Tribute to biggest collection of artists’ books in the southern hemisphere

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‘Witkrans’ by Ena Carsten (1998), on exhibition at Wits Art Museum, 2019.
Charles Leonard

David Paton, University of Johannesburg

There is a very special section of artworks known as artists’ books. These are artworks in the form of books rather than books about art. South African art collector and philanthropist Jack Ginsberg began collecting in this field in the early 1970s. He recently donated this world-renowned collection – and the biggest in the southern hemisphere – to Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg. Part of the collection, which includes more than 3 000 artworks plus thousands of additional items related to the field of book arts, is on exhibition. The Conversation Africa’s Charles Leonard spoke to David Paton, co-curator of the exhibition.

How would you describe artists’ books?

Artists’ books are artworks in the form of books that explore and unpack their own material being; their bookness. In other words, artists’ books are self-conscious about their function, drawing attention to, as book artist and scholar Johanna Drucker states in The Century of Artists’ Books, the very conventions by which books normally efface their identity.

This reflexive awareness includes a book’s material, shape, structure and navigability. Thus, artists’ books are not sketchbooks, journals or portfolios and certainly not books about, or on, artists. Conventional notions of artists’ books usually include only objects that function as books and exclude sculptural objects, book-like objects, digital books and ephemera.

Give us a brief history of artists’ books.

The rise of artists’ books is a phenomenon of the 1960s and ‘70s in the US. It began with the democratic photographic multiples of Ed Ruscha such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966).

Another maker of artists’ books at this time in Europe was German-Swiss conceptual artist Dieter Roth.

Before this, however, is a rich history of book arts which includes Livres d’Artistes which are fine, limited-edition books incorporating illustrations of famous texts or poems. An example is Henri Matisse’s etchings which accompany Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé and published in 1932.

Before this are the Futurist and Russian Constructivist books by, for example, El Lissitzky and Ilia Zdanevich (Iliazd). Perhaps the most famous early artists’ book is Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars’s Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913) considered by many to be the first example of simultaneity in art.

In South Africa, perhaps the earliest exemplars are Phil du Plessis’s Hulde Uit 1970, an irreverent addendum to the journal Wurm 12 (1970) and Walter Battiss’s Male Fook Book (begun in 1973).

Who is Jack Ginsberg?

Jack is an accountant by profession but is known for his philanthropic work and support of the arts in South Africa. His collection of artworks by Walter Battiss formed the majority of the 700 pieces on the exhibition “Walter Battiss: I Invented Myself” held at the Wits Art Museum in 2016.

Jack then donated the works to Wits Art Museum’s permanent holdings which now forms the nucleus of a major Battiss Archive. In 2017, a small portion of Jack’s internationally renowned collection of artists’ books was showcased at the “Booknesses: Artists’ Books from the Jack Ginsberg Collection
exhibition at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Despite this being only a small proportion of his collection, they constituted one of the largest exhibitions of artists’ books held globally. Jack is the director of The Ampersand Foundation a non-profit charitable trust. It supports residencies by South African artists and others working in the arts at the foundation’s apartment in New York.

The Foundation also supports local artists by buying their artworks and donating them to museums and galleries.

Describe the works he donated to Wits Art Museum?

Jack has been collecting artists’ books as well as books on the field, what he calls “the archive on artists’ books” since the 1970s. In 2014 he was one of 10 international collectors of artists’ books (and one of only three from outside of the US) invited to participate in Behind the Personal Library: Collectors Creating the Canon at the Centre for Book Art, New York.

The Wits Art Museum collection is the envy of private collectors, scholars, museums and academic collections globally. It consists of some of the cannon of international exemplars as well as contemporary work from North and South America, Europe, Russia and Asia, Australasia and Africa.

It is also the only collection of South African artists’ books anywhere in the world as Jack has, single-handedly, promoted and supported the book arts in this country. Books that Jack has donated to the Wits Art Museum include most of those mentioned in the “history of artists’ books”. It includes Kara Walker’s remarkable paper engineered Freedom, a Fable as well as books by African artists such as Atta Kwami and Marc Wonga Mancoba.

Jack’s extensive collection also comprises fascinating categories such as popular culture; fine bindings; presses and publishers; ephemera, theses and catalogues along with books with unusual materials (such as glass, cork and metal) and structures (such as pop-up and down and tunnel books).

What’s the significance of the donation?

Jack’s collection of artists’ books and, importantly, his archive, is considered by many to be one of the most comprehensive and accessible collections of materials devoted to the field of the book arts anywhere in the world. Together they constitute some 8 500 items donated to the university.

Making these items publicly available at Wits Art Museum as well as the opportunities for artists, designers and scholars to view and access these bookworks, objects and archival materials is an exciting, unique and timely gift to the South African art world.The Conversation

David Paton, Senior Lecturer in Visual Art, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How ‘cutting up’ Shakespeare’s plays can be an act of creative destruction

Bruce Smith, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has been the site of many creative adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. The latest, Ivo van Hove’s “Kings of War,” which ran at BAM from Nov. 3 to 6, is a multimedia mashup of characters, lines and scenes from Shakespeare’s history plays.

“Extensively cut,” “deeply cut” and “severely cut” are some of the favorite phrases used by the reviewers of these types of experimental stage and film adaptations. Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review of “Kings of War,” observes that Van Hove and his adapters have decided “to strip the texts down to their political marrow.”

The implication is that deleting lines – not to mention deleting entire scenes and characters – is an act of cultural vandalism. It recalls Velázquez’s “Rokeby Venus,” slashed with a chopping knife by suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914, and Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” attacked three times during the 20th century, twice with knives.

Cutting, however, doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of something. It could mean prizing something so much that you want to cut it out and save it, perhaps putting it to creative use in something you’re making yourself. A “cut,” in this sense, could be a speech that you’re using for an audition or a scene you’re reworking in a short story or a character you’ve decided to make the subject of a painting. Cuts cut both ways. What has been cut out can be discarded on the cutting-room floor or it can be made the centerpiece of something new.

In such cases, cutting up Shakespeare is not an act of destruction but an act of creation. Professional playwrights in Shakespeare’s time even thought about creating scripts as “cutwork,” like constructing costumes by cutting and stitching. When playwrights collaborated on a script, each writer got separate pieces, in the form of separate scenes. Shakespeare participated in several such joint-author enterprises in the course of his career, and an argument has been made recently that Christopher Marlowe was one of his collaborators.

In the four centuries since Shakespeare’s death, artists in all kinds of media have carried out creative cutwork of their own.

Cutwork across four centuries

Decades before the types of cutwork we’re seeing today, beat writer William S. Burroughs and his friend Brion Guysin wielded pairs of scissors, cut up Shakespeare’s texts and rearranged them into verbal collages alongside cuts from other writers.

Particularly fruitful, they discovered, were cuttings that juxtaposed fragments of Shakespeare’s sonnets with fragments of Arthur Rimbaud’s poems. The effect, they said, was the creation of “a third mind.” I came across these examples in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, and they’re published, for the first time, in my recent book “Shakespeare | Cut.”

But creative cuts have actually been taking place since the 1590s, when readers came into possession of Shakespeare’s plays in their earliest print editions. In diaries and so-called “commonplace books,” these early readers transcribed the phrases, sentences and speeches that they found to be particularly striking. Cuts of a different sort were inserted by printers on title pages: woodcuts and engravings showing particular characters (often depicted, cartoon-like, with banderoles coming out of their mouths) and particular scenes.

Cuts of characters and scenes were joined by author cuts, beginning with the engraved portrait of William Shakespeare on the title page of the 1623 First Folio.

Yet another variety of cuts came to the fore in the 18th century, when cuts of the actors playing certain characters emerged in paintings and engravings. Successive forms of new media – lithography, photography, sound recording, video – have brought actor cuts, in particular, to the forefront in public consciousness of Shakespeare. Think of David Tennant’s Hamlet, Judi Dench’s Cleopatra, Laurence Fishburne’s Othello, or Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth.

Why cuts? Why now?

Today, Shakespeare cutwork takes place on stage, in film, in installations and online. Van Hove’s “Kings of War,” with its video monitors giving access to hidden spaces, mirror close-ups and news conferences, exemplifies how media can converge in contemporary cutwork.

The cutwork in Annie Dorsen’s “A Piece of Work,” an adaptation of “Hamlet” that ran at BAM in 2013, was even more radical than Van Hove’s work. Each performance of Dorsen’s “Hamlet” was different, thanks to computer algorithms that generated entirely new combinations of words, visuals, lighting and music over the course of five “parts” corresponding to Shakespeare’s five acts. The algorithm shifted from one part to the next. And from one performance to the next.

The resulting cuts – including speech prefixes and stage directions – were projected on a large screen. Only in Part Four/Act Four did a live actor come up from the audience to speak a soliloquy that was being created then and there by the computer’s algorithm-of-the-moment and transmitted to the actor, in real time, via earbuds.

Mashups of Shakespeare on YouTube may be less pretentious than these theatrical performances, but they speak to a strong desire to intercut 400-year-old fragments from Shakespeare with everyday modern life. Craig Barzan’s “Hamlet on the Street” and Noor Ghuniem’s “The Tempest – The Missing Scene” are particularly striking examples.

If you watch YouTube on a smartphone while you walk or let your attention wander to other people, objects and events around you, the intercut between art and life becomes a physical fact. Make the device a smart watch, and the time factor is palpable: 1616 is juxtaposed with 2016 “in real time.”

But if cutwork with Shakespeare is nothing new, why has it become a fetish in the 21st century? One reason, surely, is the ease of making cuts with digital technology. Another reason, just as surely, is fragmentation in contemporary culture – fragmentation that may itself be a function of digital technology. A related factor is the general speeding up of contemporary life, exemplified in the clip culture that dominates YouTube. Judging from YouTube postings, the two-hour duration of Shakespeare’s stage performances can now be no longer than 15 minutes, preferably 10.

More disturbing is the thought that the violence of contemporary cutwork – its radicalism, its defiance of tradition, its psychological fascination – is connected with actual violence in the culture at large.

If so, the situation now may not be so different from the situation in Shakespeare’s lifetime, when most adult males carried weapons in the form of knives or swords and violent crime was rife. Shakespeare most frequently uses the word “cut” in relationship to body parts. At a deep level we should acknowledge the connections, in early modern culture and in contemporary culture, between cuts as bodily violence and cuts as violent ways of making art.

At a more fundamental level still we can point to the “gappy” nature of perception: We perceive the world in a series of cuts lasting no longer than three seconds.

Most important of all, however, is the selection and arrangement of experience that goes into the making of all forms of art. Cutting can create as well as destroy.

The Conversation

Bruce Smith, Dean’s Professor of English and Professor of Theatre, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.