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Brian Dettmer :: Book Autopsies


Click to see larger versionBooks, no matter the genre, have always fascinated me.  The process of taking a ream of paper, setting it permanently within the grasp of binding, and designing a front and back cover so as to capture the gist of the content within – to me there is no form of art as transcendent or laden with meaning.  To others, however, beloved books exist only to be sullied, mutilated, and, from the bibliophile’s vantage, destroyed.

Brian Dettmer, a 1997 graduate of Columbia College Chicago, has created quite the buzz in the art circuit doing precisely this.  When asked to describe his art in a recent interview with Outside the Artist’s Studio, Dettmer waffles, describing it in  a single breath as mixed media, sculpture, and remixed media – sculpture because it is three-dimensional, and remixed media because he takes someone else’s work and scrambles the elements to make it his own.

Get it?  He remixes the media like a DJ, sampling the creations of our greatest writers, dissecting their pages as a way to afford them reincarnation.  Alright, maybe our greatest writers is a bit of a hyperbole – he claims that his victims are primarily dated, non-fiction pieces – but they’re writers nonetheless!

On the one hand, I appreciate his remixing for the same reason that I appreciate the ineluctable cycle of life:  old breeds new, aged spawns young, parents give birth to progeny, cats have kittens.  In this way, his work appeals to the naturalist in me, the macro-man who sees the overarching patterns in history, and who succumbs  to these patterns only because fighting them will make him smaller than he already is.

On the other hand, I can’t ignore the destructive element in his artwork.  Must we destory to rid ourselves of the old and get something new?  Can’t old and new have more of a symbiotic relationship?

Here’s a sampling of Dettmer’s autopsies:

As you can see, he compromises the binding, carves front and back covers, and cuts away generous portions of text so as to render the books unintelligible.  All this in the name of mixed media, or sculpture, or remixed media.

This kind of reckless, abusive behavior has given him enough art cred to convince  students at Kent State University that their sculpture will benefit from his critique more so than from mine or yours.

On February 20, 2008, there are photos that document him dressed in Zorro attire as he strikes thoughtful poses and wows young KSU minds with his insight.  Thanks zosojake:

This is not to say that Dettmer has no credibility.  Who am I to make such a claim?  I am only arguing that, as a bibliophile, his fame and everything related to his fame is antagonistic.  The books he performs so-called autopsies on are no longer able to be read.  They are, in effect, no longer books.

Dettmer has, no doubt, defended this angle of attack on numerous occasions:

There is this idea that, if you are altering a book, you are destroying something someone else made and something that could still be read…some people feel or believe that by tearing the book up you are destroying those ideas…The flip side is that most books are mass produced objects and are often discarded.

The economist would let the market decide what camp is right, and, though in the past consumers have not been kind to altered books, amid today’s whirlwind of technology, it is books in their original format that are slumping.  Dettmer sells his works ranging anywhere from two to three thousand, and, according to one source, the five or so galleries that have an inventory of Dettmer’s work are constantly harping for more.

::Sampling of Book Autopsies pilfered from Brian Dettmer’s Official Site::

Some Comments:

Brian Dettmer

Hello Herocious,

A friend linked me to your review and I wanted to thank you for your attention to my work. First, I want to point out that books do not only serve the purpose as sculptural material for myself. I am an avid collector, reader and lover of books. I value the ideas and the materials. This is part of what my work is about.

Also, I don’t think I need to defend my use of materials any more than someone who carves wood has to defend their use of using wood. Physically, my materials have less of an impact, and culturally, one point of my work is to call attention to issues of re-use, authorship, context and the liquidity of origins as ideas shifts to newer media.

On the issue of authorship, I’d also like to point out that I have never referred to my work as “Book Autopsies” (although other blogs have made the same mistake due to lack of research- copy/paste- call it your own), that the website you linked to is a great blog but not my own site, and that your copying and pasting of other’s ideas makes you no less guilty than I am in the realm of culture borrowing.

As far as tools go, I think that a knife to explore and expose something is much less destructive than using sarcasm to cut something down that you don’t understand.

Blogging about the importance of books is like flying a jet around the world to preach about the environment. Your method contradicts your message.

Brian Dettmer


I think that you should reconsider your unfairly critical view of Brian Dettmer and his extraordinary artwork, of which I am a big fan.

First, you can’t seriously believe that “no matter the genre … there is no form of art as transcendent or laden with meaning” as the book, which you superficially define in terms of its paper, binding, and cover. There has to be more to celebrate in a book than the physical integrity of its binding. Do you treasure and preserve your old phone books, dictionaries, and college text books?

Dettmer, recognizing that there is more to a book than its “unsullied” cover, brings new life to old books that might have otherwise spent the remainder of their days on a dusty bookshelf or in the trash heap. Do you know what libraries do with old encyclopedias and other books that no longer circulate?

I love Dettmer’s work because I love books. Dettmer’s “reckless, abusive behavior” forces us to consider the purpose of old books: Do we treasure them as trophies of assimilated ideas? Have they become mere stores of old information made redundant in the age of the Internet? He raises these questions using only the book’s own content, which is exposed and re-contextualized to give a beautiful sculpture like a Cubist’s portrait of the essence of the book. Think of it as a celebration, rather than a mutilation.

Your sarcasm-laden essay seems to be motivated by more than just your love for the integrity of the printed page. Perhaps Kent State rescinded its invitation to you to critique the work of its students, when the widely-acclaimed artist Dettmer made himself available? Perhaps you still suffer from childhood nightmares of Zorro shredding your entire collection of Dr. Suess books?

Finally, sticking to facts over speculation, it should be pointed out that the link you provided is not “Brian Dettmer’s Official Site.” (I don’t think that he has one.) And, anyone who is offered a Dettmer altered book priced at two to three thousand should not hesitate to jump on such a deal, well-below the current market (which has apparently decided that “[Dettmer’s] camp is right.”)


Herocious, I just wanted to emphasize that my Kent State and Zorro remarks are tongue-in-cheek. They read much snarkier than intended, as yours no doubt do also.


I miss the days when artists produced beauty, not statements.


Texpat: there is no shortage of “beautiful” contemporary art that does not come with an artist’s statement. I don’t think that Dettmer’s beautiful work needs a statement to be effective, but the intellectual element makes it even more interesting and compelling.

snow day

i think its a mistake to say this work isne’t beautifull- it is and that is part of the point. that he is taking something old and not used any more and making it into art. anyone who dissaggrees with it on the basis that he is destroying an art of work, i think, has missed the point of books. a book is not an art of work all by itself and say that to any author and i think they would be rather annoyed. a spine, a hard cover does not make a book beautifull otherwhise Mein Camp would be just as beautifull as any other book. its the words inside that make them works of art, its the fact that people are reading them. stop reading a book and it becomes an object that will only mean something to you, and there is the beauty. These carved books that were long forgotten meant something to Brian Dettmer and so they became beautifull. and since when, (urinal hanging from a wall!!) does art have to be beautifull?

John S

Herocious, you are atrocious. LOL

January 22, 2009 1:34 am

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