Friday, 6 March 2015

preserve .... a burnt book

It was my idea last year to suggest to Fiona that we do a 'burn book' and in my mind's eye I thought Fiona would hand me some pages of her lovely delicate burning with which to work, and in exchange I would hand over some very delicate but randomly burnt paper and somehow, magically, a soft pretty kind of burn book would emerge.  Ha!  Things don't often  work out as you see them in your minds' eye and this book couldn't be more different from the one I envisaged.

That being said, the challenge has resulted in a book that I would have to say is probably my favourite.  The resulting book looks quite simple but it took months of head wrangling and stomach aching to reach this point.  Fiona's work is very distinctive and when I was presented with seven pages of her gorgeous calligraphy about the burning of books, and ideas that can't be destroyed but fly onwards, I knew I had some serious thinking to do.  To somehow take apart her work and make it mine, and yet because her words were profound, I needed to find my own words, my own reason for bringing this book into being.

In July last year I committed to a project called 'Absence and Presence' - a printmaking project as part of a large ongoing body of work across the globe called 'Mutanabbi Street Starts Here'.  Instigated and co-ordinated by Beau Beausoleil who is based in San Francisco, this work has been in direct response to the bombing of Al Mutanabbi Street, the cultural precinct of Baghdad in 2007. Home to intellectuals, printers, writers, book shops and coffee shops for centuries.  I have yet to make my prints (I have until July this year) but my mind is always ticking over ideas and thus the burning of books, the destruction of priceless treasures, the preservation of books and so on has been on my mind for some time. For longer still is the heartache I feel every time I read of, or hear of the wilful destruction of libraries and the burning of books.  

I am a great fan of asemic writing and rarely use explicit text in my work.  Never in fact.  this book however has two layers of written text.  Not hugely legible because it is engraved into the perspex with a dremel, but if you try hard you can read what is being said.  The black writing is done on the inside of the book and then inked so in fact the writing is then reversed.  I have listed some of the atrocities perpetrated by human intent upon libraries from pre 206BC when Qin Shi Huang had order the burning of books and burying of scholars in Xianyang, Qin China through to the latest heartbreak in Mosul were ISIS burnt 8000 rare books and manuscripts.  

The burning, and there was a great deal of it done to these pages, and then the writing down of these details about the destruction of Libraries throughout history, left me feeling quite desolate.  I had downloaded an article about the burning of books in Mosul by ISIS in the Fiscal Times by Riyadh Mohammed written on February 23 about half way through the article was this lovely passage ...

'900 years ago, the books of the Arab philosopher Averroes were collected before his eyes ..... and burned.  One of his students started crying while witnessing the burning. Averroes told him ..... the ideas have wings .... but I cry today over our situation.'

I thought about using those words ' ideas have wings' in this book, but instead, wrote on the outside of the book, or I should say engraved with an etching needle, the words from one of my very favourite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins - God's Grandeur.  You can read these words quite clearly if you go hunting across the pages - they don't leap out but they are there.  I have included a copy of this poem at the end of this post.

In my previous post I did mention that there had been enormous difficulties in the making of this book and many of those were due to the structure/construction of the perspex.  I was going to write of these difficulties but really, they are not important.  I am pleased with the result of this book and though it certainly is not the first perspex book I have made, I have included new ideas and techniques in this one which I will use again.  This collaboration of Fiona's and mine certainly does push us but each time we complete a book, we find we have learnt something new about techniques and mostly about ourselves and the way we see and thus make.

I do need to add for those of you who may be looking around for the burnt paper which was to be my contribution, and with which you have seen me play in the last couple of posts.  I decided not to use any of it.  The paper added nothing to the concept of this book and felt superfluous so I felt quite happy to just put it aside.

a pity to have to photograph the book with a white paper background as you lose the effect of the burnt fragments being suspended in the perspex - much like specimens on a slide

this photo gives you a better idea of the floating and layering between pages

some evidence of my text
pity about my reflection - or the cameras' reflection

do love this blue and will intentionally be bringing blue over and through some of my earthy work

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89).  Poems.  1918.
7. God’s Grandeur
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;        5
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        10
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


  1. wow, what a great resolving!

    1. many thanks Mo - yes, a lovely resolution for us both after all the angst.

  2. Hi SB - thanks for sharing the detail of your burnt book. Congratulations to you and Fiona for persisting with the collaboration - not always easy with so many competing demands. Go well. B

    1. as you have witnessed, it has been really touch at times but both of us would attest to how much this collaboaration has meant to us, has pushed us and has opened us up to new ideas.

  3. A really beautiful and meaningful book for me Susan. As you know I like to be moved by the horrors and tragedies of this world.

  4. Many thanks Helen. I am coming more and more to the point where I like to have something to say with the art I make though I think I will always have the element within which jsut loves the mark because it sings and then perches. HOpefully quite beautifully! Doesn't happen all the time ......
    I am really enjoying working to statement though ...... it give me more of a challenge and shows me that I can still make art which feels like me, and yet has something strong to say as well.

  5. Susan this is just beautiful. And I love the blue too. I wish I could peek over your shoulder see how you work with Perspex. Is that Plexiglas in US speak? It is such a classy presentation, and I do love well done presentation....I think it makes or breaks the work.

    1. Thank you so much Lesie. I am thrilled you lke this book. Yes, it is bound in plexiglass - pretty difficult to use in fact and I have engraved and inked the writing on the inside, and then engraved the outside too. The stress is making sure it is absolutely clean before you stitch or seal it. The even larger problem is trying to photograph this books as my book floats within the perspex and reflects absolutely everything about it ..... including that gorgeous blue! xx promise to write soon

  6. What a treasure, Susan! The book came out beautifully, and truly does possess that quality of a treasure. I just love the way the perspex has allowed for such rich, but also ethereal, layering (nice imagery of a "specimen slide"). I so enjoyed learning about all the details & discoveries you shared as well. Funny that the difficulties - the angst! - are not at all evident. After struggling with countless, tiny details (and some big ones as well) on a project I always wonder how they could have been avoided, but I suppose it's simply an element that we must accept when creating something that has not existed before. Your efforts have been well rewarded, and how exciting to have a new "favorite" book!

    1. hello Lisa - I have literally just arrived home from New Zealand. Well, a couple of hours ago! Thank you for this thoughtful comment and yes, it is lovely to have a new favourite book. I do wish you could see it properly as all the imagery literally does just float and the layers are readable as they close over eachother and because they read front and back, there is always a lovely interaction between all the pages. At the completion of a book you forget all the angst and yet somehow things that seemed so difficult, in the end seem so simple, and so right. Love it when those creative elements just sift slowly into place.

  7. There is something so delicate and yet enduring about these burnt papers... they survived and became something new.. with edges and smudges and textures that can't be copied or replicated... all very lovely.

  8. Many thanks Donna. You are right in saying there is a delicacy in the burnt pages - I loved some of the fragments that jsut came away in the burning and I glued a few of these on to the perspex to give the sense of that frailty. Lots of course came away but I didn't want the book to look too fussy. That which reads as smudge marks is actually very careful smoking of the pages - hoping that I managed to smoke and not burst into flame. I had much practice years ago when using tapers to smoke my etching plates. I don't do that any more but the idea is/was the same. I confess that smoking did turn into burning in a couple of instances but I rather liked the results ....


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