Last summer a set of dazzling paper sculptures began popping up at strategic locations all over Edinburgh. The story took off on twitter and eventually on news sites around the world. As more and more of these incredible objects appeared an irresistible puzzle began to unfold.
What makes a good mystery story? Well first of all you need a great setting (Edinburgh would suffice). Then if you can cobble together a cast of compelling characters, throw in a few twists and maybe a murder or two you’re already half way there. What about a whodunit using Edinburgh’s literary establishment as the canvas? The culprit – a renegade artist – would leave clues scattered around the city, intricate sculptures handcrafted from Scottish novels and poems. That might just work: ‘The Strange Case of the Paper Sculptures’.
Oops. I’m afraid that’s already been done. Pity. But before we go any further there was no murder involved, unless, that is, you take into account several books being snipped up and rearranged into sculptures. Just a little mild bookicide then.
It all began in March last year when staff at the Scottish Poetry Library stumbled across a sculpted tree – later dubbed The ‘Poetree’ – left anonymously on a table in the library. It was an object of rare beauty and considerable craftsmanship. A note left by the tree, addressed to the Library’s twitter account @byleaveswelive read:
‘It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree.… … We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.… This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)’
The whole thing was baffling. Local news picked up on the story quickly and tried in vain to establish who had created this little masterpiece. But nobody knew where it came from, nor was anyone forthcoming with information. And it turned out that this was just the beginning.
In late June a similar piece was discovered at the National Library of Scotland sculpted from a copy of Ian Rankin’s novel Exit Music. It depicted a gramophone sitting atop a tiny coffin – which quietly ushered in a recurring theme in these anonymous works: anxiety at the potential death of Scotland’s creative heritage. As the artist’s note read: ‘A gift in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. (& against their exit)’. Rankin’s work would also become a running theme in the sculptures, echoing the mystery at the heart of their creation.
Then it was the Filmhouse’s turn to receive a gift. This time it was a tiny cinema scene with filmgoers watching a big screen as men and horses gallop out of it towards them. A remarkably complex piece. One of the audience is even a tiny Ian Rankin holding a tiny little pint of Deuchars.
By this time every institution in Edinburgh with some kind of literary connection was expecting to find a little something in their midst. Our anonymous artist (‘the Banksy of Books’ or ‘Booksy’ as the Gaurdian wryly dubbed them) did not disappoint. Pieces appeared at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, The Edinburgh Book Festival, The Central Library, The National Museum of Scotland, The Writer’s Museum and finally the last piece was deposited back at The Scottish Poetry Library, where it all began, with, intriguingly, a note. A goodbye note, as it turns out, in which the artist revealed that she is a woman:
Some had wondered who it was, leaving these small strange objects. Some even thought it was a ‘he’! ……. As if!’
She writes that the entire enterprise was:
‘A tiny gesture in support of the special places…..’
and that the poetry library was close to her heart:
‘here, she will end this story, in a special place … A Poetry Library ….. where they are well used to “anon”.’
What is remarkable about these sculptures is that each piece is as esoteric, beautiful and as lovingly created as the last. The ‘Poetree’ with its message of renewal and rebirth is certainly a standout but I really can’t pick a favourite!
There has been some discussion of an exhibition of all the pieces together but for now you can see many of them on display in the places that they were dropped. I recommend a visit. Perhaps we will never know who the artist was that so modestly distributed her works around Edinburgh last year. But does this really matter? Wouldn’t that dispel the magic ?
If you are looking to find out more you can find a copy of the mystery artist’s letter in full and a very detailed narrative of the events online at http://thisiscentralstation.com/featured/mysterious-paper-sculptures/