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Take a Taxi to SA art

What does one make of the term “artist’s book”? A handcrafted, unique book made by an artist, or a limited edition printed and bound work, self-published and not terribly commercially viable? Or a “democratic multiple”, designed as affordable, accessible and an alternative space to make certain material culture or research known?

The Taxi series of artists’ books, published by David Krut Publishing, was initiated earlier this year with the release of Taxi-001, Jo Ractliffe, and Taxi-002, Samson Mudzunga. Designed to go some way towards counteracting the dearth of local art titles, the project was given a genuine air of productivity with the launch of these rather uneven first two titles within weeks of each other. Now, a few months later, Taxi-003, Jeremy Wafer, has appeared, and the project has begun to take real form.

One thing that struck me while navigating these very readable publications was trying to decide whether they are artists’ books or books about artists. I tend towards the latter for reasons that have to do with authorship and visual representation.

Wafer may be the brightest and most consistent figure on the Durban art scene, with two very successful Goodman Gallery exhibitions to his credit in 1998 and 2001, a number of international group shows and residencies, and a couple of corporate commissions to round off the past few years. Straddling sculpture, photography, painting and video, he undoubtledly produces beautiful objects, but the content is a bit more slippery. Common motifs, which range from interpretations of industrial forms, African artefacts and physical and spatial geography, are incidental to their reformulation as metaphors of edges and borders, structured as catalogued “typologies”.

Writer Lola Frost manages to contain this eclectic oeuvre in her text, but it needs a more stringent methodology. The tone is self-conscious and dry, with too-careful cross-referencing in the style of an academic essay. Frost getsm the basics right, constructing an argument that acknowledges how the paradoxical power in Wafer’s work operates. Having said that, her interpretations are often too politically heavy-handed or omit some basic art-historical referencing that would have situated Wafer in a global context.

We don’t hear from Wafer at all — not that he’s given to speaking freely about his work, mind. The simple layout, executed by Paul Emmanuel, neatly separates the visual work from the text. Spreading the images throughout all three of the languages used (there are translations of the text into French and Dutch) serves as a logical device to consolidate this document. The overly determined design conceits in the Mudzunga monograph — which were also present in Ractliffe’s but seemed to make more sense there — are thankfully absent.

The Ractliffe book presents itself as a high-gloss document with full colour plates breaking pages of monochromatic strips of images, faithfully reproducing her body of elusive photographic and video work. Hers is the only title released thus far that gives preference to her voice as a commentator on her work, which appears in grey between sections of Brenda Atkinson’s eloquent text. At one point, a symbolic hole in the text appears where Atkinson co-opts psychoanalytic rhetoric to access images that are “about icon rather than medium”, deftly revealing her strategy.

Where the Ractliffe and Wafer books are slick, the Mudzunga is raw. A matt, slightly textured cover featuring a startling portrait of the sculptor/performance artist, and all the images are in black-and-white. The book feels good to hold, but the lack of colour for a very colourful character seems odd. Since his practice oscillates between Venda and Johannesburg, the book opens from either end, with chapters by co-authors Kathy Coates and Stephen Hobbs placing his work in each locale.

Each book, which runs to between 80 and 100 pages and contains the trilingual text, is accompanied by well-researched and invaluable educational supplements compiled by the MTN Art Institute and overseen by series editor Atkinson. The choice of artists, overseen by a selection committee of well-placed art-world cognoscenti, has thus far been good, acknowledging those who have made a significant contribution to the local contemporary art scene but who aren’t provided the opportunities that a William Kentridge, Kay Hassan or Zwelethu Mthethwa enjoy.

One needn’t state the obvious and go into how important and timely this series is. Being published by a company with a strict interest in art publishing means that all the sympathies are in the right place while never losing sight of the fact that seducing the market at large will not be easy.

Without local precedent, this series has an immediacy lacking in the Taschen or Phaidon heavyweight publications that bask in the glow of international art star luminosity. The Wayne Barker monograph (Taxi-000), released in 2000, set the precedent for the series of which it wasn’t really a part, but was more of an artist’s book, if the truth be told.

Gripes about design and authorship aside, the series is pitched perfectly: non-threatening to students and informative even for the cynical critic, but Taxi would do better to err on the side of the anecdotal, with some well-founded critical interpretation to take up the slack. Late October will see the release of Taxi-004, Santu Mofokeng, with — at last — a text by the artist himself.

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