Art Buzz February 9, 2012: South African Art: Art history that lifts the value of the book



Art history that lifts the value of the book

E-readers rarely do the ‘art book’ justice, writes Chris Thurman

Source: Business Day NZ, 2-9-12

DETAILED: The four volumes of Visual Century contain a polyvocal history of South African art that includes healthy disagreements between contributors.

IN OUR era of e-readers and tablets, the prevailing wisdom is that printed books are destined to become moribund. At best, they’ll be quirky relics of centuries gone by that are kept for the sake of nostalgia; at worst, clunky tomes chucked into the recycling bin of history.

Those of us inclined to pontificate about the talismanic qualities of hard copy tend to come across as reactionaries, Luddites or even anti-environmentalists.

But there’s one kind of publication Kindle and company rarely do justice to: the “art book”. Whether it’s a coffee-table exhibition catalogue, an artist’s portfolio or a text-and image-rich art history, the art book needs to be handled, fondled and otherwise physically browsed, perused, paged through, scanned or mulled over. Often the choice of packaging, binding, paper and printing technique is as much a part of the reading experience as the content and layout.

SA has a particularly curious mixture of readers with divergent means and preferences; for now, the printed word is still able to vie with the electronic word. Local publishers have tried to win customers through sexed-up genre fiction (bulky “airport thrillers” and “beach reads”), SMS novels for teens, books with multimedia tie-ins and various other initiatives. Critics have pointed out that sloppy editing practices have crept in as books have been rushed to print.

Art books, on the other hand, are promoted according to a distinct model. They are niche publications, often produced in limited editions and typically quite expensive: their publishers target buyers who value books as objects or as works of art in themselves. While there may be cause to fret about the future of publishing, digital or otherwise, an encounter with a high-quality South African art book (and there are many of them) is likely to leave the reader feeling more than sanguine.

Early last year, at about the same time that TJ/Double Negative — a remarkable collaboration between photographer David Goldblatt and novelist Ivan Vladislavic — won the prestigious Kraszna-Krausz award, FourthWall Books published Fire Walker, a striking collection of images and essays relating to the now-iconic Johannesburg sculpture by William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx. Then, late last year, Wits University Press launched the four-volume Visual Century: South African Art in Context.

Each of these publications is significant in its own way. While the former two are idiosyncratic commentaries on specific works, the latter is a compendious survey. A book such as Fire Walker can pay attention to the minute details of artistic conception and execution; its editors and contributors engage variously (and in various modes or formats, by turns textual and visual, “academic” and “creative”) with the sculpture alone, with comparable public artworks, or with directly related aspects of city space and urban planning. The many participants in the Visual Century project, under director Gavin Jantjes, have tackled a different task.

While the four volumes are not reference books per se, they do offer an overview of South African art (from 1907-2007). This is huge terrain to cover and the authors do so admirably, presenting art and artists not simply within set periods but also through key themes. Nonetheless, like most expansive art history endeavours, it cannot afford the luxury of particularity: artist biographies, the nuances of method, questions of form and even, to an extent, formal analysis are all secondary concerns. Instead, the imperative driving the book — as indicated in the subtitle — is “context”, which means national (and sometimes international) sociopolitical context.

In his general introduction, Jantjes writes of the history of SA ’s art as “a river … growing in stature as it glides towards the estuary of the present. It connects to the history of the world’s art just as rivers inevitably connect to the great oceans of our planet.” This analogy is a useful one as it allows that the process of navigating and mapping our country’s art history will neglect some minor tributaries and, ultimately, will be unable to trace the major waterways to their sources.

Nonetheless, although he emphasizes “there are plural narratives of art history” and that “all history remains incomplete”, Jantjes does delimit the project within the confines of the nation and national culture. According to this logic, those artists who rejected the politics of the national — who did not wish to see their art as articulating “moments in the life of a nation” — could not and did not “become actors in the making of history”. There is a teleological bent to any construction of South African history according to “the politics of national liberation”: as Jantjes affirms, artists who held “a critical light up to their nation’s moral potential” created works that are now “testimony to historical progress”.

The multiple perspectives offered by the contributors (and by many of the works of the art reproduced on its pages) do, however, unsettle this framework. Moreover, the series presents many examples of artists who were not defined by their “context” and whose work disrupts the standard black/white narratives. In Volume One, which covers 1907-1948 — from the post-war detente between Briton and Boer to the National Party election victory that ushered in apartheid — this occurs, for instance, in intriguing visual pairings such as the twin landscapes by Moses Tladi and Gregoire Boonzaier.

Volume Four, which covers the transition to democracy and beyond (1990-2007), has a foreword by Sarat Maharaj that complicates claims about “SA -in-the-world”, reminding readers (notwithstanding the country’s isolation for so long ) of the “runaway translation, cultural swap, pidginisation” and “dirty cosmopolitanism” that has long defined this part of the world. In the same volume, however, Jantjes rightly exposes the “masks and myths of globalism”; his perspective as an inside-outsider (he has been based in Europe for more than 30 years ) is valuable in this regard.

This is, then, a polyvocal history. It was evident at the launch events in Johannesburg and Cape Town last year that there is a healthy disagreement between contributors to Visual Century on how to approach race, medium, ideology and any number of contentious issues that arise in writing about art in/and SA. The series manages to be both comprehensive and contradictory, and the editors (Jillian Carman, Lize van Robbroeck, Mario Pissarra, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Mandisi Majavu) have corralled diverse opinions within its four volumes.

Detailed, dense and beautifully presented, Visual Century is more than an account of the material circumstances under which our artists have worked for the past 100 years. In its own appealing materiality, it makes a significant contribution both to South African art history and to the value of the book in this country.

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