Art Officially Sweetened

Laura-Jade Klée's curation and reflections @LauraJadeKlee

Turning a New Leaf: A Review of ‘The First Cut’, Lakeside Arts Centre

It all began in the sixth century when a Buddhist monk smuggled paper from China to Japan revealing the ancient Chinese secret material. The art of origami signified national excitement about the newly discovered luxury material, and origami became a sacred symbol integral to religious ceremonies. Since these archaic times paper has been central in the development of civilization and correspondingly paper art has continually evolved.

In 2013, Lakeside Arts Centre presents ‘The First Cut’, an international survey of contemporary paper art at a time when the material is cheap, accessible, and ubiquitous. Curator Natasha Howes developed the exhibition concept after attending Frieze Art Fair 2007 and noticing the quantity of artists exploring the scope of paper. Similarly to their ancient paper art predecessors, the contemporary artists in the exhibition respond to changing visions of modernity; paper conveys nostalgia for physical engagement in an efficient digital world where emails replace stamps, bank transfers replace currency, and books are a downloaded file.

On entering the gallery space, I was enticed by a spectacular display of tactile objects. Exhibits vary in scale; some works such as Manabu Hangai’s atmospheric paper forest installation dwarfs the white cube containing it, whilst other works are subtle and minute such as Sarah Bridgland’s intricate paper arrangement bursting from a matchstick box. The thirty-one exhibiting artists represent a range of cultural backgrounds and diverse issues, largely moving beyond the realms of mere decoration to examine global, environmental and political concerns, as well as personal understandings about memory, imagination and mortality.

Throughout ‘The First Cut,’ the artists carefully considered choice of paper is inseparable from the artworks meaning. Artists reconfiguring books embrace its long influential history and personal symbolism. Books are loyal friends, exciting journeys, moments of self-discovery, a source of wisdom and symbols of freedom. We hoard books to preserve their souls, but with the recent invention of ebooks the paper pages have become redundant. Although some artists cut into the book pages, it is not a destructive process, but rather it provides interpretations of the text nostalgically rooted in the physicality of paper. Su Blackwell’s paper sculpture, Wuthering Heights, 2010, literally brings the text to life through three-dimensionally constructing the house upon the printed paper. The line “let me in” floats above Lockwood’s window and a bare tree branch. It is bursting with details, such as the two butterflies that dance above the graveyard like Heathcliff and Catherine’s spirits. It conjured fond memories of speedily turning the pages, and I instantly re-enter the gothic world that lingered in my mind since reading the novel.

Long Bin Chen, Angel #6, 2011

Taiwanese sculptor, Long-Bin Chen, sculpts stacked books into figures evocative of classical statues, transforming humble pages into the grandiose appearance of marble or wood. Hanging high above the gallery entrance, Angel #6, 2011, depicts a bearded male deity with an arched back resembling a ship’s figurehead. The angel transpires from carved books strung together by their spines. Like angels, books are a source of inspiration and wisdom; like figureheads, they offer guidance and protection. In Angel #6, the books bear a stamp to show they have been discarded by libraries; an institution in rapid decline. Chen‘s use of books to signify the loss of an era; the library stamp is no longer a symbol of sharing knowledge, but instead it scars books like a bad omen. Walter Benjamin believed “to a true collector, the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth” and for Chen abandoned books are reborn into angels.[1]

 Justine Smith, The Judge, 2010

From angels to the root of all evil, Justine Smith examines global politics through sculpting currency to explore how money defines a nation. The Judge, 2010, addresses firearm use in The United States through a gun made from a one dollar bill. An astounding 270 million guns are owned by American citizens which is the highest gun ownership rate in the developed world (OECD) and attributes to the rocketing gun related deaths. Smith’s composition manipulates the notes visual design to create meaning; for example, the decoration on the note perfectly adorns the contours of gun, reflecting how weapons have the potential to cause harm, yet greed pulls the trigger. Through the prominent placement of ‘ONE’ and the title ‘The Judge’, Smith positions individual consciousness at the centre of the work- can we justify taking a life for financial gain? Ironically the bill displays the phrase “In God We Trust,” perhaps suggesting the punishment is beyond human concern. Smith’s artworks appear sturdy yet they are only hollow constructions revealing how power is only a fragile illusion. As Chairman Mao fittingly observed, American Imperialism is “nothing but a paper tiger.[2]

Chris Jones, The Earl, 2012

Also inspired by the fragility of his chosen material, Chris Jones’ paper sculptures are a metaphor for human decay. Composed of glossy high-end magazines and encyclopedias, Jones’ 7ft skeleton, The Earl, 2012, trivializes our efforts of intellectual self-improvement and vanity, as we are all united in our demise. The bones and rotting flesh may be held up by scaffolding, but the figure still proudly wears a diamond ring in denial of the inevitable. In the original display context at Manchester Art Gallery, The Earl was displayed in the grand atrium among the casts of Elgin marbles. The Earl supposedly represents Lord Elgin, the collector responsible for uprooting the Parthenon frieze from Athens who later lost his nose to a skin condition. Through dry humour, Jones presents the absurdity of art’s attempts to be timeless in a world where everything, including ourselves, has an expiry date.

It is difficult to unite the artworks in ‘The First Cut’ in any way other than the skillful and innovative use of paper as a medium. The appeal of exhibition is in its aesthetic and thematic diversity, which creates an inspiring and engaging experience, touching upon many crucial aspects that define the contemporary world. It is an important celebration for the joy and tactility of paper during a time when we readily overlook its significance. Throughout ‘The First Cut’, the contemporary paper artists add vision and substance to Wordsworth’s belief “fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”[3]


[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘Unpacking my Library’ in Illuminations, Pimlico, 1999, p.63

[2] Mao Zedong, quoted from a 1956 interview with Anna Louise Strong

[3] William Wordsworth, Letter to his Wife, April 29 1812

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