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Artists speak in volumes

HAZEL FRIEDMAN reviews the extremely lovely exhibition Artists’ Books at the Johannesburg Art Gallery

IN the beginning there was the word. Then the word became print, opening up a seemingly magical world in which information could be reproduced and circulated for mass consumption. Then came the book, containing the continuum of experience and the moving pictures of the imagination within its covers, reassuring readers they were not really alone.

Perhaps that was the impetus behind art collector and self-confessed bibliomaniac Jack Ginsberg’s (see pic) obsession with books. Not your common or garden text and illustration books, mind, nor those coffee- table door-stoppers designed for rookie intellectuals. Ginsberg’s books are not for conventional reading. They nestle in walnut shells, are made from mirror, shaped like accordions or teddy bears, and printed on wood, sackcloth or found objects by fine artists, film-makers, calligraphers, conceptualists and other creative spirits. And his unique collection of artists’ books forms the spine of an exhibition which speaks in volumes, not only about the book as subject and object but also the bonding of private, meditative labour with public culture.

Co-curated by Ginsberg and David Paton, who is completing his masters thesis on book collection, this mammoth endeavour is second in scale only to one held recently at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It is also extremely timeous, given the controversy raging over the release of the Film and Publications Bill on Censorship and particularly for a country which – in previous years – took such pride in violating all forms of creative expression. This is also an exhibition which beckons to communities who normally dread crossing the rarefied gallery threshhold. After all, as the poster points out, the show is by authors who do not write. Comprehension, therefore is not dependant on literacy levels.

Consisting of books by artists worldwide, including Willem Boshoff, Belinda Blignaut and Pippa Skotnes of South Africa, Artists’ Books presents curatorial challenges which are hardly ever confronted within the context of a conventional art exhibition. For, while it is acceptable to contain or suspend an art object for purposes of contemplation, the serial nature of a book militates against this strategy. Books demand direct access. And artists’ books in particular function primarily as installations to be viewed from multiple perspectives. The curators were faced, therefore, with the task of choosing which aspects of the books to display at the expense of others. But they have risen to the challenge by using photographs showing the different states of the books, treating the gallery as an exo-skeleton of sorts and the exhibition space as a book in itself. For example, the spine of the exhibition correlates to the spine of a book. And, as visitors flip through the “pages”, a history unfolds, from the primitive presses of the industrial revolution and the surrealist fetish objects of the 1930s to the art books for social change produced by the 1960s conceptualists, to the Codex computerised books of the information age. Simultaneously, Artists’ Books offers a literal (sometimes literary, but primarily visual) kaleidoscope of concept and craftsmanship, proving the old adage that a book should not be judged simply by its cover.

Artists’ Books is on show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Joubert Park until October 27

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