For those of you that follow us on Instagram, you might have seen some of the pictures I took of romance novel dresses that were being displayed at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. If you haven’t checked them out (online or in person), I highly recommend it. The exhibit, called “Build Her a Myth”, is currently traveling around Illinois and Ohio. The artist, Carrie Ann Schumacher, found a pile of discarded romance novels at her local library and repurposed them, cutting up the books in the process.
I know at least a couple of people are flipping out right now because the books got cut up. And I mean shredded, hole punched, unbound- the works. Those specific books, as in the physical copies, will never be read again. I had to get pretty close to the glass just to make sure some of the dresses were actually entirely made from paper. I know you’re thinking, “BUT THINK OF THE BOOKS!” Don’t worry, we’re gonna dive into this issue, but first here are some pictures.
All I can say is that’s pretty damn impressive.
Now onto the nebulous moral question of making art out of books. I think on a very basic level, books are associated with knowledge, so there’s an automatic correlation with destroying books and censorship. Of course, others might just not be able to imagine this happening to their personal collection.
I think what’s important to remember is that Schumacher found a box of books that would likely have been tossed in the garbage. Though we tend to imagine books lasting forever, that’s simply not the case. Some readers might have personal opinions on the literary merit of romance novels, but when you cast those to the sidelines, the fact is this is taking works of art and transforming them into other works of art. We’re witnessing a propagation of written passion through sculptural, fashion-oriented passion. I can’t imagine the authors of these tomes would object to the ultimate reuse of their work.
More importantly, there is something hauntingly beautiful and culturally relevant about taking physical, printed books and using them as a catalyst for creativity. That is to say, these dresses couldn’t be made out of Kindles. (Though if anyone wants to give it a try I’d say go for it.) I think what made me happiest when viewing the exhibit was simply seeing printed books exist in an ulterior form. It finally seems everyone is starting to get over the big huff and puff of print versus digital, and now we can move on and appreciate physical copies of books in a new way.
That doesn’t mean I’d be happy if someone went into my personal library and tried to make me a pair of pants out of my first edition copy of The Subterraneans, but I’m glad to see excess materials being put to good use.
Aha!, a lot of you might be thinking. He’s picking and choosing which books can and cannot be hacked to pieces!
Please don’t think I’m attempting to make a distinction based on literary merit. All books are meant to be read and therefore are equal, but if a book is no longer being read, if it molds and decays, if there is simply no room for it, or if it is going to become tragically tossed in the rubbish heap, then I think it is much better torn apart to make art than left to decompose in the city dump. Hell, even reuse them to make more books. Recycled paper has to come from somewhere right?
With that said, art can come from anywhere. It was nice to see the beauty of language meet the physical aesthetic of design. This was a serious meta-look at the genre of romance. Check out Schumacher’s website to see more of her work.