The discovery of intricate book sculptures left anonymously in Edinburgh literary spots last year entranced book-lovers. For the first time, writes Robyn Marsack, director of the Scottish Poetry Library, all ten are going on public display
I've run the Scottish Poetry Library for 12 years, and nothing we have done has brought us as much attention as we've had as the result of a gift out of the blue, in March last year, of a little tree made out of a book and leaves torn from books, accompanied by a gilded eggshell with a poem lining.
The online community of booklovers was entranced by the gradual revelation of a series of book sculptures by an anonymous artist, left in various Edinburgh institutions in celebration of "libraries, books, words and ideas". The first and last of the ten in the series were given to the Scottish Poetry Library, and they made inspired references to poems, one by Edwin Morgan and one by Norman MacCaig.
Every day since they started appearing we've been fielding the same questions: "Do you know who the sculptor is?" and "When can we see them all together?" Well, they were brought together for one night in December 2011, for an invitation-only event at the Scottish parliament, and their intricate beauty and inventiveness astounded the guests.
Why not share this bounty with a wider audience, we thought that night, not really knowing how complicated a proposal that might be. The arts agency Creative Scotland and an appropriately anonymous donor have enabled the library to do so, in partnership with Edinburgh City of Literature Trust.
So for the first time, the full collection goes on show to the public at Aberdeen Central Library on 17 August at the start of a short national tour, travelling via the Wigtown book festival in September, and ending back at the Scottish Poetry Library in November, to coincide with Book Week Scotland.
Of course the community that has seen these sculptures online is larger than any we can show them to, but seeing them in all their fascinating paper detail is a different experience. It's paradoxical: these books are cut up in celebration of books and reading.
Snip goes the artist, scissoring her way through the Ian Rankin mysteries she loves (there are three of those), hollowing out Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and glueing together bits of James Hogg's classic Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; that book came with this caption:
To @EdinCityofLit - a gift LOST (albeit in a good book)
This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas
'No infant has the power of deciding
by what circumstances (they) shall be surrounded'
~ Robert Owen
The sculpture for the National Library of Scotland, based on Rankin's Exit Music, calls attention to the threat to libraries - are they on their way out? Across the road, at Central Library, the sculptor uses Edwin Morgan's verse on his seventh decade: 'When I go in I want it bright...'
At seventy I thought I had come through,
like parting a bead curtain in Port Said,
to something that was shadowy before,
figures and voices of late times that might
be surprising yet. The beads clash faintly
behind me as I go forward. No candle-light
please, keep that for Europe. Switch the whole thing
right on. When I go in I want it bright,
I want to catch whatever is there
in full sight.
Every institution she spotlights because she knows about the constant defence work they have to undertake, while her book sculptures pay tribute to the magic they do, providing public access to public treasures.
I say 'she' because we know she's a woman, we just don't know her. I've been putting together the text for the book Gifted which Polygon will be publishing to accompany the exhibition, and I've been in touch with her, but through an anonymous email address: we're both content with that.
In the book, she writes that at the heart of the project is
a woman, who had been a girl, whose life would have been less rich had she been unable to wander freely into libraries, art galleries and museums. A woman who, now all grown, still wants access to these places and yes, wants them for her children...
People have of course responded to the beauty and humour and sheer inventiveness of the sculptures. At the SPL, we've particularly loved the way poetry is integral to the work, as is our hashtag on Twitter, ByLeavesWeLive. At the City of Literature they've been thrilled by the Edinburgh inspiration for the whole series - because this is a city of literature, and with the world's biggest book festival about to begin (they have a lovely sculpture but it will be on tour, not on show, this summer), we are ready for a book binge.
But the mystery and anonymity of the series has been a very powerful ingredient of its attraction. I feel quite strongly we must respect her anonymity, and not blow her cover; that's part of the joy of it really. All nine of the institutions who received a gift can put their hands on their hearts and say they believe in what the artist is supporting: books, libraries, words, ideas. Most of all, though, it calls us to a generosity that answers the generosity of the artist.