Eyes and eyras: an Encyclopaedia Ball collaboration with Fumio Obata

Encyclopaedia Ball – my project to convert a set of 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid papier mache ball, page by page – reached the milestone of ‘F’. Whenever I reach a new letter I have a small party, with food beginning with that letter and a guest of honour whose name begins with that letter. For ‘F’ I wanted to involve my friend from art school, the illustrator Fumio Obata. Fumio doesn’t live close to me, so I asked him to collaborate at a distance. I sent him the title page of the volume I was up (along with a hamper of ‘F’ food) to and asked him to draw on it, or just sign it. The idea was that I’d incorporate the page into the ball and ultimately cover it up with more layers of pages.

Fumio called my bluff and covered the page with a beautiful and elaborate drawing. It’s a sort of stream of consciousness doodle, with surreal monsters, feet, tentacles, eyes, mineral forms and alien shapes swirling round the title ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’. At the bottom left hand corner, with a touch of genius, Fumio has added a lone female onlooker. Fumio’s drawing gave me a dilemma – should I add it to the ball and cover it up as I told him I would? In the end I felt like it was cheating on the project and on Fumio to just keep it. The pain I felt adding the drawing to the ball would be similar to that I often feel in destroying the encyclopaedias (Encyclopaedia Ball has always been an edgy and ambivalent project for me).

The next question was how to mount the flat drawing onto the curved surface of the ball (which has a circumference of 111cm.) Usually, when I add pages to the ball, they crease and fold as they are forced round the shape, but doing that to the drawing was out of the question. Instead I decided to disassemble the drawing and reassemble it on the surface of the ball, so that the elements sprawl across it and interact with the images and text already there. The ball already had several cross sections of eyes, from the article on eyes, and a drawing of an animal called an eyra. The themes of looking and eyes seemed to connect the images on the ball with Fumio’s drawing. Fumio’s drawing has several eyed creatures, as well as the onlooking person. 

I made a couple of scans of the drawings and tried different ways of cutting it up. It wasn’t easy, because of the way that the imagery and lines merged into one another. Once I found a way that I felt best honoured the individuality of the various elements in the drawing, I tried out various ways of arranging them on the ball. This was slightly easier, because connections suggested themselves, and I repeated the arrangement I was happiest with with the actual drawing. Elements of Fumio’s drawing came out of, went into, circled round, occupied, threatened and regarded the eyes and eyra on the ball. It felt sacrilegious to cut up Fumio’s drawing (I was sorely tempted to substitute a scan for the original), but I at least tried to honour it and to liberate its denizens to swirl around and interact in 3D.