To most, books are disposable. For a while they hold some importance; they cradle our minds before we fall asleep, make us think, smile and sometimes cry. But when we’re finished, we shove them onto a dusty bookshelf. We throw them into the black abyss of our bin. They tumble hopelessly from our minds into cold indifference.
‘Robert The’ gives these books a new meaning. He delicately disfigures them until they become weapons of words, until they become Book Guns.
“Back in the early 90s,” he begins, “I was living in the Lower East Side of NY, in what was known then as Alphabet City. It wouldn’t be any exaggeration to call it a war zone. It was police versus people. Their presence was felt pretty much everywhere you went. AIDS loomed big, and ODs were pretty common. I had been studying sign painting at the Institute of Lettering and Design, so I was obsessed with letters. My visual thinking was rather autistic at the time – I saw letters and felt letters. I’m still that way, but a bit more managed.” It’s clear to see where he gets his warfare inspiration from, but when did he first begin making book sculptures? “I had made some letter sculptures like the letter ‘I’ and book pieces consisting of the word ‘THIS’ cut into the book. I gave most of these away or sold them on the street. It was very common for people selling pavement art to get arrested and their work thrown in the trash by the cops. I knew a poet who was arrested but won his case on 1st Amendment grounds. So, I figured that if I made my work out of books it would give me a little more protection as a street vendor,” he explains. “Then In the summer of ‘93 I took some time off from New York to help build an alternative community in Wisconsin called Dreamtime Village. The community had a woodshop, so I decided to try and make the entire alphabet out of books. When I finished the ‘L’ a young friend of mine entered the woodshop and I pointed the ‘L’ book at him and said, ‘Bang!’ The idea hit me in a flash.”
This inception fuelled the artist to begin developing the Book Gun. “I made a few more crude Book Guns but I realised that I could push my skills and they got more realistic. I was using, and still principally use, discarded books. I felt that I was giving these discarded books a voice and some power to assert themselves against the culture that had turned them into debris.” Robert stresses that his art isn’t about creating beautiful books, in fact, he sees it more like he is doing the opposite. “I have seen some incredibly beautiful books, and there are friends of mine who make wonderful handmade books. I don’t do that. I vandalise books, in particular, rejected, refused books. I love books, and it hurts to cut them on many levels, into guns in particular.”
The title of the book is very important to the style of the piece. He uses the name to create as much of an impact as the work itself, such as Witness Iraq, a comment on the USA’s war on terror. “I like collisions,” he explains. “Books are interesting because you can make the sculptural approach really smash into text and visa versa. The title is very important; I like to bounce off the title hard. There is a great deal of book art done today that treats books as a beautiful material without regard to content. That’s just not my path or temperament.” He cites the artist John Latham as someone he admires. Latham often defaces and transforms books until they are devoid of their original meaning. “I love much of his work, and if I had known about him when I started I probably would have moved in a different direction with my work.”
Having such a personal relationship with each piece, makes it tricky for the artist to pick a favourite. “It’s like asking me which child I love best,” he exclaims. “My secret favourites are not obvious, titles like Canaries spring to mind.” Sometimes a less snappy title can be a good platform for a visual pun. And in terms of pure design,” he says, “I like the Malevich piece I did back in 2005, which was a stylised AK47.” He loves to cut up books, but what does he like to read? Das Kapital, he says, “which I appreciate as literature and critique, not doctrine. I also have a small book on the lives of all the Popes, which I often read before I fall asleep.”
And like every book that we read, each Book Gun has a story. “I work mostly with found or discarded materials. So there is the beachcombing tale to each title, then there is trying to find a resonance between the title and the style of book. It’s all case, by case.” Although there are a few exceptions to his lost and found method. “I do buy new, like KJV Bibles. Gideon Bibles are always used because you can’t buy them; they’re almost always ‘stolen’ out of hotels. But I usually buy them in thrift stores.”
Sculpting the Bible into the shape of a firearm isn’t going to come without controversy. He shows us how to look at things from a skewed angle. Demonstrating that books not only hold meaning in their words, but also in their aesthetic. With the recent debate on the US gun laws, perhaps this shows that the pen really is mightier than the gun.
Words by Maddison Barrett
Images by Robert The Niet