The finest of these paper sculptures is possibly number three. Mongol hordes pour out of a cinema screen into the audience. The cinemagoers are encrusted into their seats, which climb back in steps like those of an amphitheatre. An ant-sized Ian Rankin slurps from a bottle of Deuchars. Alas, the scene has been frozen a second or so before the horsemen set to work on putting their audience to the sword.
In number four, a dragon totters inside a round eggshell, as slender and unsteady as a foal taking its first steps. In number six, a forlorn child with a face made of smashed up bathroom tiles is huddled beneath a tangled foliage of literature. Number eight is apparently the simplest of the sculptures, but upon inspection, its awesome detail will send a shiver down your spine. The artist has painstakingly fashioned a wren’s feathers out of the pages of a book and the texture of a bee’s fur out of paper, no doubt whilst her mind was reduced to a tiny dot which fizzed like a bee with deranged concentration.
Number ten offers a Jekyll and Hyde-like amalgamation of old town Edinburgh tenements and Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel. A paper ball moon bobs overhead; a Victorian damsel panics like a duck under the cleaver.
We are at the “Gifted” exhibition in the Scottish Poetry Library, a cabin full of glossy books which is tucked away down a wynd off the Royal mile. It is the first day of “Gifted” and the exhibition will remain here until December 8th.
I am seething at being in the presence of so much poetry. It is rather like John Knox being obliged to attend a Catholic mass. In my heart, I am most emphatically for prose.
There are ten paper sculptures on display, each of them left by their anonymous creator at one of Edinburgh’s public buildings between March and November 2011 (the sculptures have been photographed for the Central Station website here). The sculptures are dedicated to championing and defending Edinburgh’s literature, with a pointed insistence upon valuing the city’s libraries. The lucky recipients of these artworks were various jewels in Edinburgh’s artistic firmament, including the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the Filmhouse, the National Museum of Scotland, the National Library, and the Scottish Poetry Library itself.
As the city’s foremost literary website, Tychy was delighted to take custody of our own sculpture at our HQ last October. It had been left beside the office toaster: a scale model of the Meadows, lovingly crafted out of papier-mâché from the shredded remains of an original folio edition of Allan Ramsay’s masterpiece The Gentle Shepherd. Unfortunately, I was lacking a costume for that week’s Halloween party, and so with great regret, I broke apart the sculpture and used it to make a tree-lined bonnet and body suit. Thus dressed as the Meadows, I was a sensation. Yet I was unable to piece the sculpture back together again after the party. I still cannot tell which bit is Jawbone Walk and which the Boys Brigade Walk. For this reason, it remains excluded from “Gifted.”
Each of the sculptures has erupted out of an old book. Most of the sculptures are judicious in their selection of an epigraph from a great man of letters who was in some way connected with Edinburgh. James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edwin Morgan and Norman MacCaig are all quoth, whilst David Hume, Rabbie Burns, James Boswell and Walter Scott are not. Today’s crime novelist Ian Rankin has been particularly well thumbed by this artist. Where idealism is not forthcoming from Edinburgh’s literature, the artist has cribbed lines from the social reformers Robert Owen and Patrick Geddes.
This exhibition is installed upstairs in a modest platform gallery. Each sculpture is mounted inside its own glass tank. The sculptures are superbly designed and executed, but I am yet to be convinced that they are wholly art. The meaning of these objects derives from the audacity and mysterious generosity of their creator. They are most profound as a gimmick.
The mystery behind the artist’s identity is purely aesthetic, rather than tendering a practical puzzle. The only certainty about the artist is that she is somebody whom we will have never heard of. These sculptures were created by Linda Bryce. Or Paula MacDonald. Or Gillian Campbell. The sculptor must have a studio somewhere piled with sketches, drafts, minor works and magnum opuses. A life of art is not a project which one can ever complete. Or perhaps this artist can retire as suddenly as she had apparently emerged. The oddest characteristic of these sculptures is their smooth absence of any artistic progression. The first one is just as polished as the tenth, and there is no sense of technical development or of a creativity being jolted by ambition or inspiration.
If I really numbered amongst Edinburgh’s artistic nomenklatura, I would know this artist’s identity. Indeed, I am paranoid that everybody at this exhibition’s opening knows who the artist is, aside from myself. There was nothing haphazard about the public appearances of these sculptures, and one suspects that each discovery was a carefully controlled event. At my own workplace, the artworks would have been briefly admired, put on a shelf and then forgotten about. Or else they would have been consigned to “lost property”: a gigantic subterranean cavern filled with umbrellas and rucksacks going all the way back to the 1950s.
It is probably all a sly, cosy conspiracy. At the poetry library, they no doubt talk openly about the identity of the sculptor. But when the cleaning lady passes with her mop, their voices will fall to whispers. Or they will converse in French.
Yet as I have already intimated, there is an undeniable depth to the gimmickry of this project, and it is more than a little morbid. The seventh piece – a book with a magnifying glass perched on top of it – proclaims that, “LIBRARIES ARE EXPEANSIVE.” If the sculptor’s quarrel is with cuts to library funding, it has excited surprisingly scant comment that her “enchanting” sculptures are actually the mutilated remains of murdered books. The sculptor’s obsession with crime writing and the media’s cherished mystery over her identity are not merely whimsical. These artworks appear to have been left for the public to find like Jack the Ripper’s disembowelled victims.
Perhaps the most relevant precedent from Edinburgh lore is that of the seventeen miniature coffins, complete with wooden corpses, which were discovered on the Crags in 1836, and subsequently referenced in Rankin’s 2001 crime novel The Falls. The mystery behind these witchy dolls has never been cracked, although the number of the dolls corresponds (according to most accounts) with that of the seventeen known men and women who were murdered by Burke and Hare prior to 1828, possibly indicating that the dolls enacted a symbolic reburial of those whose bodies were obliterated in Dr Robert Knox’s anatomy theatre.
If so, the mutilation is here inverted. With the dolls, the murdered victims were buried complete and pieced back together again, whilst the books from the sculptor’s own library have been resurrected inside out and ripped to pieces.
It is also worth noting that the philistinism of these sculptures involves an inversion of our normal means of reading. The cold dead letters from a certain book may indeed cause our imaginations to produce living images of a rampaging dinosaur or of a spooky Edinburgh tenement. Yet in these sculptures, the books are annihilated and in their stead, the living pictures which they might have created freely in our minds have been fixed into dead material objects. These sculptures thieve from the reading mind; they declare the fundamental contract between author and reader to be null and void.
Can one really unearth mental pictures from a book and then freeze them into sculptures? For all of the epigraphs which are sprinkled across this exhibition, the one which may best encapsulate the work of the Edinburgh book sculptor can be taken from Gulliver’s trip to the academy of Lagado. “He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers…”
[Tychy previously wrote about Edinburgh’s libraries here. Ed]