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Altered Book

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

On Monday, I took the pathway of fine art and illustration and what we did is altering an original book to another form, as the resource of gaining idea for the structure project.

The Relating Artists

Firstly we looked some artworks that relating to the book.

‘The Islington Library Books’ Joe Orton & Kenneth Halliwell, 1950-1962

These two artists changed the cover of the books by collage, which gave a brand new assumption about the stories in them.

"Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves for rubbish and hardly any space for good books."

Orton, 1967

'A Humument' Tom Phillips, 1970-2016

The British artist Tom Phillip's made this art piece based on an old Victorian novel, which totally recasted the original book and let the readers to find the another meaning in it. Later it was also turned into the electronic version.

"A Humument — the neologism is a contraction of A Human Document, the title of W. H. Mallock’s 1892 novel — was first published as a private press edition in 1973. Then, in 1980, Thames & Hudson published a trade edition. Phillips revised the book again in 1987, 1998 and 2005, creating a miniature version, The Heart of a Humument, as well as other spin-offs, along the way. Eventually, he said, the work would completely replace itself."

Rick Poynor

'Film Star' John Latham, 1960

‘Cosmic Censorship Hypothesis’ David Dixon, 2005

We also viewed some altered book which was collected by Bournemouth library.


After looking them, we were given a page from Gombrich's The Story of Art and what I got is a page with a Pharaoh sculpture on one side and a Greek sculpture on another. We were asked to convert this page in twenty more minutes.

I turned Pharaoh's head wear to a nurse cap and the Greek sculpture came to see Pharaoh because he lost one of his arm and feet. Therefore, the image box in Greek sculpture page was empty and written with "sick leave".

Development of The Altered Book

I wanted to give me a challenge, or a chance to let me know more about what is art. Therefore, I chose E. H. Gombrich‘s The Story of Art. As a book that has over 600 pages, undoubtedly there was huge information of art history, which I probably could not consume in a short time. So how to properly deal with this book was an extremely tough question. In this one and a half months, despite from preparing the structure project, I considered plenty of different schemes. As for me, this assignment was more like a key for me to open the door of art history.

On account of I was working on the structure project and preparing portfolio for applying the universities, I firstly did not look through this book. However, I used to read some books about art history as well as a few articles about Gombrich's book.

Idea 1: Intricate timelines, Blend the history

The art history is actually a human history, because the art could not get rid of human and human's life. However, the history in the past was complex, and even happened in different timelines. Therefore, I attempted to tear up the pages and mix them together in a plastic box.

Idea 2: Emotional and rational

This idea was originating from an article that I read a few years ago, the author said that the art history generally was indicating how people think, which in the prehistoric time, the primitive people recorded how they hunt on the cave's walls, such as the one in Lascaux. In that period, people abstractly expressed their ideas, which we also can see in the ancient sculptures of many different civilizations. Then, people gradually started to use more rational and figurative eye sight to do the art. From the Greek sculptures to the Renaissance's paintings and from the bronze wares to bird-and-flower paintings, no matter in Western or Eastern cultures, this phenomenon was demonstrated in their history. Subsequently, in the last one or two centuries, the art style was changed again, people once again turned their attention from the real world and actual objects to the interior world, to present the abstract and spiritual ideas and looked back to the primitive period. Although, not only the word "art", but this book itself was mainly setting in the Western culture background, I thought this pattern was still fit with both sides for natural and unnatural reasons. Thereby, I remembered that in Chinese culture, the ancients used to believe the sky was a circle and the earth was a square, which later these two shapes became as the representation of the morality.

At here, I think the circle and square could also represent two sides of how people doing the art. The circle is a shape that we can easily observe in the nature, such as the sun, the moon and the eyes, human had already been inspired by the circles in this world, so that almost every vessels made in really old time had a circular shape. Referring to the square, it seemed like a man-made shape that we could not see in the nature. It is the representation of human's intelligence, which we could create the matter that did not exist in this planet.

With the inspiration of Chinese artist Huang Yongping's The History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987), I wanted to wash the rived book in the machine and then stick all pages to make them as the original form and then paint a square and a circle on each side. It seemed quite feasible but after I searched the process of making a piece of paper, I found that I could not glue them all together in one time, unless I press them in a mould and apply a layer of PVA glue after it dries. However, both of them would take a long time, so I did not do on this way.

Idea 3: Everything is art/ Coffin

During the half term holiday, I looked through all the pictures in this book to seek how did the art style changing over time. As for me, I found that the older artworks look the more adorable for me somehow. Although they did not as exquisite as the later works, they still had a strong energy that firmly attract me. This book mainly told the development of the Western art, especially in the Europe and the most impressive sentence was the one that Gombrich wrote at the begnning, "There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists." In the contemporary society, the definition of the art, or the visual art, had been expanded to a really wide range, and we can even say everything is art.

Despite from the paintings and the artifacts that can bring us the sense of beauty, nowadays people also can use materials to express their thoughts without considering too much about beauty. From Marcel Duchamp's urinal to Martin Creed's paper ball, to make an artwork even only need a few seconds, the story of art has been thoroughly connecting with our everyday life, but not something higher than the life. Therefore, I came out with an image of a coffin. Nevertheless, I did not think these artworks had dead, but they had lost some of their original meaning or purpose, but purely aesthetic feeling. So they become as the objective that were preserved in the glass boxes and showing to people. To summarize this idea, I wanted to use a plastic box (because the glass one will be heavier and more expensive) to seal this book, for expressing the idea that the works in this book had been lost their original purpose and there was a distance from our life.


I asked the plastic store to help me make a plastic box with a mirror side, which just fit the shape of this book and then put the ash of the book inside. I wanted to make a cinerary casket of the book, which is quite like a farewell from the contemporary art to the artworks that made centuries ago. What I wanted to express is the detachment of the classical art from nowadays people. For sure that people still can perceive the feeling of beauty from the Greek sculpture and the medieval painting, but I think the majority of the viewers may not really be able to cohere the history background with the artwork itself, at least on the a Eastern person's view. However, I think in both Eastern and Western countries, many people would believe that the people would become as spirit, ghost or some imperceivable creatures and continue to remain in the world. Therefore, I also attempted to say that the influence of traditional art forms have been presented as the abstract idea that subtly affecting nowadays society, which the contemporary art has overwhelmingly broken away from the traditional art system.

The mirror side of the box represents the world around us still can observe the reflection of these art form, while another black side representing that everything is in the process of becoming as the past history as the ash in the box.


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