The Book Surgeon and His Wonderful Book Autopsies

by . November 6th, 2014

Books are timeless pieces of knowledge and history. They are the best teachers and primary storytellers of the past. These printed materials are priceless and considered immortal to some degree. But in the age of innovation where everything can be digitized, printed materials—such as books and encyclopedias—are suffering from a huge decline in popularity especially to the young ones. Merely because of the modern versions of it like e-books. We also have to admit the fact that every bit of information you need to know can now be access through the internet. Leaving books on dusty shelves serving only as home ornaments.

But for Brian Dettmer—also known as The Book Surgeon—he found a way to gave a new life for these antique printed materials. He uses old, non-fiction materials such as books, maps, encyclopedias, and textbooks to create incredible pieces of sculptures. He uses tweezers, knives scalpels, and other surgical tools to dissect the book and gradually uncover a hidden piece or art. What’s great about his process is that he doesn’t really know what will be the end result of his creations. “That what makes this process more exciting,” Dettmer stated.


BRIANN DETTMER is a New York-based artist known for his detailed and innovative sculptures with books and other forms of antiquated media. Dettmer’s work has been exhibited internationally in numerous solo and group exhibitions at galleries, museums, and art centers including the Smithsonian (D.C.), Museum of Arts and Design (NY), Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (VA), Museum of Contemporary Art (GA), Museum Rijswijh (Netherlands), Wellcome Collection (England), the Bellevue Arts Museum (WA), The Kohler Arts Center (WI), and the Illinois State Museums (IL). His work has been featured on the CBS Evening News, The New York Times (US), The Los Angeles Times (US), The Guardian UK), The Telegraph (UK), Chicago Tribune (US), The Age (AU), ARTnews, Modern Painters, Wired, The Village Voice, Harper’s, Esquire, and National Public Radio among others. Dettmer’s work can be found in several public and private collections throughout the US, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and Asia (excerpts from his website).


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Excavation Process

He begins his process by completely sealing the old book’s edges using glue. Once the edges are enclosed and the books are in the desired form, he then starts excavating pieces layer by layer — exposing various letters in each page and cutting around ideas and images of interest that he wants to retain. According to him, nothing inside the book is relocated or implanted, only removed. His process can take weeks or even years depending to how intricate the sculpture is. He usually spends up to 50 hours a week working on his projects inside his own studio.

My work is a collaboration with the existing material and its past creators and the completed pieces expose new relationships of the book’s internal elements exactly where they have been since their original conception.


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Dettmer’s process doesn’t start with a solid plan; he works with what he has as he goes along.”Some pieces start and then there is a point where I don’t know where to direct the structure to. I have had some pieces that take a year or so before I found a clear direction for the work to take,” he explained.

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Artist’s Statement

The age of information in physical form is waning. As intangible routes thrive with quicker fluidity, material, and history are being lost, slipping and eroding into the ether, newer media swiftly flip forms — unrestricted by the weight of material and the responsibility of history. In the tangible world, we are left with a frozen material; but in the intangible world, we may be left with nothing. History is lost as formats change from physical stability to digital distress.

The richness and depth of the book is universally respected yet often undiscovered as the monopoly of the form and relevance of the information fades over time. The book’s intended function has decreased and the form remains linear in a non-linear world. By altering physical forms of information and shifting preconceived functions, new and unexpected roles emerge. This is the area I currently operate in. Through meticulous excavation or concise alteration, I edit or dissect communicative objects or systems such as books, maps, tapes, and other media. The medium’s role transforms. Its content is recontextualized and new meanings or interpretations emerge.

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Dettmer is aware that his creations might get mixed reactions from various people. Especially from book lovers seeing only mutilated books. But here is his personal take on it. “Nobody wants to throw this away but nobody really knows what to do with these outdated books. The timelessness of the material is something that I like to exploit in a way, I guess”.

For more of Brian Dettmer’s intricate book sculptures. Visit his personal website and his Facebook page.

So what your take on these book sculptures? Hit us in the comments below!


Manila-based multimedia designer specializing in graphic design, illustration and photo manipulations. Fascinated with vector illustrations, minimalist designs, and clever advertising ideas. Always on the lookout for creative stuff serving as his daily dose of inspiration.