The first “Altered Book” art project I remember seeing was at the Outsider Art Fair around 20 years ago, when it was in the magnificent Puck Building on Houston Street. Back then, the artist was present and you could actually talk to them about their art and being an outsider artist. I remember asking the artist about her books, which had a lot of glue in them and all over them. I don’t remember much else about them.  I guess I first saw an altered book not at a museum but as an art work that got made organically, that had a life of its own the way altered book projects can have.

The Altered Book is not just a piece of art. It’s a living, breathing creature. You start out with a basic body, the book as it was published, that looks just like all the other ones of the same title and author, and the artist puts it through a “Kali” like birthing process that involves a lot of destruction in the service of creating this new living being. Kali is a Hindu Goddess, from the Sanskrit word “Kali”, translated as “time”. She is described as a destroyer of “unreality”, a liberator. I’m no expert on Hindu gods, but I do associate Kali with the process of altering books and how one has to destroy and use up in order to create anything. A pencil that never gets sharpened is not involved in any kind of creation. The book even has a skin, whether it’s the book jacket that covers a hard cover book, or just the outside of the covers and the actual covers, with the pages within as the innards. The process of altering books brings up all kinds of weird processes like alchemy, dissection, and autopsy, but that may just be the beginning stage, cutting open the body. With an altered book, you kidnd of do the opposite of an autopsy; you cut open and expose internal organs for the purpose of repurposing them and making something new, more like the way an organ gets donated and incorporated into the new person’s body. Now that kidney no longer belongs to the donor and the donor is erased, though an integral part of the process, just as the creator of the original book must be killed off for a new peice of art to emerge.

I love paper, making works on paper, drawing, and then even becoming very physically involved in the process with the materials. even just using pens and pencils on paper, I like to see the grooves a pen or pencil can make, how it changes the paper.

Unlike the experience of looking at a published book or even writing/making one, making an altered book happens in a chaotic disordered way. You don’t have to start with the cover and go in time order page by page. You can start anywhere and the pages in the middle of the book might get cut up and put in the front of the book or anywhere else. Each time you come back to work on the book, you are in a different state of mind, and, unlike with writing a book, you don’t have to get back into whatever you’re doing. It doesn’t have to make sense. It changes each time you interact with it. At the same time, it evokes soemthing different from making a painting with many layers. Books are loaded with meaning and the concept of time passing. You may go anywhere in the book to work, but you still end up with a product that looks like a book, unless you are altering the book to the point of making sculpture out of it, but to me, that gets out of the realm of the Altered Book. The Altered Book I think of and make and witness the makign of, is still a book at the end, finished or not. There are traces of what it was, like the original book is the parent and the art piece is the child. There may be resemblances and reminders of the parent, but the altered book has become a totally new being, one that has never existed before.

The idea of the altered book as being a reallly physical process is what I am interested in.  And the process. The process can feel like a fight; very violent and visceral; you get in there at the beginning and attack the book, to subjugate it and get it to really become yours to do what you want with. There has to be that initial struggle, very physical, involving cutting, ripping, tearing, sanding, poking, doing very active things to the very body of the book. Most of the time the spine is very affected by the making of an altered book. You have a choice of letting the book spill open, or cutting open the spine and adding more cardboard to extend it so it can be closed. To do that, you have to cut the book into at least two pieces and add to it. A lot of altered book making in terms of the body of the book and undoing it feels like surgery.

I am reminded of reading about Leonardo Da Vinci and his dream of doing a book of all of human anatomy. He made friends with doctors/medical professors and “borrowed” corpses from them . He would go at night and dissect this human body and scribble in his notebook as fast as he could, drawing what he saw and sometimes more what he felt because there was no formaldehyde to preserve the body, so it was a race against time and probably really smelly too. It was really messy, and not like messing around with paints. I was fascinated with his process, and his hyperfocus and obsession. He didn’t finish his book of anatomy, but you can see his drawings and writings about the internal organs.

I can’t imagine what it would be like sneaking into a place to cut open a dead body and draw the organs late at ngiht or at any time of day, but making an altered book has that kind of feel to it. Once you get into it, this “thing” you are interacting with can take over and there can be a really exciting obsessive quality to it.

 

 

 

 

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New Topic Series: Multicultural Rituals and Their Meanings

The other day, I was reminded of a few things I had read about concerning interesting customs in different countries/cultures that were very particular to that culture. Probably I was connecting this to last week’s American ritual of Thanksgiving, a holiday I try to focus on being grateful and also feeling sad about what really happened with the “first thanksgiving”. Yes, Squanto did have a peace treaty feast with the Pilgrims, but after that, the Puritans came and, according to this interesting website: http://www.manataka.org/page269.html

“In 1637 near present day  Groton, Connecticut, over 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival which is our Thanksgiving celebration. In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside.  Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A Day Of Thanksgiving” because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered.

From then on it became a custom to have a “Thanksgiving Feast” after a successful slaughter of Native Americans…Anyway, back to the main topic: most of these types of rituals I will be posting about are different from what mainstream Americans are accustomed to. I will focus on the big rituals of every country/culture: birth, marriage/joining love ceremony for “life partner” and death. I thought it would be fun to post different descriptions of these rituals on this blog that are interesting approaches to these big life changes we all share as human beings. Having lived abroad and travelled a lot and having been exposed to many cultures and languages and countries from a young age, I have always been interested in ways that we differ and are similar in celebrating important life events or dealing with death, and also some every day life activities that are elevated to ritual in other cultures. When I lived in Japan for two years, fourth and fifth grade, I was exposed to all kinds of unfamiliar rituals, as Japanese culture has a lot more rituals in everyday life than American and other cultures. There is the tea ceremony and the act of giving gifts on non-holiday occasions. I remember my parents coming home with gifts all the time after they had gone to some kind of event or party or business meeting as gifts are given in all sorts of settings and types of daily activities bringing people together. The gifts were always exquisitely wrapped in that distinct style that I tried to copy when wrapping gifts; there are a lot of horizontal folds involved…

Anyway, for the first example, I will skip Pregnancy for now, as I have written about it so much here in a different context, and skip to the child’s first birthday celebration. I found a description of an interesting Korean ritual for the first birthday of a child. I remembered hearing before about this ritual from a friend, but the description is detailed enough to give a good idea of what it is all about. This is a direct quote lifted from: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/biz/2007/10/123_12172.html

“The first birthday party is special for any baby around the world, but Korea has a unique tradition of putting various things on the table in front of the baby and letting the baby pick one of these to tell the future of the baby.

On the table are usually money, thread, rice and pencil. The baby will be rich if it picks money, will live long with thread, and be a scholar by picking a pencil, which reflects Confucian tradition. Rice means that the baby will have enough food throughout his or her life, which was a huge blessing when people often suffered from famines.

The tradition is changing. Now some parents put a microphone on the table, which means the baby will become an entertainer, or a golf ball, wishing that the baby will be a famous golf player.”

What a lovely idea! In Bali, the first birthday is treated in an entirely different way. I think I first came across this in the book “Eat, Pray, Love”! Actually, if you go to the link below, you will learn that the rituals start in pregnancy and there are several different ones on different days of the baby’s life leading up to the first birthday.

This descritpion comes from the following website:

http://www.bali-travel-life.com/bali-festivals.html

“On the first birthday (Oton), which is according to the Balinese calendar on the 210th day, the baby is allowed to touch the ground for the first time. Because the ground is considered impure, the baby has always been carried around up to this day.

This day is of course again accompanied with a ceremony which is pretty big and takes place at the ancestral temple where families and the community gather to celebrate.”

Here is a great website with descriptions of first birthdays around the world, including the American custom of parties with decorations, cake, etc. The Hindu custom is another great one, and after reading about it, I sense that certain cultures focus on themes like “cleansing the baby”, “evil from past life”, “impurity” that area also part of the Catholic tradition of babtism. What is interesting about the Balinese point of view is the idea that the world the baby enters is “impure”, not the baby!

“On a Hindu child’s first birthday, his or her head is shaved while being held by a special fire. Removal of the hair cleanses the child of any evil in past lives, symbolizing a renewal of the soul.

Usually on the day of the birthday, the child will wear very colorful clothing to school and will pass out chocolates to the entire class. The child will also kneel and touch their parents’ feet as a sign of respect. They then all visit a shrine, where they pray and the child is blessed.

In the afternoon there might be a meal that includes a spicy vegetable stew called curry and chutney which is a spicy fruit relish. The dessert is a treat known as “dudh pakh”, which is rice like pudding (they might also stir in pistachios, almonds, raisins, and a spice called cardamon)”

Another different reference to feet. Interesting.

To end, here is a tradition in Ghana, again involving a cleansing ritual:

“The Asante people in Ghana celebrate “krada” (which means “Soul Day”) on the day of their birth. On a person’s krada, he or she wakes up early and washes themselves using a special leaf soaked overnight in water (this is a cleansing ritual intended to purify the inner soul). Then in the afternoon, they have a feast with family and friends and the celebrant is usually dressed in white clothing.”