Marrying desire with intellect: Art book design in SA
There is a palpable sense of raw bravado underpinning the contemporary art 'scene', a healthy - rather than exaggerated - sense of optimism. This curious fact is hinted at in the large number of art books suddenly jostling for shelf space in galleries and bookshops.
Given that books have a certain furtive longevity, one is inclined to ask what these books will say to future generations? The answer: that unchecked optimism has its limitations.
"In my view, most of the books published locally are just so, so design wise," remarks the Durban-based designer Garth Walker. "I think we are world class on production values, but content and design are a bit iffy".
A well-established design figure, Walker is the founder of the cult design 'zine Ijusi. He recently completed a commission designing a new typeface for the Constitutional Court. Quizzed on the subject of art books, Walker simply avers that art books should look like art books.
"It would seem that plenty is spent on the actual print, but proper and sensitive design is generally not considered within this mix," he says.
Walker points to the Taxi art book series, a publishing initiative aimed at offering mid-career artists the benefit of a monograph. He says: "The Taxi series is an admirable attempt to promote local art, but looks a bit 'low rent'."
Responding to this criticism, David Krut, publisher of the Taxi series, states: "What seems to fall through the cracks is that an art dealer took on a project that no book publisher would have touched".
The undeniable truth of Krut's comment aside, there is nonetheless a widely held view that it is not exclusively the Taxi series but a whole range of in-house gallery catalogues and once-off art publications that are underpinned by a troublesome design aesthetic.
A sympathetic view would immediately argue that the independent art book publishers sponsoring these are still pre-teen, that the clumsiness of their publications is amply offset by the value inherent in them. Given the overwhelming paucity of such print artefacts one cannot but take a partisan view.
Nonetheless, Walker's comments do point to an intractable problem inherent in the production of books with a heavy visual content - the latent tension between form and content. The problem is epitomised in the (sometimes) epic standoffs that animate the relationship between the guys in white suits (i.e. designers) and hapless sponsors and originators of books.
Walker is the first to admit the need for a sensitive approach. "The book design should never overwhelm the content," he comments. "Many books today are over designed. I often find the book outer way better than the inner. Even worse are those with a flashy cover and crap in between."
Injecting necessary latitude into this debate is the voice of renowned Dutch book designer Irma Boom. A speaker at this year's Design Indaba, the Yale appointed lecturer designed the benchmark catalogue that accompanied 'Authentic / Ex-Centric : Conceptualism in Contemporary African Art', a major retrospective of African art held at the 2001 Venice Biennale.
"When I design a book I read the text first," says Boom. "The design comes later; the text suggests inspiration and ideas." A statement that is so logical it would seem redundant, it is nonetheless surprising how often this rule of practice is disregarded as a matter of course.
Two recent publishing projects demonstrate that it is nonetheless possible to achieve a happy synthesis of form and content, thereby marrying desire with intellect. The first is the Fresh compendium of near pocket-sized artist monographs.
Funded by a gift from artist Marlene Dumas, the Fresh project gave seven emerging artists a one-month residency at the South African National Gallery. In addition to their public activities, each of the participants selected authors to critically engage their work. All seven of these snack-sized books have been boxed, and are now available as a packed lunch.
"The reason for producing small books, instead of a big book, was to provide those artists with a small monograph (a minigraph?) with which to promote themselves," explains Emma Bedford, the Fresh project curator.
According to Bedford, the maverick performance artist Robin Rhode credits Fresh with his meteoric rise internationally. "It's no co-incidence that all the South Africans featured in the Walker Art Center's 'How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age' exhibition were Fresh artists," she adds.
That the individual books were cheap (R30 each) might also account for their local success.
Cut-price, inexpensive, economical; David Goldblatt's new book Particulars certainly bears out none of these words. Available in a limited edition run of 100 deluxe copies (R8000) and 400 unnumbered editions (R1800), Particulars establishes a benchmark by which many future art books will be judged.
Comprising a series of intimate studies, Goldblatt's photographs of a cross-section of people eschew a panoramic focus in favour of private minutiae. Designed jointly by Francois Smit and Goldblatt, the book exemplifies the photographer's uncompromising approach to book design and production.
"We have gone for production standards that have never been seen in this country," he says, stating that the book is the outcome of his insistent involvement, "right through to the last" - even in the print and book binding process.
"A book is quite monumental in the sense that it sticks around," remarks Goldblatt sanguinely. "It will be there long after you're dead. You had better make sure it represents what you feel closely".
The photographer is however remarkably forthright about the financial implications of art books. "All my books have been financial disasters," he quips. "We couldn't sell Some Afrikaners Photographed. It was launched at R25 a copy but we eventually had to remainder them at R2 or R3 each".
The book now fetches anywhere between R2000 to R4000 on the collector's market.
This is an expanded version of an article that previously appeared in the Mail & Guardian, November 14, 2003,under the title 'Marrying desire with intellect'. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the editor.