SPEAKING VOLUMES: The Weight of Reading in the World

This exhibition explores the book as subject and as object, as presence in the human world. Most of us, I think, hold dear the memory of a time when books were miraculous objects, shapes and colours glimpsed past the great bulk of reading a parent’s body. But I have been trying to remember too when it was that I first realized that one cannot know a book by its cover. I think I can conjure it up for you: I am lying outside in the sun at my grandmother’s house, with early afternoon Highveld light, and the second volume of her late Victorian Bible, the Concise Household Encyclopaedia. It is unpromising, bilious green, gilt titled, but inside I find 600 pages of text and lithographs on a myriad subjects: making calf’s foot jellies for invalids; the modern apiary; the construction of ornamental summer houses. The book towers on my chest, leaving a mark on my thin sternum. In other ways, too, it insists itself upon me, forcing me to change my bodily orientation: there are great concertina folded pages with tinted illustrations of famous desserts; deeper inside, pockets appear, containing tissue paper veiled anatomy drawings where the secrets of human genital disposition are given only in cross section; and finally, there is a gorgeous, spreading display of the eighty most desired species of British cage birds, probably seventy of which would grasp and suffocate in a single South African afternoon.

What I am speaking about, here, is a self consciousness of the physical aspects of reading that receives very little attention today; in the world of this extraordinary exhibition of Artists’ Books, however, every aspect of this interaction is lovingly attended to: there are volumes that are round, painted and decorated, that unfold when a red ribbon is drawn; another requires you to hunt for 13 French folded pockets in which are cosseted 13 handmade wire and card puppets; still others position you like spectators before a Punch and Judy show, and some only give up their secrets reluctantly, when literally held and stretched so that latex lettering can be read. In each of these objects, the act of reading becomes a weighty attenuated process.

In the old world before the automatization of reading, books insisted themselves upon us not only because they were rarer (in the age of vellum, material had to be scraped with pumice stone and softened before painstaking hand illumination), and weightier (think of those triple-decker Dickens novels), but also because they played a rather different role in the reproduction of culture. In the beginning, few readers read, silently. As late as the mid-Nineteenth century, reading at home was a frequently public and performative event, often centred on the family patriarch. Silent reading was often regarded as a female disorder, productive of melancholia or wild imaginings. In truth, though, it is in this silent absorption in the act of reading, that we see the outline of a newly modern subjectivity: the private sphere within the larger mass cultural domain.

Any history of readers will show that there is an intriguing tension between the book as an element of mass culture, and modern conceptions of privacy, inwardness, meditation. This tension has its correlative in the act of reading these mass produced objects. There is the quite physical experience of narrative: each text has a weight; as the story unfolds, we turn the pages, orient our bodies to the light, and sense the diminishing volume of the pages ahead. Thus for all texts there is an interesting relationship between the time of the reading experience, as the clock ticks softly, and the imaginary time of the story, and this is something that becomes an object of intense fascination with Artists’ Books. Some, for instance, magnify and prolong the moment the narrative begins, the time of the opening of the book. Ronald King’s famous Mirror Book, for example, has ‘covers of beveled glass mirrors and fifteen pages of silvered Mylar with bolts holding the spine’. You handle it with white gloves. In others, the act of opening is an act of display, as in Julie Chen’s Listening in which the book can be worn as a headdress in three variations. Still others actively resist opening altogether, like the Boekenplank, or prefer more elaborate processes of revealment like the unrolling of scrolls, fanning out, spiraling, spilling in infinity of gestures that celebrate the body’s address to the word.

A fine collection such as this is suggestive about the relationship between privacy and public culture. Each of these objects is a collaboration that celebrates features of the bookmaking process. In every example, we find an aesthetic over-elaboration of the functional elements of the book: end papers are exotically coloured; there is fore-edge illustration; bindings appear in bewildering exaggeration, including metal stitching and tongue in slot connections; bell jar glass covers or magnifying cases substitute for slip-cases; and there is a remarkable range of fine handmade and heavyweight imported papers. Emphasis is therefore placed on the massive investment of individual labour in each book, in its uniqueness, its non-reproducibility. These works rely, in a word, on discovery, that old eighteenth century term for delight in the unexpected appearance of a new prospect, such as hidden inner objects like ‘a paper sculpture of a double sided face in the centre of the book’. This play upon notions of the private and public is echoed on the opposition between surfaces and interiors: cases, boxes, bindings, in this genre, are both containing and revealing. A spectacular version of Brecht and Weil’s The Seven Deadly Sins of the Lower Middle Class is cased in delightful petit bourgeois ‘purple fur cloth’; other texts have satin pockets or extrusions, in dialectic of inner and outer spaces in which the book comes to represent a dialogue with the body.

Another way of putting it would be to say that many of these forms are highly fetishistic, in the psychoanalytical sense. That is, they mark the refusal to pass beyond an obsession with part-objects to larger processes, to move from the relationship between binding and boards to the act of reading or printing as a form of mass mechanical reproduction. They tell of people who have been exquisitely wounded by some primal encounter with the book, and who have never recovered. I mean of course all of us.

And what of the collector? This is our first public view of his private obsession, a range of materials assembled with such brilliance and individual drive, that having Jack Ginsberg here is like watching an exotic crustacean at the edge of its undersea lair. In some senses, this isn’t a collection; it’s an exoskeleton. But the works have an important story to tell about local, the neighbourhood collective, the capillary, in the modification of public cultures. Some of the most famous artists features here (Jim Dine for instance) have taken the occasion of the book to work in closely collaborative ways. Given this emphasis on the local, and on small collective endeavours, it is easy to see why Jack Ginsberg’s collection has not, until now, been displayed in South Africa. Is it too simplistic to say that, until recently, the relationship of public to private sphere in South Africa necessarily excluded certain forms of artistic production? For good political reasons, in the past, the domain of the erotic as well as that of silent reading had been overwhelmed by the need to produce national political allegories. At the same time, we all know that there have been profoundly negative consequences to this engagement, leading to the proscription of certain forms of visual subject matter.

The Ginsberg Collection introduces us to a genre of artistic endeavour that is sometimes collaborative, sometimes anarchically self referential. Its unveiling, today, is into an environment still quite ill equipped to receive it. Unlike other politicized environments such as Mexico, where conceptions of the national symbolic culture have gone hand in hand with an understanding of the book as icon and subject, here there is a dominant perception that mass illiteracy necessarily excludes that form of absorption. Thankfully, though, our understanding of literacy is changing now and it is clear to me that a tactile love of book forms is something everywhere present but powerfully repressed in South Africa. This is an exhibition that I believe would be greeted sympathetically by working class communities in rural South Africa, for whom the book is still a symbolically charged form, associated with forms of individual loss and passage.

This exhibition speaks about the inventiveness of its curators, Jack Ginsberg and David Paton, who have come up with ingenious ways of dramatizing our bodily address to these volumes, through their intriguing display methods. It is important to say that this show contains radical gestures, and to insist on the radical tradition that underpins attempts to think together notions of book form, printing, and artmaking. This, of course, was the domain of Britain’s most radical Nineteenth Century thinker, William Blake:

Reader! lover of books lover of heaven
And of that God from whom all books are given,
……………………………………………………………………………
Even from the depths of hell his voice I hear,
Within the unfathomd caverns of my ear.
Therefore I print; nor vain my types shall be:
Heaven, Earth & Hell henceforth shall live in perfect harmony.

Blake’s Jerusalem imagines a visionary universe in which printing and painting, labour and joy, are no longer sundered. This form of radical exchange between media, productive of new artistic heavens and earths, involves an exquisite sort of revenge by artists on literature: the Artist’s Book explores the entire physical field of the text, and of textual illustration, but it does so often by interrupting the mass circulation of the book as language: it is as though volumes have been captured before moving away from their writers, becoming encrusted, fantastically embellished, non-linguistic, the realm of the hermit crab. In this moment, the book becomes a secret again, like the originary Word, full of iconographic power.

The Jack Ginsberg Collection is being seen for the first time in South Africa, in a climate now more willing to take it seriously. It is an exhibition that requires your full bodily attention and your delight, but it is also an exhibition that opens a new chapter in the history of printmaking in South Africa by showing the work of extraordinary local artists for whom the book has been a major obsession. The show will now also act as a massive archive of images and collaborative practices that will, for the next two months, be exerting an influence on Johannesburg artmaking, with ripples spreading out across the country. Workshops begun at this gallery yesterday are already serving to carry the example of the Artist’s Book into practice in Soweto and Mamelodi. It will also serve to consolidate a history of book objects in South Africa and their unwritten past: I am moved to see my friend Phil du Plessis’ outrageous 1970s public indecency, the cover of Wurm, in friendly company at last.

In the end, though, I believe that this event represents a peculiar breakthrough in the conception of what it means to manipulate the book into extraordinary forms. Some weeks ago Zachie Achmat, an old political friend and comrade, was sitting in a restaurant with my partner Jane Taylor. They were approached by someone who cried out in delight at seeing Zachie again for the first time in fifteen years after they had spent some very hard time in political detention together. Remarkably, this older man told of a little object he had kept with him since those days, as a sort of talisman. It was a concertina folded tiny volume, made of tissue paper on which was minutely inscribed chapters of Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks. There are many such poignant codices in homes throughout this country, and they are kept not because of their historical value, but also because of their miraculous book form. I had not imagined, five years ago, that the beautiful, dramatic, often privately commissioned objects we see about us now could be displayed with ease in a country that has done so such violence to the form of the book. I see now that I was wrong. Jack Ginsberg has kept alive and in trust, as it were, a major genre of artmaking; finally, in allowing the spectacularly encrusted shell of his private collection to be seen now, and here, he has revealed a connection between compulsive individual labour and public culture that for many new artists and gallery visitors, speaks volumes.

I would like to congratulate the two curators, and I am delighted to declare this exhibition open, this page turned.

Professor David Bunn (University of the Western Cape)

Professor and Head
Department of English
25 August 1996