Allen Laing, Bookmatch Book, 2018 (front); Pippa Skotnes, Book of the Divine Consolation, 2004-18 (back).

Samplings: South African Artists’ Books

The Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts (JGCBA) – elegantly displayed in the new wing of the Wits Art Museum (WAM) – opened to great acclaim in March. The over 3000 artists’ books in the Ginsberg Collection, as well as the extensive scholarly books and archival materials on that topic, make the JGCBA the premier designated space for the exhibition of artists’ books on the continent, if not globally

Wopko Jensma, No Dice, 1972. Poems and monotypes. FACING PAGE: Allen Laing, Bookmatch Book, 2018 (front); Pippa Skotnes, Book of the Divine Consolation, 2004-18 (back).Wopko Jensma, No Dice, 1972. Poems and monotypes.

Ginsberg began collecting artists’ books in the 1970s, just as the interest in fine bookmaking was burgeoning both in Europe and the United States. Given its depth and range, as well as the high quality of the individual works, the JGCBA is now a major focus for the study and appreciation of the history of artists’ books.

In the excitement surrounding the opening exhibition in the new wing of the museum, a second corollary exhibition, in the Basement Gallery of the main building, may have been overlooked. If so, that would be a true shame. ‘Samplings: South African Artists’ Books’, curated by scholar and artist David Paton –with the assistance of incoming curator of the JGBCA, Rosalind Cleaver – demonstrates that South African artists were far from in the backwater during the resurgence of artists bookmaking from the 1970s to the present. Not only does ‘Samplings’ provide a comprehensive introduction to the only collection of South African artists’ books in the world, it does so through an imaginative installation, one that challenges the viewer to expand her conception of book arts in general. ‘Samplings: South African Artists’ Books’ does not tell you what an artist’s book is – an artwork made in the form of a book – rather it demonstrates what it can be.

Allen Laing, Bookmatch Book, 2018 (front); Pippa Skotnes, Book of the Divine Consolation, 2004-18 (back).Allen Laing, Bookmatch Book, 2018 (front); Pippa Skotnes, Book of the Divine Consolation, 2004-18 (back).

The following is a brief overview of the exhibition, followed by an interview with the curator.

The first two works one encounters sets up the exhibit’s challenge as well as visually presenting the guiding concept of the exhibition. The young sculptor and performance artist Allen Laing, who has been experimenting with the book form since 2016, presents Bookmatch Book (2018), with ‘pages’ constructed from many different woods that serve to constitute its narrative. To the rear of Laing’s work is the startling sculpture of a horse. Indeed, Pippa Skotnes’ Book of the Divine Consolation, from her Book of Iterations series, (2004-18), is written in black on the skeleton of an actual horse, with the addition of gold leaf. If one is not aware, as I was not, that the Book of the Divine Consolation was written by medieval German theologian Eckhart von Hochheim commonly known as Meister Eckhart, who was tried as a heretic, but revived as an exemplar of modern spirituality in the 19th century, one is unlikely to find anything in the written text but a sequence of letters. The labels accompanying the exhibition provide the artists’ names, the titles, the mediums and the dates, but no explanatory text. Thus, the viewer is left to process this disconcerting but deeply moving BSO (Book Shaped Object) on her own. The curator intended that when the visitor overlooked the lines of vitrines from the entry platform, she would think of individual pages of a book.

The viewer is now presented with the broad scope of book arts: hanging on the walls are broadsides (1-page books), comics, and a series of poems in diptych form by Wopko Jensma, No Dice, from 1972. At the back are books from all manner of unexpected materials, including zines by students and t-shirt books by Maya Marx. On the left wall, atop a desk, are three glass books by Berco Wilsenach, The Archive of Memory (1995), whose pages of mug shots are too fragile to be turned. There is even a book by Jack Ginsberg himself: Penelope Punctuated (1998)!

“Some of my concerns here were to unhinge the conventions of the book and our relationships with book by opening up and exploring the concept of bookness. This was achieved by including works across as wide a range of material, structural and conceptual possibilities.”

The cases highlight works by prominent South African artists, with care taken to display books in every possible format. These include some of the earliest artist books by the late Walter Battiss, who recently had an important retrospective at WAM, including major loans from Ginsberg’s collection which remain on permanent loan to the Museum. Battiss’ Nesos, published in Greece in 1968, consists of elegant seriographs of Greek Islands, where he emerges – or ‘invents himself’ as an underground rebel in his Male Fook Book I (1975). The inventiveness of South African artists constantly surprises and amazes. The late Judith Mason manages to transform a saw blade into a flowing wave bearing the prologue to The Canterbury Tales (A Very Brief Chaucer Reader, 1993).

Pamela Allara: How did the exhibition come about? How did you and Rosalind Cleaver collaborate in its curation?

David Paton: In celebration of the opening of the JGCBA, Jack decided that an exhibition in the new display cabinets and vitrines would constitute a tiny sampling from the categories in which he had collected and into which his collection naturally seemed to divide itself. Artists’ books, books on artists’ books, monographs, designer bindings, popular culture, printmaking and other non-printing processes of production, presses and publishers, materials, pop-up and other structures formed some of the samplings. In late 2018, the WAM staff decided to also make the Basement Gallery available for the opening and for a period of 4 ½ months thereafter. This presented a major problem in that the space is large, would be available for a considerable part of 2019 and would leave us only five weeks to plan and install both exhibitions. We decided that, as the Basement Gallery was part of WAM’s general exhibition spaces, providing access to the public and students who visited WAM’s other exhibitions, this space should consist only of South African works, or works related to South Africa.

Whereas the Centre’s space was already conceived of as sectional samplings from Jack’s collection and merely required Jack and Ros to select appropriate books in each category, the Basement Gallery space required a very different curatorial eye. Ros and I have a curatorial process which works with the ‘available real estate’ of a space; the number of cabinets, suitable walking and viewing space as well as the wall space. From this pragmatic data we go about cutting newsprint rectangles representing the footprint for each cabinet. This allows us to set up a draft exhibition, cabinet by cabinet, in terms of what fits each cabinet’s footprint. The South African works are relatively limited in Jack’s vast collection, and although the exhibition space is large, the number of works from which to choose makes the task easier than having to choose from a much larger selection.

Once we had a possible exhibition, Ros and I looked more critically at what we had selected and forged thematic elements from that selection. From here I swapped out works and brought in others which seemed more appropriate or added to the developing curatorial themes. Possible works for the walls would have a tangential relationship with the books in the cabinets. I also had a video of William Kentridge’s animated and quasi-flip books from the ‘Booknesses Conversation’ at the Uiversity of Johannesburg in 2017 which we incorporated into the exhibition. A number of curatorial considerations also came into play: the type of audience – the educative nature of the exhibition (many might never have seen an exhibition of artists’ books before) – a need to hook students into the generative power of the book (via zines, graphic novels, video etc.). We wanted to showcase the power and diversity of South African work before introducing visitors to the depth and range of the international field, exhibited upstairs. All South Africans had to feel represented in this exhibition, and it needed to whet the appetite for more.

What was the overall concept of ‘Samplings?’ and how did that concept guide the choice of works and the installation?

The idea that sampling items from Jack’s collection would constitute the mode of curation upstairs in the Centre, meant that Jack would decide on the categories first, after which he and Ros would populate the categories with appropriate books in sections of the display areas, cabinets and vitrines. This predetermined set of categories, however, did not apply to the South African books particularly comfortably. Rather, I decided on a range of work for the Basement Gallery which would ‘sample’ some of the issues associated with book arts in South Africa. Some of my concerns here were to unhinge the conventions of the book and our relationships with book by opening up and exploring the concept of bookness. This was achieved by including works across as wide a range of material, structural and conceptual possibilities. Given that this exhibition would be the entry point to the Centre above I also wanted this exhibition to speak to both visual art and design students in terms of ideas for their publications, as well as encourage a sense that the book arts has much to offer prospective postgraduate students as a research field.

Having recently supervised Allen Laing’s Masters study in which one particularly beautifully crafted wooden book-sculpture had been bought for the collection from his exhibition, I decided to pair this work with one of Pippa Skotnes’s sculptures from her series, Book of Iterations. These two sculptural pieces introduce the exhibition of South African work by immediately asking a set of questions around what they are, how they function as books and why they appear at the start of the exhibition.

As both deploy spines in their structure, these acted as metaphorical spines from which the ‘pages’ of the exhibition might be bound. If the entire exhibition constituted a single book, each cabinet represented the individual ‘pages’ of this book. I have deployed this curatorial philosophy before. If the individual books cannot be touched, then access to the works is by guiding the visitor as if they are reading a single book and navigating through the ‘chapters’ of the book/exhibition. This gives conceptual access rather than tactile access.

‘Chapters’ explore broad themes but also include books which speak to one another within each vitrine via technique or visual similarity. Sometimes these were obvious but others were more suggestive or open-ended. Given South Africa’s problematic and contested (art) history, collaboration was an important sub-theme, appearing as groupings of collaborative books in specific vitrines and as differing types of collaboration throughout the exhibition.

I wanted to show the rich diversity of the book arts in South Africa and thus fine press books appeared alongside hand-made books, sculptural forms, book-shaped objects (BSOs), videos, journals, zines and graphic novels. We certainly succeeded in highlighting the achievements of South African book artists, as the diversity, technical mastery and conceptual strength of the local field is readily on display.

Kim Berman, State of Emergency II, 1986.Kim Berman, State of Emergency II, 1986.

In addition to highlighting the achievements of South African book arts, was the exhibition designed to augment or provide a balance to the opening exhibition at the JGCBA in terms of style or historical period?

It is a ‘balance’ to the exhibition at the JGCBA, but not necessarily in terms of style or historical period. Jack’s samplings include masterpieces with international reputations, whereas we are still trying to build local knowledge and appreciation. I think we have achieved this by isolating and foregrounding South African works, allowing them to shine and not be overawed by international exemplars. Having been given a separate space, we turned it into a celebration of the strength of the local field.

Is there any way to characterise South African artists’ approach to the book arts that might distinguish it from that of artists elsewhere?

South Africa’s fraught past runs through this exhibition as one of several seams. Whether it is visible or not is up to the visitor and their individual orientation towards the field. It was vital to show that the book arts in South Africa is not only a white activity. There are very few books artists who control all phases of production and, typically, separate role players: artists, writers, printers, binders and publishers collaborate on a book-project. In South Africa, however, collaboration is a characteristic seam of much book arts practice. Many local book artists combine their skills to make the paper, generate both the texts and images and bind the edition. The collaborative projects from Artists’ Proof Studio are well represented on the exhibition. Often focusing on socio-political, economic and health issues, such collaborations are powerful, generative and in some instances life affirming and communal. The collaborative zines produced by 3rd year Wits Fine Art students give quirky, yet eloquent voice to the issues facing young people today: decolonized, relevant education and the skills required to form part of a productive economy. In many ways, this seam explores the power of collaborative and communal efforts that might also encompass the South African voice of Black Lives Matter.

Another seam is one of content. South African artists provoke compelling dialogues and critiques of personal-political identities and these themes are equally visible in the books on exhibition. I’m not sure that the technical and formalist foci seen in many international exemplars constitutes the focus of South African artists’ endeavors. This is not meant to imply that South African work is technically poor (most of the works in the Basement Gallery could hold their heads up in any international company). What I stress, however, is that content is everything in this country. Artists’ books provide another register of voice to this concern for powerful content.

‘Samplings: South African Artists’ Books’ was curated by David Paton, from the University of Johannesburg. The exhibition was on view at Basement Gallery, Wits Art Museum, 26 March until 6 July 2019.

Pamela Allara is Associate Professor at the Fine Art Department at Brandeis.