When Georges Simenon visited Edinburgh and saw the great gothic monument to Sir Walter Scott that rises from Princes Street Gardens, he is reputed to have said in astonishment, ‘They built that to a writer — to one of us!’ But Edinburgh, which has a fair claim to being the cradle of literature, has always been a city that both promotes and succours its writers.
What other city would name its main railway station after a novel, as Edinburgh did in honour of Scott’s Waverley? And what football team other than Heart of Midlothian is named after a novel?
Edinburgh was, then, seemingly the obvious choice for an intriguing and mysterious art project which unfolded throughout 2011 — a tantalising tale which developed across literary Edinburgh as a series of intricate paper sculptures appeared in museums and libraries, their origin and creator unknown.
The first was found in the Scottish Poetry Library last March. It is a remarkably complex and delicate sculpture of a tree rising from the pages of a book along with a broken paper eggshell, lined with words from an Edwin Morgan poem.
The whole piece is carved and constructed from the pages of a book. The accompanying card stated ‘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…’
(@byleaveswelive is the Twitter identity of the Scottish Poetry Library.)
The enigma continued, as further sculptures appeared at the National Library of Scotland, the Filmhouse cinema, and the Scottish Storytelling Centre. When the world’s largest Book Festival came to town in August it was honoured with two new sculptures, one secreted into the signing tent, one in the UNESCO City of Literature stand.
The next to appear, a book with a paper magnifying glass, was discovered at the Central Library later that month. It used another Edwin Morgan poem and bore a tag that read, ‘Libraries are expensive’ but with the second ‘e’ of expensive crossed out and replaced with an ‘a’.
The existence of the tenth sculpture was revealed by an entry in the guest book of the Scottish Poetry Library. Perhaps the most extraordinary of them all, this one composed a ‘cap of wren’s wings and gloves of bee’s fur’, rendered in the most exquisitely detailed cut paper.
The curious subject matter comes from a Norman MacCaig poem, ‘Gifts’. Two more, numbers eight and nine, were ultimately discovered in the Writers’ Museum and the National Museum.
And then it was all over, with a valedictory signing off in the Poetry Library guest book, the artist receded back into the shadows, with nothing but the sculptures and the words remaining. In this note, she thanked, among others, @Beathhigh — Ian Rankin’s Twitter ID.
Rankin is clearly a central figure, as some of the works are carved from his books while his face features in the sculpture found in The Filmhouse — and what would an Edinburgh mystery be without Rankin? I spoke to the man himself for The Spectator Arts Blog and asked him about his connection with the sculptures.
He revealed how he had been complicit in the project from the start, having been contacted by the artist before the process began. ‘She proposed the leaving of one or two sculptures around the city when she visited with her partner,’ he explained. ‘I met them both for the first time during that trip. Having thought it a success, she then decided to make some more sculptures to be distributed during further trips to Edinburgh.’
Intrigue and literature, bound up by art… The whole exercise is unusual and exciting; it belongs in the realm of fiction itself. The appeal lies not merely in the undeniable craftsmanship of the sculptures — as Rankin says, ‘they are lovely, delicate works of art and obviously took a lot of skill, time and effort’ — but in the irresistible enigma and laudable, even noble, purpose behind them.
According to Rankin, the artist ‘is aware of the city’s proud heritage but also that this heritage needs protecting and consolidating’. This is self-effacing art: pure, purposeful and public.
I have no desire to know the identity of the artist. It is enough for me that such things should exist and that I should have the opportunity, as I did at StAnza, to see some of them and enjoy the clever premise of the project.
In her farewell note, the artist calls her work ‘a tiny gesture in support of the special places’. It is a very special gesture.