You might think people who tear up and scorch books aren’t great fans of the written word, but that’s not true for a group of artists creating a book “sanctuary” in Warragul’s Civic Park.
Dressed in surreal green outfits with large horns and masks for anonymity, the four-person artist collective behind Too Many Words are hoping to demonstrate the waste of modern society.
The thousands of books being torn up, drilled, wired, and glued into place to form a small shelter and a book circle around it were snatched from the jaws of the pulper. Donated to charities by individuals and the West Gippsland Regional Library Corporation, op shop volunteers had deemed the books unsaleable and would usually have paid someone to take them away for destruction.
Unsaleable doesn’t mean damaged beyond repair. People just don’t want them.
“The pile of books that we have next to the sculpture is one month’s collection from one op shop and the CFA Book Fair,” artist Susan Acheson told the Baw Baw Citizen.
“This isn’t just the case with books – it’s the case with fabrics, clothing, and things like that. So much is given to the op shops that cannot be sold, and we want people to consider what happens when they buy something without [considering] ‘where does it go after I’ve finished with it?’”
If you cringe at the thought of books being torn apart, that’s the point: Too Many Words is supposed to confront.
“We did have a plan to burn the books,” Sue said.
“We are still planning to scorch them as we go along, when it’s applicable, if it’s applicable. The idea was to burn the whole sculpture at the end, but we’re not allowed to do that at Civic Park because it’s a formal park. We may still take it somewhere else and burn it we’re not sure.
“That in itself is a controversial act, the burning of books, which creates a lot of emotion for people. But what we’re trying to do is make them confront things: ‘what happens to all this waste?’ ‘What can I do about it?’ [The artwork is] something to make people address the issues, which is what art often does.”
The books might be given a brief reprieve outside the Warragul Library, if negotiations between the artists and library staff go well.
Speaking of libraries, the artists have set up a small one of their own.
“Some of the books people can take,” Sue said.
“We’ve got a bookshelf on one side for the books we feel we can’t use; they’re too important for us.”
The shelf houses a surprising mix of books – Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest stands next to Fifty Shades of Grey. Unrescued on the ground in front, The Cat in the Hat forms part of the book circle. Titles with recommendations from George Orwell and comparisons to Moby Dick printed on the cover remain in the pile.
Seen alongside the artists’ bizarre full-body uniforms and under threat of fire, the circle makes the work look like some kind of ritual. Its purpose, however, is only practical.
“People were coming in and looking through the books, and it was a bit like a rummage sale,” Sue said.
“It felt disrespectful to us, like they were invading our space, and so we put this border of books around.”
Sue described finding books considered important labelled as unsaleable “a bit weird.”
“It’s very precious, words are precious. In this day and age we are becoming less book people and more online people, and to me that’s a shame because as you browse through these books you see things that are totally unexpected. You would never have dreamt of picking up In The Moon of Red Ponies by James Lee Burke, I don’t [know the author] but that might be a really fantastic book.”
Staying with things which are “a bit weird,” what’s with the costumes?
“We’re wearing [this] so we are anonymous, because we’re working as a collective. It’s to make all four of us ‘The Artist,’” Sue explained.
“As we’re working, we’re working as one. So that means we can make a part of the sculpture, but it doesn’t matter if someone else comes and changes that and it evolves. It makes the outcome unexpected, because we all see everything differently.”
It’s effective – even knowing the people involved, it takes some effort to peek through their lace masks to see who’s inside each outfit.
The costumes and theatrics are, however, just part of the show. The structure under construction is the symbolic part.
“The sculpture itself is also a sanctuary, so we’ve made this welcoming space because people often seek sanctuary in words, in books,” Sue said.
“You lose yourself in a book and you forget about everything else that’s going on in the world, and that’s a really comforting feeling.”
Society’s waste isn’t the only political and social point the group is looking to make through the sculpture, though the additional message might not be immediately obvious.
“The sanctuary inside is also a reflection on the sanctuary we as Australians should be offering people,” Sue said.
“Whether they’re refugees, whether they’re homeless, they have mental health issues, if they’re disassociated from society in any way we should make them feel more welcome.
“We should be aware of the differences of people and the joy that that can bring, instead of saying ‘you’re different from me, you can’t come here.’”
The group started work on Too Many Words yesterday and will finish this afternoon. The result of the weekend’s efforts will remain on display behind a fence at Civic Park until Saturday 27 May. Artists will be on-site occasionally to let people in to explore the sanctuary.
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