Lately Guy Laramee has found himself in the midst of a media storm thanks to the attention lavished on his book-sculptures, works of jaw-dropping craftsmanship that have subsequently ping-ponged around the Temple of File-Sharing (a.k.a. the internet). And rightfully so – Laramee spent years meticulously carving old volumes into epic mountainscapes, crumbling caves and zen-like garden scenes. We had to get to the bottom of such a Herculean undertaking and Guy was more than happy to share a few words with us about the nature of knowledge, the origins of the encyclopedia and why he put a chainsaw to his books.
Your works are undoubtedly visually arresting, but Is there any sort of “statement” or a more stylised meaning to your work?
I came to this work while doing a master’s in anthropology, so in a way, this work is like turning the anthropological gaze upon itself. How does the tribe of social scientists look from the planet of art? They look like people buried in books! As you may know, the Biblios were little people who literally lived in books, they dug tunnels to connect words one with another. That’s how “encyclopaedia” was created : joining “Cyclops” and “pedestrian”.
Thus originally, encyclopaedia meant “walking with only one eye open” – a meaning that is now lost, unfortunately. The Biblios dug so many tunnels that one day the roof fell on their head. They perished under the weight of their knowledge. I hope this will not be our fate…
Did the project follow a learned craft (i.e. carving, model making) or did your inspiration dictate the skills you had to acquire to complete the project?
No skill at all, it was a magical discovery, like all art is. I was working on another sculpture in a metal shop, and at some point I had this stupid idea of putting a book in the sand blaster cabinet. Boom! That was it. I saw immediately the landscape, and the whole line of work. The skills were developed in order to give birth to these landscapse. There’s no “book sculpture class” in the academia, not yet, and the day they do it, it’s dead.
Is there a significance to the books you choose? Is your choice a statement for/against any particular type of literature?
I used to choose only obsolete encyclopaedia and dictionaries for their neutrality. But now I use a different criteria – I deny content whatsoever. I chose the books by the colour of their jackets. No joke – I chose them because they are beautiful. And no surprise, old books are way more beautiful than new ones. In those times, people made books that would last, because knowledge was still sacred.
In a way, what I do belongs to sacrifice, in the anthropological lore. In the sacrifice, the victim becomes sacred precisely because she is sacrificed. So these books that nobody cared about anymore become sacred objects in a way, because I transform them into art.
You say in your artist statement that culture/knowledge is a process of “erosion rather than accumulation” and you conclude with the idea of returning to the “cloud of the unknowing”, seeming to imply that the pursuit of knowledge is a futile process. Can you expand upon this?
It seems that with the demise of the contemplative aspects of spirituality, it has escaped us that “knowing” is just one half of our patrimony. “Being” is the other half – what does it mean to just “be”? Our “advanced” cultures are so obsessed with accumulating information about things that we are forgetting a bit more each day that knowing things “about” things will never make us happy. Why?
You cut a thing in two and then each half in two, it’s infinite. Painter Agnes Martin said: “I gave up fact completely. Just bad guess work. You’re never going to know life through facts.” When you stop this accumulation of knowledge, you mysteriously become more alive.
Art is on its way of becoming the way our societies are suiciding themselves. Too much trivial stuff. Spectacle, glamour, sensationalism. All this to chains us to what enslaves us – our addiction to experiences. After the 3D screen at the movie, the moving seat, what’s next ?
So no, I don’t believe in progress, in art as in culture in general. We have all this information and the 20th Century has been the bloodiest in the whole of human history. In Japanese culture, “old” is not badly seen, on the contrary. It is through the old that we reach the timeless, Zen master Robert Aitken says.
Going to a volcano makes you want to fall on your knees. The Grand Spectacle of life is like going to church, so if you can no longer afford to adopt a religious credo, go to nature!
So, would you say there anything you “know” about art, as a process and as an experience?
No, really nothing. It is too mysterious. I used to know a lot, to pretend I knew. I even went to anthropology to find answers to my queries about the creative process. Like why creators are so obsessed? Why do most of them live in a sort of madness?
But now I am resigned. I put a chainsaw in my books and now I feel better, accepting that the “why” of art is an impossible question. You cannot know what you are.
And where do you see your art, or the art world in general, as headed next?
A thick cloud of unknowing!