Axeage Private Press and the Book in a Cave
There is a cave in the Ariège in southwestern France that opens from the Volp River and extends for almost a kilometre into the limestone mountain. Once the domain of cave bears and later Magdalenian artists, this is a cave that I visited some years ago,1 and the experience gave rise to a series of questions that have productively challenged me ever since.
These are questions about art and image making, about storytelling, about composition, and, perhaps more surprisingly, about the nature of the book. The name of the cave is Tuc d’Audoubert, and its outer grotto was known from the 17th century, but the mysterious, magnificent inner cave was only discovered in 1912 by the children of the Count Bégouën whose family was and remains its custodian.
My entry to the cave was not entirely expected. I had come to France to see Lascaux – then still open for an hour or so a week to those whose applications to visit were favourably received. I preceded my visit by a tour of other Upper Paleolithic painted and engraved sites in the Dordogne and the Ariège. I had been to Rouffignac (a cave which you can travel through on a train), Font de Gaume, Cap Blanc, Cussac and Les Combarelles in the Dordogne, Pech Merle in the small town of the same name, then Gargas and Niaux, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Each cave held its own wonders, each challenging ideas about the past, about creativity, about the nature of those people who lived in Ice Age Europe, and the images they conjured.
Sitting at the dinner table of the Count Bégouën, along with several French prehistorians and visiting archaeologists, we discussed the caves, and drew our hosts out on the subject of their own cave system, which included another famous painted site Les Trois Frères, and an occupation site, Enlène. Privately owned, the sites were never open to the public, and Tuc d’Audoubert, with its undisturbed mud floor, preserving the footprints of its last visitors, had only been rarely visited since its discovery in 1912.
So it was with a degree of incredulity that we accepted the offer of the count’s son to take us into what was known as the “virgin cave” and lead us through its interior. It was an occasion for which we were required to dress – boots, knee pads, overalls, strapped on flashlight with battery pack. We were ferried along the lush, fern and tree lined Volp River and into an outer cavern glistening with stalactites, and then led down a slender passage; a long, pitch-black wormhole, which marks a transition from the world without to the world within.
On the other side of the tunnel, the route continued through low-ceilinged, dark and narrow chasms, suddenly opening up into a calcite-encrusted cavity, shimmering white, breathtaking in its contrasting luminosity. Beyond this cavern the flashlight illuminated a track of tape, signalling a narrow path along which we were silently to precede, stooping, treading carefully, never veering to the left or the right, into the darkness.
The track wound through narrow passages and larger caverns. There are few places there in which you can stand upright. On one side, torchlight picks up the hollows in which cave bears slept for the long Ice Age winters. In some, their fur is imprinted into the damp sides. The walls are streaked with their claw marks, and their skulls, smashed by human visitors who came to plunder their teeth, perhaps for necklaces, lie half buried in white calcite surrounded by footprints. On the other side, shadows reveal the impression of the fingers and toes of a human toddler, reindeer bone fragments gnawed on by a wolf, and a single coil of snake vertebrae left on a small ledge. The track passes through narrowed tunnels, skirts a collapsed floor, passes a small pool surrounded by heel-prints and the scooped traces of handfuls of clay squeezed in the palm and discarded.
At the end of the track is the Salle Terminale and it is here that we stop and sit, and, as our eyes grow accustomed to the space of the dark and silent cavern, the count’s son’s flashlight illuminates two bison, modelled in clay and resting on a low clump of rocks. Nothing prepares you for the pleasure of finding these bison, lying on their sides as they have done for 15 000 years, their surfaces still damp and bearing the finger marks of their maker. Nothing alerts you to the power of the feeling that time has collapsed, that being there in the darkness half a mile underground, is like being, at once, inside your own head, and the head of another from long ago, that the sound of the blood in ears, is the sound of a deep connection with both the present and past.
We sat in the space for a time, thinking of the people who were there so long ago, as if they might suddenly emerge from the darkness. Nothing but time seemed to separate us. In those moments, we had what they had, we saw what they saw, we felt the chill they must have felt.
As we traced our route back, single file and silent, hearing our pulses beating, then slithering feet first out the narrow tunnel, through the entrance chamber and into the filtered light of the Volp River, I thought about all the things I had read about this cave: its identity as an inner sanctuary, or a religious site, a place of high priests, the home of the goddess, a retreat for ritual exclusion, and yet felt it was none of these things.
This cave, rather, seemed to be a way of entering another reality, a place of empathy and of the collapse of time and space. For me, it represented the prehistory of the book: the long path was its spine, and on the sides its pages were lying open, its story inscribed in the mud and on the walls. When the cave was abandoned, the story of the book’s creation came to an end, and it remained unread for thousands of years until rediscovered only 90 years or so before my own visit in 1996.
Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau2 wrote that writers are founders of their own place, whereas readers are travellers, nomads who seek, and finding, then recall, however imperfectly, a lost paradise; and this was never more true than in this cave. Yet this mysterious cave book was not only about reading, about the appropriation of a place by a virtual nomad, it was a book that also literally places its readers in the space of its authors, and offers them a kind of reading that is remembered, not only in the imagination, but in the body and on the skin.
I may never have thought of the cave as a book had I not been sued in 1993 by the National Library of South Africa for a copy of an artist’s book I had made in 1991, but which I considered to be an artwork and therefore not subject to the Legal Deposit Act. According to this act, each of five national libraries was entitled to claim, free of charge, a copy of every publication if it were intended to be sold in the Republic of South Africa.
The act defined a publication as “a printed book, newspaper, magazine, periodical, journal, pamphlet, brochure, sheet, card, or portion thereof or any other similar printed matter”. My book had been made in an edition of 50, and included 20 hand-printed etchings. It was hand-bound and the project as a whole represented, not least of all, a considerable investment in the artistry of it. More importantly, however, was an unwillingness I felt to accept that an artist’s book should be so dismissed by the library (and apparently the law) as an artwork, and deemed, instead, to be just like any other printed matter.
At stake for me was the idea that these books were ‘copies’ for, as an etcher, I held firmly to the principle that each etching was an original work of art, and therefore not a copy of anything. I was willing to consider giving the library a copy of my book, since this was what the law appeared to call for, but not one of the books themselves, for if I did this, I would be conceding that in terms of the law, an artist’s book could not be original work of art.
Malcolm Payne, my colleague at Michaelis School of Fine Art, a department of UCT, where I teach, along with printmaker Alma Vorster, and I had recently inaugurated what we called the Axeage Private Press. The initiative was to produce limited edition prints and artists’ books that would, as we described in our launch brochure: “embody a union of the artistic, the scientific and the literary”, and to bring the book into the museum space as part of a curatorial act. The first book produced was the book in question – my own Sound from the Thinking Strings, which included, apart from my etchings, screenprinted pages with essays by archaeologist John Parkington, historian Nigel Penn and poet Stephen Watson.3
It was exhibited with various related objects at the South African Museum in Cape Town in 1991. The National Library of South Africa had originally approached me for copies of the book and when I refused, citing the fact that the South African National Gallery (amongst several art institutions) had bought the book– meaning that it was widely considered an artwork – they instituted a legal action. Their argument was that as long as it contained published “printed matter”, it should be given freely to the five legal deposit libraries in the country. At the time I was planning, and working on two other books: one, The Dream (included on this exhibition) and another, |Gan-a, which was only produced in an edition of seven. Five free copies to the libraries would mean, as I saw it, a tax on the edition of over 70%.
To our (short-lived) relief, the magistrate’s court found that the book in question was an artwork and therefore not legal deposit material. “Book” was a category like “picture”. A picture could include both the Mona Lisa and a holiday snapshot. A book, similarly, could be an artwork and a bound collection of printed pages. The magistrate accepted that these were not the same thing, and she also accepted that etchings, and other such prints constituted original works of art, as opposed to reproductions or copies which defined, as she agreed, the legal understanding of “printed matter”.
On appeal in the Western Cape Supreme Court, however, the judge decided that the magistrate had erred, and he was not persuaded that a book, like an artwork, could be “unique”. For him etchings were copies, although he was not very clear on what they were copies of, suggesting that the artwork may reside in the plate, rather than in the print.
“It may well be that the first etching from the plate may be unique, but this is because it is the first – what, however, is really unique in the process is the plate(s)”, he said.4
While we had argued that artist’s editions of prints were widely considered original works of art, and therefore not the same as the photo-mechanically reproduced books we suggested the law was describing, the judge was, instead, reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “…’when I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’”.
For him, trying to insist that any printed book could be an original artwork was “an exercise in semantics that is wholly misdirected.”5 The two categories were thus deemed to be mutually exclusive. Again the case went to appeal. In Bloemfontein, a full bench of the Appeal Court struck a compromise and recognised the possibility of the simultaneous identity of an object as book and artwork, but found no reason to limit the language of the act, and stated:
… there is no determinable limitation to the words “printed book”. I accept that the making of each print required the artist’s artistic endeavour and I further accept that each etching was a work of art. The fact, however, that a particular publication may contain printed works of art or may be a work of art is immaterial and does not prevent it from being hit by the Act which draws no distinction between publications which are works of art and those which are not.6
For me, as for Malcolm who had organised an auction in which many artists from around the country had donated work to help pay for the legal costs of the High Court Appeal, the ruling was a matter of some significance.
This issue does not simply involve one person,” he said, “but has enormous repercussions for the future of creative freedom in this country”.7
Doyenne of contemporary art in South Africa, the founder of the Goodman Gallery, Linda Givon suggested that the ruling would serve as “the biggest disincentive to creative expression” (Friedman 1997:29), and Cecil Skotnes (himself the maker of books and portfolios) wrote, “no artist will continue to create these books if the state is given the right to take them without payment”.8
While I was obliged to hand over a copy of the book to the South African Library, the support of artists, the publicity and the activism of Payne resulted in a change in the law. All books in editions smaller than 20 are now exempt from legal deposit.9
Although not exactly a victory, it is a step in the right direction, and to my knowledge, the National Library of South Africa has, to date, not claimed another artist’s book that was not freely donated – nor anything subsequently produced by Axeage Private Press.
It was after the Supreme Court ruling and prior to the High Court appeal that I visited the cave of Tuc d’Audoubert. The experience of visiting the cave, and the challenge to me presented by the judgement of the court gave rise to several questions about the nature of the book; questions with which I believed art could profitably engage.
In court, I had been made to argue for the integrity of printmaking as a medium of artmaking; what constituted originality; what defined an artwork and how an object or thing can both conform to the definitions of a book, and yet have “artwork” as its primary identity.
In the cave, I was provoked into thinking about not only the very limits of the book itself, but about how artists’ books have the capacity to produce different kinds of reading that are mobile and physical. These ideas simultaneously challenged Malcolm, as well as our assistant at Axeage at the time (in the 1990s, now the director of the Michaelis School of Fine Art) Fritha Langerman.
For the remainder of this essay, I give four examples of how the arguments around legal deposit have given rise to different understandings of the book and to our responses to them. In each case, the book is understood as the inheritance of the codex, and in each its form engages that inheritance, even as it disrupts it. Each set of disruptions, I would argue, gives rise to books that proclaim themselves as artwork, and artworks that insist on being read as books.
At the heart of the book projects to be discussed is the idea of the book defined by its spine. The spine orders and fixes the material of the book, even as it enables the scattering of that information as it transforms into a track or path. While books embody the inheritance of the codex, the artist’s book goes back to the beginning of all books – the cave – and engages the body as it negotiates the spine in the books apprehension.
My own reflections on the nature of the book resulted in a series of bone books each employing an animal’s skeleton with spine and pages on which the texts are written in black ink and leafed with gold in the manner of illuminated manuscripts (Plate 1a, b & c). There have, so far, been six volumes in this collection, three written on the bones of horses, one each on the skeletons of an eland and a leopard, and one on the bones of two giraffe.
Hinged along a vertebral spine, each bone page is hand-inscribed and gold-leafed; the horses shod in silver, like protected book corners, and assembled and mounted on wooden bases; the eland and leopard bound, so to speak, in vitrines; and the giraffe is a manuscript – as yet unarticulated. The books are collections of texts intended to be read, yet like walking and crouching through the cave, the reading is only possible as a “bodily” process – a sensorial hunching over and under the skeleton and a dwelling on the bleached bone, burnished gold and red-and-black lettering.
Plate 1a & c. Pippa Skotnes, Lamb of God: Book of Blood and Milk (details) and Plate 1b. Lamb of God: Book of the Speaking in Tongues (detail). 2001-11. Horse skeleton, gold, silver, vellum, parchment, ink, linen thread and wood, glass ampules containing lines from an essay by Stephen Greenblatt. Photography: the author.
On the one hand, the skeletons refer directly to their subject matter. A carthorse to tell stories of labouring, subjugation and sacrifice; an eland to bear the words of a people who valued it above all other animals; a leopard killed in a gin trap to refer to human hubris; and giraffes, destined for a zoo, who instead starved to death, to convey archival records of displacement, confinement and extermination; the bone and gold offering a sensual point of access to the texts inscribed.
The skeletons refer to the structure of the codex, and in their assembly I tried to include those things anticipated by common expectations of the book: writing, pages, binding along a spine, a table of contents and so on. In bringing these together I responded to the scores of images from the mediæval arena of saints holding books as if embracing the very messages themselves received from a hallowed realm. Images of St John at the crucifixion, head bowed with grief over a book that he holds, refer at once to the origin of the world through the Word and the identity of Christ himself as a book – his back hung against the spine of the cross, his arms and legs the splayed pages on which the story of sacrifice and redemption is written in the blood of his wounds.
In yoking the structure of a book to the resonance of the materials used, my bone books mean to, as Isabel Hofmeyr eloquently writes in relation to reading in Africa, “… overrun their boundaries, not only in an intertextual sense but also in the sense of possessing a powerful performative ‘aura’… vibrating with the power of events around them” (Hofmeyr 2001:101-108).
They engage with the features that commonly define books, while at the same time by yoking these with the former lives of the animals on whose bones the texts of the books are written (Plate 2 a & b) they mean to produce a different kind of reader – one that walks the cave rather than one reclines in the armchair.
Plate 2a (left) Pippa Skotnes, Lamb of God: Book of the Divine Consolation. 2001-11. Horse skeleton, gold, silver, vellum, parchment, ink, linen thread and wood. 2b (right) Lamb of God: Book of the Speaking in Tongues (detail) silver shod hoof. Photography: the author.
Mirrored books and double vision
Books represent a kind of mirror, a binary in which one side reflects on the other, left on right, before on after, both seen simultaneously. Less a Rorschach test and more a ‘double vision’ this is a way of conceptualising the book and an active form of reading. In realising these ideas Double Vision is the title of an installation at the Origin Centre at Wits, co-authored by me and Malcolm Payne which represented a realisation of our mutual thinking around artists’ books following the National Library case.
Like me, Malcolm has also made the artist’s book a significant part of his creative production and focused attention not only on its possibilities but its limits. Some of his books include Face Value: Old Heads in Modern Masks (Axeage Private Press 1993)10 published in an edition of 50, as well as other “one-offs”, or editions that have fingered the hinge of the page as the heart of the book. His early work A Chill Down My Spine (Plate 3) deliberately constructed as a unique copy, (and which I hand-bound in my first bookbinding course with master-binder Johan Maree), gave the stitched spine centrality and the book an animate quality.
This focus on that place in the book that creates a binary, that refers to a spine-path, is retained in another more extensive body of Malcolm’s work, entitled Illuminated Manuscripts11 (Plate 4) produced over several years, but exhibited in 2005. The works are large digital prints essentially flat in nature and while lacking the sequential revelation of text or imagery that is part of the book, they retain reference to the organisation of the open pages of the mediæval codex. The double sheet comprises a verso (left side) and a recto (right side) and the borders are decorated with ornamental designs, small scenes or “drolleries” – the fabulous creatures or grotesques that have their more contemporary counterpart in some of the dolls and ceramic objects that Malcolm chose for his body of work.
Plate 3. Malcolm Payne, A Chill Down My Spine. 1992. Lacquer spray paint and stencil on BFK Rives paper. Photography: the author.
Then there is the enormous layering of information, the richly detailed matrix across which bursts of light, rotating streaks, minute feathering of surface, radiating lines and vortexes of colour shift and spin. Burnished gold is here replaced by the incandescent, pavonine colour available in the digital medium, the decorative borders unravelled and refigured into the streaks running down the surface. Figures stretch and coil, reaching their maximum distortion at the edges of the images, contracting themselves into a framing border. The scale of the images, the multitude of objects and shapes generated each by a central explosion into an aesthetic inferno of colour and line and distortion through a range of anamorphic lenses, forbids us from reading in any passive way.
Plate 4. Malcolm Payne, Illuminated Manuscripts. 2003/2005. Digital print. Axeage Private Press Cape Town. Photography: Malcolm Payne. Used with permission.
The images disturb and disorientate: these are books where reading is active and experiential; the reader first navigates the spine, before spinning out into the pages on either side. These may be prints, but they are books too; their bookness located in the forms they inherit even as they, at once, disrupt that inheritance.Double Vision (Plate 5a, b & c), the book installed in 2005 at the Origins Centre at Wits University, takes the form of a series of 122 cabinets along the length of a wall in the lower section of the museum, and similarly refers to the device of the mirror. The spine of the book (a vertical column of four cabinets) figures the portrait of |han≠kass’o, a |xam man who stands as spokesperson for all those multitudes of |xam who were exterminated in the Northern Cape, and yet whose stories survive in the Bleek and Lloyd archive.12
Splayed out from the “spinal” cabinets are 12 cabinets on either side, each a page in the book that details a feature of an individual San person’s life, a set of 16 cabinets of images on either side of those, and a further set of 16 pairs, mirroring each other in a symbolic rendering of the left and right sides of the brain and, similarly, the strands of DNA that we know to both describe us as human and identify us as individuals. A row of cabinets at the base of the display contains all the bones of an eland, and on them is written an epic poem crafted and culled by me from ideas expressed in the Bleek and Lloyd archive and that has given rise to our understanding of the individuals quoted above.
The bones, disarticulated, perform the function of the footnote, and here in this artist’s book, they function both to embody and to describe their content.
Reading this book one must traverse its mirrored lengths – its verso and recto – held in place by the spine that is the storyteller, |han≠kass’o. The double vision, even as it refers to the binary of the book, also refers to different ways of seeing, those generated by our brains, and those determined by our prejudices. The book retains its spinal structure, but it also requires of its reader a pacing, a walking of an external spine that acknowledges the books prehistory in the cave.
Plate 5a, b & c. Pippa Skotnes and Malcolm Payne, Double Vision. 2005. 122 cabinets containing digital print, mixed media and illuminated bone. Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Photography: the author.
The exploded book
A radical extension of the artist’s book in the museum, Fritha Langerman’s project on the exploded book, similarly draws on the codex and its mirrored binary, but in an entirely different context. Here, the book of her construction is picked apart, dismembered, and finally exploded in a series of pages inserted into the larger narrative of the “book” that is the museum (Plate 6). The spine remains intact as a walk through the museum, but the pages lose their binary relationship and ordered sequence. Reading is, once again, only possible as a bodily experience in which the normal rules of reading do not apply.
Plate 6. Fritha Langerman, R-A-T: an Associative Ordering. 2012. The South Africa Museum, Cape Town. Mixed media installation. Photography: Fritha Langerman. Used with permission.
The artist’s book that Langerman produced was assembled under the title R-A-T: An Associative Ordering launched at the South Africa Museum in 2012.13 It was part of a larger project in which she intended to show how museum displays, particularly those of natural history, are held hostage by the book and in particular the inheritance of the Christian codex. The binary and sequential nature of the book, she has argued, has given rise to representations of the natural world that are hierarchical and progressive in nature. To quote Langerman:
The print in book form has been a determining feature in the perpetuation of linear models of knowing the world. Not only were ideas of classification, taxonomy and evolution communicated through the book, forming part of the reproduction and replication of those systems, but underlying linearities were supported by the codex structure, presenting a constrained and hierarchical ordering of material, not least of all linked to its origins in the church.14
In R-A-T, Langerman explodes this inheritance in a series of cabinets inserted into the interstices of Iziko South African Museum’s displays, interrupting the narrative of the museum and forcing viewers to encounter unexpected displays that challenge the stability of their neighbouring representations (Plate 7a, b & c). To achieve this she used the common brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) as a device that would resonate with the furtive and unwelcomed nature of her own intervention. At various places in the museum, her own display – the pages of an exploded book – settled into empty cases, entrance foyers, dark corners and the top of storage units. Each offered insights into complex, often contrasting views of both the rat in human spaces, and the museum as a site for the explication of human relationships with animals.
Exploding the book has also resulted in an explosion of the text normally associated with books. The cabinets are crowded with texts that both stay in the confines of the cabinet pages in the form of labels, aphorisms and quotation, and that tape their way around the museum in the form of ribbons of words. The cabinets, each self-contained, yet each suggesting that pages exist elsewhere, create active readers who trail the museum along the external spine that is the route of this book. This externalisation of the spine of the book also reminds us that the very nature of the book influences, in powerful ways, the way we represent and engage the world around us, and that the artist’s book, as it disrupts that nature, simultaneously suggests there are other forms of apprehension.
Plate 7 a, b & c. Fritha Langerman, R-A-T: An Associative Ordering. 2012. The South Africa Museum, Cape Town. Mixed media installation. Photography: Fritha Langerman. Used with permission.
I once decried the fact, several years ago, that Axeage Private Press had not produced a book in a long time. Malcolm’s answer was that Axeage is not so much a press as it is a “state of mind”. Initially intended to bridge different forms of publication, from the scholarly to the curatorial, and to subject both the object (and subject) of a publication and its form to equal scrutiny, Axeage has, for us, become a way of thinking about the book and the ways in which artists might deploy it as an active force in the making of artworks. Such artworks recognise their multiple inheritances, going back way beyond the development of the codex, to the path in the cave, and in so doing, suggest a more active, more sensorial mode of reading and seeing.
1 My trip to Lascaux and the other caves of the Dordogne and the Ariége in 1996 was facilitated by John Parkington, professor of archaeology at the University of Cape Town and Jean Clottes, then Scientific Advisor for prehistoric rock art at the French Ministry of Culture. It was an opportunity (not least of all) for me to compare rock art sites of the Upper Paleolithic in France and the Later Stone Age in South Africa.
2 De Certeau, M. quoted in Chartier, R. 1994. The order of books: readers, authors, and libraries in Europe between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. Cambridge: Polity Press, page 1.
4 Berman, HL. 1995. Judgment of the Western Cape High Court, in the matter between the South African Library and Pippa Skotnes, case number 339/95, page 6.
5 Berman, HL. 1995. Judgment of the Western Cape High Court, in the matter between the South African Library and Pippa Skotnes, case number 339/95, page 13. Of course such a statement is closer to the truth than the judge imagined. It has been a hard won battle for artists over many, many decades to confer the identity of art on an object by virtue of their deeming it so.
6 Mahomed, CJ et Vivier, Marais, Schott, Zulman. Judgment in the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa: www.saflii.org
7 This was documented by Hazel Friedman: “Battle of the book” Mail & Guardian, 24 to 30 January, 1997 page 29.
8 Letter written to the Department of Justice, 4 January, 1996.
9 See the archive of the Freedom of Expression Institute’s website: www.fxi.org.za
10 It is accessible online: http://library.si.edu/exhibition/artists-books-and-africa/face-value-full. In line with Axeage’s mission, this work was curated into an exhibition at the South African National Gallery that included a number of other works by Malcolm as well as the Iron Age Lydenberg Heads. See also http://www.arc.uct.ac.za/the_visual_university/-face_value
11 For a fuller discussion of these works, see the essay published in a catalogue to Malcolm’s exhibition of 2005 at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town: Skotnes, P. 2005. The invisible elsewhere: an introduction to Malcolm Payne’s “Illuminated Manuscripts”, in Payne, M. Illuminated Manuscripts 2003/2005. Cape Town: Axeage Private Press.
12 The story of the archive is detailed in Skotnes, P. 2007. Claim to the country: the archive of Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek. Cape Town: Jacana.
13 See: http://frithalangerman.com/r-a-t-an-associative-ordering/
14 Langerman, F. 2014. Cover to cover: the contribution of the book to the reproduction of linear, hierarchical models of natural history. In Hamilton, C and Skotnes, P. Uncertain curature: in an out of the archive. Cape Town: Jacana.