An Interview with Brian Dettmer

Brian Dettmer, Yoknapatawpha County, 2020, 48 x 41 x 1", paperback books, acrylic varnish. Photo courtesy of Robert Saarnio.

By Jacqueline Knirnschild



Brian Dettmer, Do It Complete Yourself Man, 2010, 18.5 x 20.5 x 4 in, paperback books, acrylic varnish. Photo courtesy of Robert Saarnio.



Using clamps, knives, tweezers and surgical tools, artist Brian Dettmer meticulously transforms vintage books into carved-out sculptures that reveal and enliven the intricacies of image and text lying latent behind the cover. Dettmer’s work offers a meditation on the cultural shift in the distribution of information from paper to digital and challenges the viewer to reassess their perceptions of the written word by exploring issues of accessibility, permanence, reinvention and truth.



Dettmer’s recent exhibit at the University of Mississippi Museum and Rowan Oak, Hardcovers and Paperbacks, is on display in an online digital format until September 5, 2020.



Jacqueline Knirnschild: Is there a specific creative project from your childhood that is memorable to you?


Brian Dettmer: I don’t remember where I got the idea. I feel like it was from a Looney Tunes cartoon, but when I was around 8, I carved an empty space in a dictionary to hide my sheets of codes and “spy” gear. I didn’t think of this as art at the time, but I suppose it was my first altered book.



I see parallels between your work and the scientific exhibition, Bodies… The Exhibition, which showcased human bodies that have been preserved through a process called plastination and dissected to display bodily systems. Both your work and Bodies show viewers the almost fantastical innerworkings of a complex system that are obscured from the outer, first appearance. Do you see your work as corporeal in nature?


I have seen this exhibition and thought of these parallels. I have always been interested in the merging of art and science, work that is unclear where it lands and that has the potential to educate but also allow us to appreciate the way things look. I think of the book as a body and my work as a dissection or excavation of that body for understanding and exploration. The only thing that makes a book a book, rather than just a story or collection of words, is its body. Many of my early works, and works I still do today, are with anatomy and medical books. The subject and my process think of the book as a body and connect the book to the body. I think this is part of the reason we feel that books are alive. They are dynamic, full of life, and have endless potential, until they become older, outdated and pass on.



Brian Dettmer, Parenthetical, 2016, jeach piece 60x19x1.5 inch (60″x60″ installed), hardcover books, acrylic varnish. Photo courtesy of Robert Saarnio.



Some of your pieces involve a book that is spread wide open, while others involve stacks of books that are sanded down into spherical shapes and others maintain the conventional box-like structure. Could you talk about how you decide which structure to use for each piece?


There are many metaphors to explore with the book. The book is a body, but it is also a machine, a landscape, or a living organism. I can use forms to explore these metaphors but also ideas of compression, expansion and the erosion of information. I began by making works in their rectangular form and carving windows into the front, but over the years I have tried to push the possibilities of the form. The sanded books become more organic, more like landforms or early forms of life. Sanding softens and seals the book in a peculiar way that brings it back to its wooden ancestors, while also working as a way of transforming or eroding the pages into something almost unidentifiable.



Could you talk about the relationship between images and text that is present in your work? Where do you generally want the viewer’s eye to be drawn first?


I suppose that a viewer will take in the work as a whole as an image first and images might pop out first and then you begin to explore the words, much like the way we see conventional illustrated books. It’s impossible to not look at the images first, and then read the text. I am interested in a flattening or equalizing of text and image. One doesn’t just illustrate or describe the other. They bounce off of each other, and the relationships are endless. Fracturing the clarity of both image and text breaks down a clear reading and allows for more possibilities and more connections within the work. We read the text and create images in our head, and when we see images, we use language to make sense of them. So, I think that these can be interchangeable, and I am interested in how shifting their function plays with the balance and relationship between the two.





You embrace a more Dada approach when it comes to your process of carving into books—you do not pre-plan which pages, images or texts will become integral to the piece and instead relinquish control to the book by letting yourself discover the contents page by page. Have you ever had the desire to take more control by pre-planning? How do you think this Dada approach affects the final product?


I always have the desire for control and have found that the set of rules I have established helps break down this desire and allow for more freedom and creativity. By sealing the books before I begin carving, I am giving up this control and adapting and responding as I go. This allows the book itself to tell me what it wants to become. Dictionaries and encyclopedias already have an inherent randomness or juxtaposition of ideas and images on each page. My work tries to make small connections within the pages but also presents what was an informative tool as art, or as an artifact. We all tend to make stories and connections when confronted with randomness. We want to make sense of the world, but there is something freeing about allowing ourselves to not understand something when we know understanding is impossible. Much like life, I can’t control what will happen next, only the way I will respond to it.



With the massive changes our world has seen since January, we are all grappling with different ways of viewing the world and each other while artists continue to create. Has your creative process and work been affected by this pervading sense of crisis we are experiencing today? What role do you think your art plays during this time of crisis, change and uncertainty?  


This is something I have been grappling with in the studio. My work tends to take on new meaning as the way we view information and books in general shifts in new ways. My work began as a questioning of what is lost and what is gained as things shift to a digital format. In recent years, we have seen how truth can be manipulated; how malleable mediums like the internet and social media can harness and facilitate mistruths and break down the stability of facts. I think that makes my work even more relevant today. We need facts, but we also need to question the voices, structures and perspectives of our past and find new ways of looking at things so that we don’t make the same mistakes and can correct for the future.



Brian Dettmer, Yoknapatawpha County, 2020, 48 x 41 x 1″, paperback books, acrylic varnish. Photo courtesy of Robert Saarnio.



Some people believe that with the rise of digital technology, the book is endangered, but you’ve been quoted to say that the book will never really die, it will just be free to quit its day job in the same way painting became free with the rise of photography and printmaking. When the book is free of the everyday chore of conveying information, what do you think will become of it? In fifty years, what do you think a tangible book will look like?


I think books will look the same for the most part. They will probably become smaller and shorter to adapt for accessibility or speed, but some books will do the opposite- become larger and more material-based coffee books – objects that can be displayed and treasured. The book, and the idea of sitting down and reading a book in your home, is becoming more and more of a rarified thing – something you have to make time for and go out of your way to pursue. We will still need libraries and ways to research pre-internet information. I think we are already seeing (in my work and in the work of others) an exploration of the form/format and ways to expand or understand what the book means. We have artists books, book art, and digital books. The possibilities are endless, and as books become more obscure and less necessary day to day, bookmakers will probably put more time into making an object that is more than just an information tool.



What inspired you to make Yoknapatawpha County? What do you hope viewers will gain from this piece?


When I was presented with the opportunity to have a small set of works at Rowan Oak, the home to William Faulkner and his family for over 40 years, I felt it was a great opportunity to work with Faulkner’s books. It is an honor to have them displayed in his former home. I was familiar with Faulkner, a fan of his work, and had read The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying years ago, but by no means can I claim to be a scholar or expert on his work. I had done some research and found his fictional maps of Yoknapatawpha County that labeled the locations of many of his novels, and I thought it would be great to make a work with copies of all of his novels that are set there. I hope that the work will help pull people into his work. On a narrative or storytelling level, my alterations pale in comparison to his work, but his language is so vivid and the mood of the books so strong, that opportunities for vivid poetry and fragments of mood break through. Hopefully the piece can pull people into a fictional landscape the way Faulkner’s work does and show the depth and richness of his material.





Jacqueline Knirnschild is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.