By Jack M. Ginsberg
Good afternoon and thank you for making your way here in the rain today to see this unusual exhibition of artists' books.
With World Poetry Day in mind on the 27th of this month, the librarians at the 'Archives and Special Collections', where you stand, wanted to celebrate in some way and, having seen some of my collection, asked me whether it would be possible to show some textual or typographic books for the occasion. Remembering the previous exhibitions curated by David Paton at the JAG in 1996 and at Aardklop in 2006 I said it would be impossible. But David and my colleague Rosalind Cleaver gently persuaded me that it would of course be possible if they did all the work. I relented and have greatly enjoyed co-curating the exhibition before you. David is the authority on South African artists' books as you will see if you visit his extraordinary website hosted by The University of Johannesburg www.theartistsbook.org.za and he is greatly respected in world academic circles in the field. His catalogue for this exhibition is another major contribution, his having previously written widely on the subject including his MA thesis.
I first started collecting artists' books in the 1970s, which luckily for me was the incunabula of the genre when the term "artists' book" was beginning to gain currency. At that time there was a dearth of information on the subject but in the last fifty years there has been an explosion in what has now become termed "the bookarts" with a large amount of information on the subject becoming available. [An extensive bibliography is available on David's website]. All the books on exhibition are post 1970, bar one by Iliazd -an early constructivist book from 1920s Paris. At the other end of the spectrum are several recently published Trade Books with the features of artists' books and which may still be purchased at bookshops or online.
One of the most frequently discussed and controversial aspects of artists' books in academia has become the way in which they are shown at exhibition. A defining characteristic of the artists' book is their sequentiality, which they share with video and film but unlike painting, graphics and sculpture. Fine artists do not normally dictate how you should view their work. One does not have to start looking at a picture at the top left and end at the bottom right. Nor does one have to start looking at a sculpture with its north exposure and work round to the south. But a book artist hopes that you will start at the beginning and end at the end - much like a film. However, films are shown in cinemas, one does not view the film canister or DVD in a vitrine. So the problem with exhibiting, rather than reading or paging through, books is which aspect to show. One may show the cover, the title page, a particularly interesting page or illustration or even the colophon but not everything unless the book is an accordion-fold rather than a codex and then probably only one side of the accordion. Major libraries when confronted with this problem have often taken to showing the book next to a digital turning-of-the-pages on video or other interface. At Trinity College in Dublin you can see a different page of the Book of Kells every day or the whole thing if you buy a facsimile or a video of the page turning. Thus books are meant to be haptic which means that the viewer should turn the pages him- or herself to experience the artists' full intention or, in layman's terms - 'please let me touch'. But despite this limitation, there have been wonderful artists' book exhibitions which leave one with the desire to see more. Thus only libraries can provide this full dimension under controlled viewing conditions. We therefore encourage university libraries in particular to collect and show artists' books especially local ones of which more and more are now being produced.
I can recommend collecting artists' books as they provide an experience not quite equalled with any of the fine arts separately. They may incorporate fine bindings, hand papermaking, all the graphic arts, [e.g. etching, lithography, screenprinting woodblocks etc] letterpress typography and, even with some unique artists' books, painting in oil or watercolour. To say nothing of the textual content - sometimes overlooked! Books are also three-dimensional objects and therefore sculptural and artists have found a plethora of innovative ways to delight the senses by incorporating every possible medium into their structures [e.g. glass, metal, fabric, ceramic, bark, etc] quite apart from paper. I hope this exhibition will give some inkling of what is possible. To this end we have also included some broadsides - a broadside being defined as a single paged book using the same techniques of letterpress and the graphic arts as artists' books themselves.
I hope all of you enjoy the exhibition, buy the catalogue and visit the website.
Once again thank you to UJ for hosting this exhibition and to all those who made it possible.