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When a book is not a book

Personal Finance

A few months ago I was invited by an artist friend to co-produce an artist’s book. The project, Transgressions and boundaries of the page, was the brainchild of three academics at the North-West University: Ian Marley, a graphic design lecturer; Prof Franci Greyling, the head of creative writing; and art historian Louisemarie Combrink.

Forty-six artists and researchers from disciplines as diverse as architecture and land art to history and language technology were invited to each create an artist’s book.

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Roela Hattingh's installation When the Gods Come to Eat invites the "reader" to take a seat and read the story on the plates. From the collection Transgressions and Boundaries of the Page, North-West University.

According to their website www.bookboek.co.za: “Artist’s books function outside the constraints of the publishing industry and tend to be based on individual artistic vision, conceptualisation and execution.

“It is therefore the ideal medium to involve artists from diverse disciplines through playful exploration and discovery of the possibilities and boundaries of the book.”

The project culminated in three exhibitions.

As part of the Afrikaans Woordfees, an annual festival of the Afrikaans written word, the artist’s books were first exhibited in the Africana Reading Room in the Gericke Library at the University of Stellenbosch in March this year.

The reading room, I must explain, is a windowless, vault-like repository of some exquisitely rare and valuable Africana books and documents. It might be the energetic residue of decades of concentrated study or the low ceilings, synthetic light and ambient drone of air conditioning and humidifiers, but the entire space and atmosphere invites concentration and focus.

Having participated, I spent quite a lot of time at the exhibition, finding the perfect excuse to observe the visitors with uninhibited abandon. It was only during the last half hour of the last day that I realised what made me come back time and time again to look at the people looking at the books. All seem to have entered into a private conversation with each and every one of the exhibits – touching, reading, paging, listening, engaging.

They seemed hypnotised, spellbound, mesmerised.

Mesmerise: to hypnotise, to enthrall – after F Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), a flamboyant and, shall we say, slightly eccentric physician whose controversial methods of healing got him barred from medical practice in both Vienna and Paris.

In stark contrast to the ideals of rationality and scientific inquiry that informed intellectual pursuit of the late 18th century, he chose to dress in flowing lilac robes and wave wands. He would enter a dimly lit room in which soft music played and touch the afflicted part of a patient with his hands or one of his wands. The patients were reported experiencing a sort of seizure, upon which they would feel completely cured. It was pure theatre – mesmerising.

To his followers he was an inspired healer, but to the medical fraternity he was a charlatan. After intense investigation they pronounced him an impostor and claimed that his cures were based purely on “imagination”. They concluded that the profound changes in behaviour so evident in those who were seeking his help were nothing but a “function of suggestion”. A function of suggestion.

Ironically, Mesmer, whose work is considered by some to be the precursor to hypnotism and auto-suggestion, died in obscurity.

But back to the artist’s book. The genre is notoriously difficult to define, so in order to understand what it is, we sometimes have to rely on the function of suggestion.

Artist’s books are not books, they are works of art that commonly follow either the form or the function of what we traditionally think of as a book. Sometimes neither form nor function is present, yet it still “feels” like a book. So, it might look like a book but not be one, or it might not look like a book but would, in fact, be a book.

Artists have been making books for centuries. Up to the invention of the printing press around the middle of the 15th century, almost all books produced in the West were one-of-a-kind and handmade. And though those two characteristics are often an integral part of an artist’s book, these antiquarian books fall outside the parameters of this genre.

Historians have identified various 18th- and 19th-century artistic contributions that could be called artist’s books, yet the fact remains: books as art objects are essentially a 20th-century concept – an artistic expression of the prevailing intellectual zeitgeist of the time, particularly the notions of Deconstruction as proposed by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Dieter Roth (1930–1998), one of the fathers of the artist’s book, cut holes in a book so that more than one page could be seen at a single moment, thereby challenging our understanding of what a book really is by deconstructing the form, rendering it functionless.

Another early proponent of this art form is Ed Ruscha (1937– ). Ruscha photographed the 26 petrol stations he passed on Route 66 (the road between his home in Los Angeles and his parents’ home in Oklahoma) and self-published the first edition of Twentysix Gasoline Stations (400 copies). These were for sale only at the petrol stations featured in the book, an idea that challenged all existing distribution structures.

Which brings us to another set of characteristics of the artist’s book: self-publishing, self-distribution and multiples. An artist’s book, if one could venture a succinct definition, would thus be an object of art that explores ideas and concepts using the form and function of a book and that is unique or in limited editions and is distributed in unconventional ways.

But, it’s not necessarily book-like or sculptural or even distributable. Like one of the exhibits at Transgression and boundaries of the page: calling her installation When the Gods come to eat, Roela Hattingh set a table for 12 guests using 26 hand-made ceramic plates decorated with words. Each plate represents a page from a book. In order to read the story, visitors have to move from one chair to the next (assuming the role of that particular guest for a moment). There’s a story, but no book! As I said, this is a notoriously slippery genre to define.

Safest to say that artist’s books are works of art. And as such, they are hugely collectible.

An interesting phenomenon is the fact that artist’s books are often collected by institutions. One of the biggest collections belongs to Tate Britain (www.tate.org.uk). Other institutional collectors include libraries and centres for the book.

In South Africa, the most renowned collection belongs to Jack M Ginsberg. A 1996 exhibition co-curated by Ginsberg and University of Johannesburg academic David Paton resulted in a seminal book (the normal sort) on the subject of South African artist’s books. The catalogue has become a collectors’ item in its own right (www.theartistsbook.org.za).

I recently had an opportunity to read some of the comments from visitors to the exhibition of Transgressions and boundaries of the page in the University of Stellenbosch Library.

“Even better the 2nd time around; each book is a new world.”

One of many comments singing praise.

“What prompted this extraordinary response from the visitors?” I asked Greyling.

“I think it had something to do with the context in which we showed the collection,” she suggested. After the initial exhibition (held in the Africana Reading Room library), the show travelled to two other venues – both conventional art galleries.

“It was in the first setting (the library), a most unlikely place for an art exhibition to start with, that people engaged so naturally and physically with the objects. When we got to the second space (The Gallery at the North-West University Potchefstroom campus), we started noticing a change. Visitors had to be prompted and encouraged to engage on a physical level.”

The “books” were displayed on tables along uncluttered walls.

At the last venue, the FADA Gallery at the University of Johannesburg, all works of art were placed on plinths, conforming to the set notions of art gallery tradition.

“It was curious to notice that the objectification of the pieces had a dramatic effect of inverse correlation with viewer participation.”

Platitudes like “the medium is the message” sometimes become so commonplace that they lose meaning. Yet, here we have it again. One show, three contexts, three experiences – all directly corresponding to the function of suggestion. The places suggested the response. We all know that in libraries you are at liberty to touch things and that art galleries are “hands off” spaces. It’s just seldom as apparent as in this case. Poor Mesmer. To think he died in obscurity.

* Jo-Marie Rabe is a cultural historian and she co-owns Piér Rabe Antiques in Stellenbosch.

* This article was first published in the 4th quarter 2010 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

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