There are outdated encyclopedias, copies of The Hunger Games, paperbacks from the mid-century, and old issues of Charleston magazine covering every bit of table space in the College of Charleston’s sculpture studio. They’ve been sorted by size, color, and material, and while there are hundreds of books here, this isn’t even all of the ones that the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art now has in its possession. Over the last few months, the Halsey has collected tens of thousands of books from the Charleston community, turning them over to a somewhat violent fate at the hands of book artist Long-Bin Chen.
Chen is famous for his Buddha heads carved from phonebooks. With so many names and phone numbers in these essentially obsolete volumes, his heads wind up containing a small society. And while his Buddha heads will be featured in the Halsey’s Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art, Chen is also serving as the show’s artist-in-residence as he creates a Zen garden for the rotunda of the Addlestone Library.
Working with a group of assistants — who may be hoarding copies of the more interesting books for their own collections — Chen has been working 10-hour days the last few weeks, risking splinters and papercuts all the while. The books are sliced with a band saw to create specific, curvy shapes, then they’re fit together like a game of Tetris to build the big sculptures that will make up Chen’s installation in the Addlestone. Held together by screws and bamboo rods, the finished product looks less like literature and more like a natural material you’d find in a desert somewhere, and the whole installation will resemble a Zen garden.
Now there are recycling bins overflowing with full pages and scraps and even entire chunks of books, and Chen’s assistants estimate they’ve filled up 10 trashbags with sawdust so far. With bits of paper still in his hair, Chen took a break from his sculpting to talk to the City Paper.
City Paper: How are these sculptures different from the Buddha heads that will be in the Rebound exhibit in the Halsey?
Long-Bin Chen: They’re also from Chinese culture. The Zen garden is from the Tang dynasty … they were looking for interesting stones, especially from south China … the beautiful stones go to the empire’s capital city. In Beijing, you can see a lot of beautiful stone in the garden. In China we also call it “literature stone.” The intellectual people like this kind of stone in their garden.
CP: Is it coincidental that you’re making your “literature stone” from books?
LBC: In the beginning, I saw this library space, and I already had some idea about the literature stone, so I was hoping to make a garden for the library. And also in the future, especially with digitalization, the library will be more like a museum or just for visual display, because most people, they don’t do research in library. They just go online. So all the books will become arbitrary, similar to a museum, to show people. … It is the right time for us to think about, when everything is digitalized, what can we do with all the books. I think this is a good solution: Turn the library into a museum.
CP: How do you organize the books?
LBC: In the beginning, I wanted to put every category in to make a stone. Then later we were more focused on the size and the material. The hard cover, the paper cover, the magazine … cheaper paper. Different kinds of material, different kinds of books, you cut it and the results will be different. One kind you carve it and it looks like a wood carving. Then the magazines, it looks like marble. And the hardcover is good for structure … some paper looks more like stone. Finally, we put on coating, so the whole thing will be nails, screws, wood nails, and coating to put the whole thing together. It’s like another action to change it up. Paper … it’s natural looking, it looks like a natural material.
CP: How does your work compare to the work of the other artists in the show?
LBC: Some of the artists, we’ve already known each other many years, like Douglas [Beube]. We’ve already known each other more than 15 years. He was a curator for a long time. But everyone has found a different way to work with the book, and I specialized in carving books, and the book and material tends to look like a natural material. Other artists, some operate with images, some operate with different content. Everyone has their own language developed.
CP: How do you think this installation will work in the context of an actual library?
LBC: Because in 10 years, everything will be digitalized. I think in the future libraries will change their function. My piece is appropriate for a library space, because everything’s made from books, and a lot are from the library.
CP: With things becoming more digital, how do you think your artwork will change in the next 15 years?
LBC: It’s very difficult to say, because even in the beginning, I didn’t know I would develop it for so long. It’s been almost 20 years, this year is 21 years. In the beginning I never thought about this becoming commercialized, but now more and more I depend on this project for my career, and I get more sponsorships from different institutions. … It’s appropriate for me to deal with this kind of material, and this kind of solution. It’s recycling, but it’s more meaningful. It’s not just sending it to a recycling center and everything becomes papier mâché.
CP: Do you have a big personal book collection?
LBC: [Laughs] Actually, not really, because I cut so many, so many books. Of course I find so many interesting books, but I cannot really read them, because if I spend more time doing it I’d like to keep them, and the result would be suffering with so many books and dealing with the books. You need a lot of energy, a lot of space, so for me I just find a solution and a new function for old books.