Dominic Riley


Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. Full leather binding using linen thread with cushioned boards, brown goatskin, with light brown goatskin joints and doublures, light brown pigskin flyleaves, edges decorated with acrylic, silk-sewn headbands, tooled in silver and glow-in-the dark foil on cover and doublures; protective clamshell box with suedelle pads, title label tooled blind on box spine label in the boustrophedon style (as the ox turns).

Dominic offered a short and long artist statement…both were wonderful and included here: 

Short statement

“This is a puzzle book, that is, both Megan’s work and mine. The human figures on the covers are the well-known image of the chalk outline of the CSI dead body. They are cut up in the manner of animal butchery. The cryptic lines at top conceal the title. Whilst most of the tooling is done with silver, the bodies’ outline and the individual letters of the title are tooled with glow-in-the-dark foil. On the doublures, the figures slip down the boards, while the title is tooled again, this time backwards on the leather, which is revealed right-reading on the suede. The box spine title is a further puzzle to be solved.”

Long statement

 I have known about human skin bindings for years, and so was delighted but not surprised that someone had finally gotten around to researching and writing about them. That it was Megan Rosenbloom who took on the challenge is a gift to all serious bibliophiles and historians of the book. With her combined expertise as a medical historian and special collections librarian, coupled with her insatiable curiosity and flawless writing style, she lays the stories out beautifully. 

 She is inquisitive but not prurient, forensic in pursuit of her subjects whilst remaining respectful of the ‘victims’, and even remains measured in her judgement of the perpetrators of the ‘crimes’. Her approach, and style, reminded me of that of my favourite science writer – and favourite cousin – Mary Roach, who, incidentally, played a part in getting us together.

 I knew from the outset that I would depict human forms on the cover and somehow hide the title somewhere within. But before that comes the title/author label on the box, which is tooled into blood red leather in the boustrophedon style (from the Greek: as the ox turns (when ploughing), a nice bit of ancient cryptic writing to set the scene). 

 When it came to the cover, I first drew upon that most familiar image: the chalk outline of the dead body, known to all viewers of CSI dramas. When I discovered that these are not actually used in real life, but are merely a devise employed in the crime writers’ imagination, it only persuaded me more that it was the right choice.

 I also thought it would be a macabre irony to slice up the bodies in the style of traditional butchery, and so the ‘murdered and dissected’ human imagery was complete (especially apt given that many bodies snatched for the anatomists also provided the binders with their raw material).

Megan’s Dark Archives is a puzzle book: a trawl through history and the archives, with her trusty scientists at her side, as she sets out to prove – or disprove – the identity of the bindings’ covers. So my binding had to deliver the news – the title – also encrypted in puzzle form. And so the lines which come off the bodies become a seemingly disordered matrix in which are hidden the letters of the title. You can pick them out if you know they are there, but a further puzzle/trick awaits you — the glow in the dark. Exposing the cover to bright lights for a minute or two, and then turning off the lights in a dark room, reveals the bodies and the title shining out. This is meant to be a little fun for the reader as well as a serious reference to Megan’s work — shedding light on the darkness of anthropodermics.

 The last treat is on the doublures, where, as the bodies slip down the boards, the title is tooled in blind, but backwards. These impressions are off-set into the suede flyleaves, where they become legible once more. 

 The edge of the textblock is painted with red acrylic and the reference should be obvious (although, again, the truth contradicts the art, as a dead body doesn’t bleed. But the metaphor still stands, as I do not deal in truth but in drama.)

 As in all my bindings, I like to deploy poetry rather than prose, since poetry invites the reader to do a little work in order to understand the narrative. I also strive to deliver a visual punch, which is to say, a little bit of shock, and a little bit of fun. After all, this is what life, and art, are mostly made up of.” [artist statement] (#10815)
[On loan from a private collection.]

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 Posted by at 5:43 pm
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