Abu Dhabi

An exhibition at NYU Abu Dhabi heralds a renaissance of the written word and its age-old medium

Charisma is such a mysterious quality. Defined as “a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others,” books have it in spades. They enchant and captivate in equal turn. But that’s not usually the actual book, it’s the story inside. What about the medium, the material, the anatomy of the book — how can reimagining its iconography herald a new age of the printed word? That’s what American artists Brian Dettmer and Doug Beube, and Dutch book designer Irma Boom, asked in their show Charisma of the Book: The Exhibition, a companion to the eponymous NYU Abu Dhabi workshop held this March.

“I think we stand on the verge of a new flourishing of the classic book,” says Boom. “Perhaps it has even begun already: the renaissance of the book.”

The covers, bindings, spines and pages of the three artists’ books had been dissected and stretched beyond belief to create new forms. Self-described “biblioclast” Beube’s Masked Literacy churned the dictionary in on itself in swirls, upending the order and defying the connotation of “concise.” His work aims to “‘excavate’ the book, as a phenomenological endeavour, creating hypertexts, as if the text block itself is an archaeological site…reconfigured into abstract forms.”

Brian Dettmer uses surgical tools to painstakingly remove fragments of pages to reveal a new narrative, in an “attempt to explore the materiality of information, to expose existing truths while withholding tendencies to implant new fictio ns.” The Master and Margarita was one example on show, in which the images and words layered to create a miniature stage of simultaneous characters, framed by the carved binding.

Irma Boom, also known as the Queen of the Book, is widely recognised as a champion of the physical representation of intellectual complexity. Her handheld book, The Architecture of the Book, featured an archive of her oeuvre realised in miniature, just like the mini-tomes she designs as prototypes for all her works.

Walking through the show, the micro of mechanisms in a machine and then the macro of the layers of a cityscape came to mind. That’s as you might expect, really, because the charisma of the book is the charisma of all humankind.

by Anya Stafford

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Creative Issue #36, page 27.