1901 Leipzig, in the bin.
SW: So what do you look for in a book to transform? Does the history of the text play a role in your selection or are you just as happy to work with a Dan Brown as you are a Dickens?
NJ: Yes, well, that’s the big question. And any number of things will I guess, suggest… I always look for books that are—whether it has an interesting title or whether there’s something interesting about the author. The quality of the binding, the colour of the covers, whether there’s a gilt edge, it might have a ribbon hanging from it as well. Basically, I’m working with books that have been printed in the last 150 or so years. You’re sort of working with objects from this particular timeframe. So, always looking for the curious, for particularly small books. I guess books that have a really palpable sense of history.SW: I wanted to ask you about working with books as cultural artifacts. The book is given a privileged position in our society as the container of text, sacrosanct, and your work looks at deconstructing this, focusing on the book as an aesthetic object in and of itself. Could you talk a little more about this?
NJ: One of the more difficult aspects of what I do is the natural backlash from people who say, ‘how can you do what you’re doing?’ The whole idea of me making this work is for people to stop and say, hang on, I’ve just thrown half a dozen boxes of books out last week but still I’ve got the chutzpa to hassle this guy for chopping a book up. People are throwing away their history. And I guess the inspiration for that idea came from a book by—do you know Nicholson Baker? The American academic writer, novelist as well. He wrote a book called the Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, which is about American Public Libraries basically transferring information onto microfiche and then throwing the books away—then the microfiche disintegrating. All of this information was lost. Then having to contact people from around the country to try and get it back.
This idea that we are so eager to get rid of things. I think this is a trend that is happening so much more, since there are so many more people in the world. We’re moving into smaller apartments, no one has any room for anything. So basically, we’re pushing ourselves in and in and in and everything has to go out and out and out. I used to walk around my old house and on every street there would be at least a couple of televisions out the front. Technology that has become defunct within a five-year period. My television, which I’m glad I threw away and didn’t buy another one, was only a couple of years old but no one wanted it. And this is the thinking that saddens me so greatly. Hearing these beautiful stories of people in the 40s and 50s, and they’d save up and put aside a week’s wages to buy a bakelite radio. It’s heart wrenching for me—the fact that everything’s about disposability. I don’t know, I think everything isn’t crafted the way it once was. So with extremes you get an extreme reaction. Fast food—you get slow food, fast whatever—and you get me. I like to open up the pages for mystery and the magic of things to emerge. Everyone has a different relationship to a book, whether they’ve not had a lot of experience and might be a bit intrigued or have spent their lives working in libraries or publishing and just have a very different notion of what the book is. I’ve had a lot of support from public libraries around Australia for my work. And then there are people who can’t see the scale of things, of change, of dispatch, who look at what I do and think, how can you do that? I think once you have an idea of publication, the way libraries work—there’s no reason why an odd little man can’t sit in his seventh floor studio with a knife, spending his entire life chopping up books.SW: Has been a project you would like to work on but haven’t been able to because of money, time, or space?
NJ: I’ve had bigger ideas, of making huge mounds of books. Those were ideas I had years and years ago but a lot of them have been done. And I guess this is a problem with lack of funds, resources, that sort of thing. You can have the most grandiose vision but unless you can get it together enough to get funding, you sort of fall into—it becomes a real cycle funding and applying for things and not getting them. Funnily enough, I’ve been doing this for 15 years and the longer I’ve worked—the more comfortable I am with working on a smaller scale. I think I’m sort of doing things in reverse. Hopefully, at the end of my career, I’ll just be working with really tiny books.
But this is probably a very good time to mention my current position as one of the creative fellows at the State Library of Victoria. I was just awarded that a couple of months ago. I’m funded to look at their collection and make work that responds to it. It’s the perfect gig for someone like me. I’ve proposed a project working with the first atlas ever published, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, by Abraham Ortelius, published in Antwerp in 1570. I’ve been making a few pieces in the last couple of years, working with maps, one of which is gracing the cover of Meanjin.
SW: And have you been part of any artist groups that you feel have helped you to get to where you are now?
NJ: Probably the group of people, who have been most generous with their time and helpful, has been Craft Victoria. I actually did a residency at Craft Victoria 10 years ago. I’ve been making my work for 15 years, and I’ve been involved with Craft Victoria for over 10 of those. They actually commissioned someone to make a really short film about me, which has had a lot of views. Apparently, it was the number one video in France on Vimeo for a week‚ so, I’m big in Paris, apparently.
SW: Have you been to France since the video was released?
NJ: Well, I went there three months ago and I was walking around, just waiting for people to say ‘Hey! c’est lui, c’est lui!” It will sound contrived but I’ve always sort of seen myself as operating on the outside—I’ve got lots of friends who are painters, more traditional sculptors or drawers, video artists— people who have groups of people whom they can align themselves with, and it’s just me up in the studio—but that’s o.k. It’s a very small band of people working around the world. I couldn’t find it for you but there’s a book called Book Art, which was published last year in Germany. So I’m in there, with probably about 30 other artists who are working around the world, making things with books. Then there’s another book like that coming out next year, printed in California, and it’s a very small and obscure way of working, but it’s really starting to get a little bit of recognition. In a way, I’m better known for what I do overseas more than for what I am here.
There’s a nostalgia present in Jones' work, fed in part by his choice of materials. The books he chooses to work with have their own aestheticism—produced within the last 150 years or so, the earliest he’s worked with is from the 1850s— which even Jones had reservations around ‘chopping up’ .
The level of craftsmanship applied in their production sets them apart from modern day counterparts. There’s a thickness to their pages and a strength and complexity in their binding. They may possess a gilt edge, embossing across the spine, titles which are sometimes astonishingly unironic in their choice of wording, along with the countless other details we equate with antiquity—anything which as Jones’ puts it, ‘has a palpable sense of history’.
His work his highly intricate, requiring a precision achieved by his use of both bookbinding and surgical tools, and what I can only describe as meticulous and prolific folding. Scalpels, paring knives, awls and surgeon’s needles are just some of the implements he uses to create his designs. In Jones’ hands, text becomes pattern, running in and out of his folds, tears and incisions—suggestive, and yet inaccessible. There’s probably a fondness for geometry here, revealed in the considered relationship of angles, lengths and volumes, and an eye for working with and against an object’s gestalt. The work itself is slow and deliberate; stemming both from precautionary habits, (Jones admits to the odd bloodletting when he rushes) and technical approach. He prefers it this way, the process itself antidotal to the speed and anesthestisation of the machine-made and mass produced.
As individual pieces, Jones’ sculptures speak for themselves, holding an undeniable aesthetic beauty for their observers. But perhaps what is most remarked upon in his work is the nature of his chosen materials.
Conventionally standing as symbols of knowledge and authority, the book has long been identified with the heights of human creativity and imagination. Serving as a physical proof of our own significance, allowing us to document our cultural and intellectual achievements and to render ourselves, and our world in scripture.
In Jones’ work the book is displaced. Its familiar architecture stripped and folded, our access to its text limited. We can no longer interact with them as we would like and are used to—as such they become objects of both invitation and exclusion. Denied the tactile experience of holding a book and turning its pages—and with the boundaries between the visual and linguistic blurred—our conventional relationships to books as objects and containers of knowledge are disrupted, and we are compelled to seek out new ways of relating. Jones’ work provides its audience with the opportunity to reimagine the book’s signification along with our relationships to them as social and cultural artefacts. His manipulation of their form resulting not in the destruction of cultural icons but in their transformation—an act more comparable to conservation rather than iconoclasm.
By playing with the tension of the book as both object and communicator, Jones’ work challenges our assumptions, allowing us to read them in an entirely different way. And while the text still exists in his work, contained not necessarily in the physical object but attached by the ghostly threads of a past intimacy, it is the objecthood of the book that is triumphant.