Rough treatment

Damaging books is a controversial type of activity, one that generally fails to amuse librarians, who are forever on the look out for signs of wanton behaviour and naturally its perpetrators. A No Pens Policy as it is termed means no quills or ball points in the reading rooms at the British Library for instance. Back in 2003 Cambridge University library service published a series of explicit images online of unacceptable damage to library books, so called Class Z, including a volume used as a dog chew, while more recently University College Dublin library set up a webpage http://libguides.ucd.ie/bookcarecampaign/culprits dedicated to warning what it calls “culprits”, namely commentators, highlighters, doodlers, dreamers and of course the dreaded snipper not to abuse their library stock, particularly, as they claim, defacement interferes with the assistive software used by partially sighted students. In many respects this campaigning attitude is a hangover from the Victorian era when fouled pages from incunables were sometimes de-greased and bleached in hydrochloric acid or caustic potash baths to rid them of those irritating marginal annotations or adversaria made by early modern readers. In The Enemies of Books (1880), the inappropriately named William Blades listed some ever-present hazards: rainwater, fire, Greek worm, rats, house flies, bindery ploughs, bigotry, theft (ie the latterday rare book mutilator Farhad Hakimzadeh). Although Bill Sherman’s Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (2007) has changed attitudes in some quarters, treating cosmetic reader’s marks as supplementary to the original printed text and opening up a whole new area of scholarship, librarians and conservators still remain fearful of vandals, which is why it’s refreshing that the staff at Westminster Reference Library in London have allowed ‘Bookend’, an installation of modified books by Nick Cash & Matt Hale into their building.

Housed in three reclaimed metal shelving units, Cash & Hales’s display of bibliographic aberrations trace the summary declension of reading matter into object matter, ie ink, cellulose, board, linen binding and so on. This breakdown is wilful, a series of violent physical assaults on de-accessioned reference books that “breach the usual terms and conditions” as Neal Brown puts it in his exhibition notes; a huge understatement! In fact these ‘bookmorphs’ belong to an emergent post 2nd World War branch of sculpture to be found on a spectrum of interventions ranging from the theatrical cut-out fantasies of Alexander Korzer-Robinson, to Michael Gibbs’s bloody limited edition Wounded Book (1979), and John Latham’s infamous burning ‘skoob’ towers. The nameless contents of ‘Bookend’ sit at the pulp end of this scale, a result of crushing, baking, sugar treatment, sawing in half, Dremelising©, drilling, mollusc damage, bathing in water, cremation, mildew flowers, unburial etc. Videos of the two maniacal artist/curators at work –their faces are never shown- can be watched through paper apertures cut into hardbacks that frame their screens. Clever stuff, as the films record key processual moments that went into the making of these ‘bookmorphs’: a hole bored by a hot steel rod, a conflagration in suburban woodland as a textbook gets reduced to ‘bio-char’ -to use Greville Worthington’s term- or the pages of a book posed on a demolition site, in this case the former brutalist icon Birmingham City Library, pages fluttering in the breeze; yet another reject title floating downriver Pooh sticks style. Hale points out “joining ideas, actions and objects on an equal level was something we were for and aware we were doing” (email 19 October 2016). Furthermore details of many exhibited pieces are also indexed as tipped-in images, replacing the coloured plates of quattrocento masterpieces in a ten volume set of Bernard Berenson’s Phaidon published Italian Painters of the Renaissance. In short, Matt Hale, a long standing member of staff at Art Monthly, might be said to have taken quite literally the magazine’s bold strapline ‘Taking art apart since 1976’.

‘Bookend’ gives off an ergotic whiff of damp, and if you are using the library itself for research, the feint whine of a power tool can be heard in the background, noise leaking from one of the embedded video devices. Cash & Hale have laid out their work as if jetsam stranded in a surreal dreamscape or nightmare, lumpen things beyond the pale, top shelf literature here consisting of a rotten tome grow bagging a holly bush, the individual pieces emitting a collective force backed by their self-reflexive documentation. Westminster Art Reference library itself is steadily developing a reputation as a risk taking space thanks to its recent bibliographically biased shows featuring Linda Toigo’s pop-up confections, and Elaine Robinson’s ‘Turning ‘ages’. Now Cash and Hale have rocked the book that bit harder, as if returning the crude gesture often employed by municipal librarians’ of tearing out the front papers of withdrawn stock (to prevent resale by dealers), but with compound interest.

‘Bookend’ was at Westminster Reference Library, LONDON WC2, 4 – 22 October 2016.