Books On Books Collection – William Kentridge

Waiting for the Sibyl (2020)

Waiting for the Sibyl (2020)
William Kentridge
Casebound and dustjacketed. H275 x W200 mm, 360 unnumbered pages. Acquired from Blackwells, 1 July 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist and the Marian Goodman Gallery.

Like the ancient Greek playwrights, William Kentridge begins his chamber opera’s retelling of the Cumaean Sibyl’s myth in medias res — in this case, in the middle of the dictionary at the letter M. Redactions and marks build and build across the dictionary pages, a visual prelude like a musical one. Then they suddenly disappear, leaving the “stage” to unmarked pages from the letter A, a thunderclap announcement in all caps bold and then an explanatory statement slightly reduced in volume with a lighter type face and uppercase with lowercase letters. What is going on?

Because performance of the opera was curtailed by the pandemic beginning in 2019/2020, we have only a few short clips from a trailer and filmed rehearsals to guess at how a live performance might have unfolded: this short clip posted by Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, this one from Quaternaire, this one from The Red Bridge Project and this version posted by the Centre for the Less Good Idea. A description from the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg tells us that the performance consists of a series of six short scenes. From the Red Bridge Project, coordinating the commission, we have Kentridge’s description of four of them:

A scene in the waiting room for the Sibyl. A scene about which is the right decision and which is the wrong one. How do you know which is the chair that will collapse when you sit on it and which is the chair that will support you? Is the plane that you’re rushing to catch the one that will crash or do you relax and not catch that plane and take the next one − and in fact that is the one that crashes?

Judging from the videos and description, it is presumptuous to declare that the book and opera begin in medias res. Almost anywhere in the out-of-order pages or chaotic rehearsal scenes of performers snatching at and reacting to the scattered leaves of books, typescript and so on is the middle. But if the left-to-right reading convention of the Western codex prevails, the text to be sung continues to rumble along in the codex after the thunderous proclamations. The chorus or speaker seems to falter, admitting to having forgotten the message and losing the moment of its delivery. All the while, the libretto is being joined on the left by gradually forming images of leaves (a maple and an oak), an allusion to the leaves on which the Cumaean Sibyl would write the predictions of fate she had sung but which would be scattered and whirled by the wind before the supplicant could claim his or her rightful leaf.

As occurs in Kentridge’s other bookworks, these gradual formations draw on the flip-book tradition, introducing that other recurrent media in his work — film — as well as performing an echo of the projections in the to-be performed opera. As the leaves assert themselves, the speaker’s confidence returns in all caps, a larger face and some bold. And while the speaker quickly recedes into lowercase and a lighter typeface, only able of being reminded “of something I can’t remember”, a leaf begins to metamorphose into a tree, an ampersand and then a dancer. Metamorphosis is that mythical translation of one being or object into another. Metaphor is that figure of speech that uses one object to remind us of another. “Etc., etc.” is what we say when we can’t remember or be bothered to complete a statement or series of examples. What Kentridge offers here is unquestionably not mixed metaphor but rather metaphor-mosis.

The metamorphosing ampersand recalls an illustrative example from another of Kentridge’s favored media — sculpture. As Kentridge puts it:

The turning sculptures I’ve made in the past have all been ones which have one moment of coherence, when the different components of the sculpture align. From one viewpoint they turn into a coffee pot, a tree, a typewriter, an opera singer. And then, as the sculpture turns, the elements fragment into chaos. — from The Red Bridge Project site, accessed 21 July 2021.

Ampersand (2017)
William Kentridge
Bronze, 85 x 82 x 54 cm, 87 kg
Courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery

Even though there is a speaker/singer for the libretto, the dancer has the central role in the opera. Performed by Teresa Phuti Mojela, the dancer casts her shadow over the projected pages and seems to “dance” the prophecies. Kentridge notes in the book’s afterword that he has added images of her to stand in for her projected shadows. As this sequence in the codex shows, the dancer/Teresa Phuti Mojela is the Sibyl.

In addition to containing the libretto, serving as part of the setting for the actual performance, presenting the central player and the Sibyl’s transformation into her, demonstrating the dancer’s performance (when flipped like a flip-book) and exemplifying the key props (prophecies on leaves), the codex also reflects the collaborative creative effort that Kentridge extols in describing the opera’s preparation:

… when we had our first workshop in Johannesburg, in which we brought together the singers, the pianist, a dancer to be the Sibyl, costume designer, set designer, videographer, the editor of the animations I’ve been drawing, we discovered very quickly that the magic of the piece was in the live performance of the music. At this point the project became possible to do only if we could have these singers on stage.

As the book’s last page notes, creative collaboration among Kentridge and Anne McIlleron (editors), Oliver Barstow (designer), Alex Feenstra (lithographer) and robstolk® (lithographer and printer) is what has made this work of art possible.

William Kentridge : Lexicon (2011)

William Kentridge : Lexicon (2011)
William Kentridge
Cloth boards, sewn bound. H234 x W177 mm, 160 pages. Acquired from Specific Object, 2 May 2021.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection. Permission courtesy the artist and Goodman Gallery.

The first work by Kentridge I ever saw displayed was 2nd Hand Reading (2014) at the Museum Meermanno (The House of the Book) in The Hague. The exhibition was called The Art of Reading and had been curated by Paul van Capelleveen. Curator at the Dutch national library and advisor to the Meermanno, he felt strongly that the challenges of artist books cannot be understood “under glass” and insisted that each work be touchable. So under his supervision, I was able to flip through 2nd Hand Reading and also watch the projected animation of stop-motion images across the pages being flipped. While the forward motion of the animation offers a narrative, its substrate — pages of the Shorter Oxford English dictionary on historical principles — contradicts any notion of logical beginning, middle and end: the drawn-upon pages are not in the original’s paginated or alphabetical order.

Compared to 2nd Hand Reading‘s 800 pages, Lexicon at 160 pages provides a small reminder of the experience. Bound in a green satin-sheen cloth, Lexicon begins as a facsimile edition of an antiquarian Latin-Greek dictionary. The dictionary’s browned pages and antique languages perform the role of drawing surface or projection screen for a flip-book metamorphosis. In scrawly black ink drawings, an Italian coffee pot emerges from the gutter and starts to tilt and turn.

Gradually the pot changes into a black cat, striding from right to left. Not the direction in which Western reading and narratives usually proceed. In its transformation and movements, the cat seems to pivot on itself as it turns and strides across the Latin and Greek like Rilke’s panther behind its bars until it turns back into a coffee pot. Or does it?

That drawing in the center certainly looks like the coffee pot, but as the pages turn, the cat returns to stride from left to right, expanding then shrinking until it is swallowed by the gutter.

The reference to Rilke’s panther is actually Kentridge’s, made ex post facto in the next book in the Collection.

Six Drawing Lessons (2014)

Six Drawing Lessons (2014)
William Kentridge
Cloth boards, sewn bound. H x W mm, 208 pages. Acquired from Amazon, 23 March 2019.
Photos of the book: Books On Books Collection. Permission courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.

You rarely see a clear dustjacket. Of course, if it has type printed on it, you can see it. Still, it is rare, and in this case — in light of Kentridge’s film artistry — transparently ingenious.

The six lessons — Kentridge’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered at Harvard — begin with an extended riff on Plato’s allegory of the cave. Variations on the riff recur throughout — applied to film projected from behind the audience, to a stage design of The Magic Flute as the bellows of a tripod camera, to transformations and metamorphoses and to the mining caves under Johannesburg. Kentridge’s interpretation of Plato’s cave reminds me of José Saramago’s interpretation in A Caverna (2014) and Guy Laramée’s homage to A Caverna. All three address “the great cloud of unknowing“, a kind of knowing by not knowing — but without God.

A Caverna (2012)
Guy Laramée
Portuguese-Spanish dictionary carved. Wood and velvet plinth, wood-framed glass cover. H260 x W276 x D226 mm
Acquired from William Baczek Fine Arts, 12 September 2017.

What’s remarkable is how Kentridge brings so many variations, seeming tangents and media in the lectures into coherence. Or perhaps not so remarkable given that he manages it across his body of work and the multiple media in which he works. In breadth of stuff and raw material to hand and in his head, Kentridge himself identifies Picasso’s studio practices and work as an influence. Although not mentioned, Anselm Kiefer’s works such as Das Lied von der ZederFür Paul Célan (“The song of the cedar – for Paul Célan”, 2005) and his studio at La Ribaute, near Barjac in France, come to mind in these lectures. Likewise another artist called to mind is Xu Bing, especially his Landscape/Landscript (2013) and massive junk assemblage Phoenix (2008-15) among other works. Both Kiefer and Xu use the book as a medium with which to fuse language or text with the visual. All three artists confront similarly dark, raw cultural inheritances. Kentridge’s lectures, especially Lessons Two and Three, make plain his apartheid inheritance and its presence in his art.

Circling back to the book as artistic medium, the fifth and sixth lessons provide an important insight that underscores Kentridge’s artistry there. “Lesson Five: In Praise of Mistranslation” reproduces Rilke’s “Der Panther” and Richard Exner’s translation of it in full. In that same lesson, Kentridge presents us with a montage of the feline transformations and names the works from which they come, one of them of course being Lexicon.

Before going back to Lexicon for the cat, the reader/viewer would do well to wait for Kentridge to expand in the sixth lesson on the lines describing the panther’s walk around his cage as “a dance of strength round a centre where a mighty will was put to sleep”. He writes:

There is no avoiding it. …it is the circle in the studio, the endless walking around the studio, … Again here we go back to Rilke’s panther, and the radical insufficiency, the radical gap in the center. There has to be some gap, some lack, which provokes people to spend 20 years, 30 years, making drawings, leaving traces of themselves. It has to do with the need to see oneself in other people’s looking at what you have made.

With that, remember the cat — metamorphosing from the Italian coffee pot that slips from Lexicon‘s gutter, prowling from right to left, turning back into the coffee pot, striding from left to right and then being sucked into the center. Can you ever look the same way at the gutter of a book?

Further Reading & Viewing

The Art of Reading in a ‘Post-Text Future’“. 21 February 2018. Bookmarking Book Art.

Werner Pfeiffer and Anselm Kiefer“. 16 January 2015. Bookmarking Book Art.

Kentridge, William. 2012. Six Drawing Lessons, Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Harvard University. Six videos from the Mahindra Humanities Center, posted 14-15 January 2020. Lesson 1, Lesson 2, Lesson 3, Lesson 4, Lesson 5, Lesson 6. Accessed between 1 April 2019 and 21 July 2021.

Kiefer, Anselm, and Marie Minssieux-Chamonard. 2015. Anselm Kiefer: l’alchimie du livre.

Krauss, Rosalind E. 2017. William Kentridge. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Mudam Luxembourg. 11 – 12 Jun 2021. “Sibyl“. Announcement. Accessed 22 July 2021. “Waiting for the Sibyl, co-commissioned by the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and Dramaten – Stockholm and created in collaboration with choral director and dancer Nhlanhla Mahlangu and composer Kyle Shepherd, unfolds in a series of six short scenes, …”

Bookmarking Book Art – The Art of Reading in a “Post-Text Future”

Did you read on New York Times Interactive how text is succumbing to the sound and blurry of podcasts, YouTube, talking assistants, Netflix, face-reading phones, Instagram and augmented reality? We are passing through an internet portal turning our evolution from orality to literacy in on itself — where “text recedes to the background, and sounds and images become the universal language”.

Welcome to the post-text future.

The seemingly unintentional irony of delivering the welcome by text rather than by podcast or tweeted looping video meme undermines the hyperventilation a bit. But we should not roll our eyes and move on. The NYTI journalists are reminding us to pay attention.

Our literacy has always been multimodal (read and hear the orality in the opening text of Genesis in the The Douay Version). With each new medium it rapidly becomes more multimodal.  In Ringing the Changes on “The End of Books”, there’s the tongue-in-cheek evidence from 1894.

“The End of Books”, Scribner’s Magazine (August 1894)
Louis Octave Uzanne

In Literacies, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, trace its occurrence back to the mid-twentieth century age of radio and television.  And not that long ago (2012), Amazon released Immersion Reading, enabling audio in sync with ebook reading.Leaving aside the apocalyptic speculation on the fate of letters, we should take the point: our literacies are entangled and evolve together. Putting the more scholarly view of differences between orality and text alongside the post-text Futurists’ observations about tweets, memes and other social media, we can see why we would benefit from closer attention to that entanglement and evolution.

Here is Walter J. Ong:

Oral folk prefer, especially in formal discourse, not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak, but the sturdy oak. Oral expression thus carries a load of epithets and other formulary baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight … (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982, pp.31, 37-49).

Here is the post-text future:

An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. — Farhad Manjoo

Here is Ong:

Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another. It separates the knower from the known. By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle.

Here is the post-text future:

Doyle Canning, who wrote a book on using memes for political movements and co-founded the Center for Story-Based Strategy, said people have now realized memes are replacing nuanced political debate.

“People in 2016 declined to take seriously the impact of the memes and clung to this narrative that rational policy discourse would triumph, … And it didn’t.”

“Now politics,” she said, is just “a battle of the memes.” Nellie Bowles

These comparisons/contrasts underscore Kalantzis’ and Cope’s educational earnestness about the importance of teaching to these entangled and evolving literacies as perhaps the only systematic means we have of offering children social equity and a chance at social equality. Imbuing their literacies with critical thinking skills is paramount. The art of living depends on the art of reading.

At the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, you can step into this increasingly busy intersection of literacies at an exhibition called The Art of Reading.  The exhibition is divided into six rooms labeled “Reading is Turning the Page”, “Reading is Seeing”, Reading is Touching”, “Reading is Remembering”, “Reading is Concentrating” and “Reading is Reacting”. Unusually the art is not simply on display. Touching is allowed. Paul van Capelleveen, one of the curators organizing the show, insisted that each work be touchable. As a curator at the Dutch national library and advisor to the Museum Meermanno (The House of the Book), he felt strongly that the challenges of multimodal literacy cannot be understood “under glass”.

2nd Hand Reading (2014)
William Kentridge

Physicality or the haptic is an affordance that print literacy lords over digital literacy. We know where we are in a print book because we can feel as well as see where we are. Welcome then to the first room “Reading is Turning the Page”, where William Kentridge turns the tables on that claim. As you watch the “film of the book” across the room, you can try your hand at flipping the pages of the physical copy like a flipbook to mimic the video. Look closely though. The page numbers are not sequential.

2nd Hand Reading (2014)
Page 2388 then 2390?

And the entries are not in alphabetical order.

2nd Hand Reading (2014)
“Inquest” before “Heterogenesis”?

When the order of text, numerals, narrative and images collide, we are left with the literacy of art — be it digital or physical. Which brings you to the next room: “Reading is Touching”.

The Lost Men Project (2006)
Paul Emmanuel
The Lost Men Project (2006)
Paul Emmanuel

The names of South African soldiers, both black and white, killed in the First World War, are set in hot metal type then impressed without ink on flesh. Photographed and filmed, the names fade away. In the exhibition, a voice from the touchscreen device repeats, “Touch me, touch me”. Each touch upon the screen — on the skin before you —  advances the work running as a video on the touchscreen. Touching is the only way to read all of the names of the dead as they fade away. This work is but one of several that make up The Lost Men Project

Like a Pearl in My Hand (2017)
Carina Hesper

In this room of touch, you move from sorrow to sorrow. Glass and ink do not separate you from them very much.

Two pages from Like a Pearl in My Hand

To read the pages of Like a Pearl in My Hand, you must rest your hands on them then lift your hands away.

The face revealed on each page is the face of a blind or visually impaired child in a Chinese orphanage. As you read the page, the face fades into blackness.

The artist’s book is associated with Bethel China, a charity for the visually impaired. Click on the image above to visit the charity’s site.

The next room is “Reading is Seeing”.

Were the curators being tone deaf with this juxtaposition?  No, it is the bluntness and earnestness of recognition that literacies and our sensibilities are jumbled up.  The literacy of art does that. It can move us from somberness to whimsy and back. The first work in this room of sight is a children’s flashlight (or torch) book; the next, a device for the visually impaired; the next, an augmented reality app on iPads.

Hide & Eek! (2013)
Rebecca Sutherland
OrCam MyEye 2.0 (2017)
Amnon Shashua and Ziv Aviram
An artificial vision device with a lightweight smart camera that instantly reads text aloud –in this case, a poem by Gerrit Achterberg (Kinderangst or Childhood Fear).

The curators deftly paced the impact of these rooms. Something from the one before lingers with you in the next, or something in the next reminds you of the one before.

“Reading is Remembering” is the next room. Here the artists play with re-membering text vs dis-membering text, recalling vs forgetting, excavating vs filling in, deconstructing to reconstruct, destroying to create.

A Excavation, A Reading (2013)
Rick Myers

Rick Myers was commissioned by the Onassis Cultural Center to commemorate the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. The work he proposed required permission to obtain Pentelic marble fragments (quarrying is restricted for the purpose of restoring the Acropolis) and grinding them into dust. He then sourced four different translations of Cavafy’s poem “Before the Statue of Endymion”, arranged a reading and recording of each, and, for each, cut a stencil. The chronologically first translation’s stencil was positioned on stretched plastic film suspended over speakers.  The marble dust was sifted onto the black plastic through the stencil, leaving the legible white text on the black background with which the video starts after the credits above. As the recording of the chronologically second translation plays, the sound’s vibration obliterates the  marble dust words of the first translation. Then comes the turn of the second stenciled translation to be obliterated by the third’s recorded reading. And so on.

An instant from “An Excavation, A Reading” (2013)
Rick Myers

Here, then, is a work of art that simultaneously endorses and refutes the premise that text recedes in favor of some new universal language of sound and image. It is a textual palimpsest in motion where sound dissipates the text of the past, making way for the next version of the text to be dissipated by the sound of the third and the text of the third to be dissipated by the sound of the fourth. A moment of the work is captured in Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe’s The New Concrete (see below). The work runs a little over three minutes, excerpts can be found here, but the experience under the exhibition room’s banner provides an unsurpassable frame for the work.

An Excavation, A Reading (2013)
Rick Myers
From The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century, Edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe. London: Hayward Publishing, 2015

Inspired by The Royal Road Test by Ed Ruscha, Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell (the crew that filmed a Royal typewriter being thrown out of a Buick travelling at 90mph), Simon Morris had seventy-eight students cut out all of the words from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.  On Sunday, June 1st, 2003, he “threw the words out of the window of a Renault Clio Sport on Redbridge Road, Crossways, Dorset, traveling at a speed of 90mph, approximately 122 miles southwest of Freud’s psychoanalytical couch in London. The action freed the words from the structural unity of Freud’s text as it subjected them to an ‘aleatory moment’ – a seemingly random act of utter madness.” The work on display consists of a Ruscha-like book (right down to the plastic spiral binding) and a film of the epic literary littering.

If you are expecting the next room — “Reading is Concentrating” — to help you gather any scattered thoughts or words, think again.

Marinus van Dijke’s work draws your eye and ear first. Chickens clucking and strutting onscreen, superimposed small white circles the size of a chicken’s eye jerking and gliding across the screen, a sheet of paper being laid over the screen (ah, it’s a screen within a screen), and then a hand with pen enters the frame, picks a circle and, trying to track it, leaves a scrawl on the paper.

Eye (2013)
Marinus van Dijke

Van Dijke’s work echoes Jan Dibbets’ Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June, which Germano Celant included in his Book as Artwork show in 1973. Like the deliberate echo of Morris/Ruscha, this chance echo of Van Dijke/Dibbets recalls the grounding of  contemporary textual and book art in the conceptualism of the 1960s/70s.

Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June (1970)
Jan Dibbets

Dibbets documented the flight patterns of this highly territorial bird and presented that in a book as a conceptualization of an “as if” sculpture drawn in space.

Robin Redbreast’s Territory: Sculpture 1969, April — June (1970)
Jan Dibbets

There was admittedly some “artistic license” in Dibbets’ documentation — somewhat the same as when Van Dijke’s tracing pen cannot keep up with the peripatetic circles, which are projections of the chickens’ eye movements as they hunt for food.

“Reading is Reacting” is the last room. Here it seems that printed text comes out on top. Over in one corner is a Dutch encyclopedia, stacked vertically four feet high.

In the opposite corner, on shelves from floor to ceiling, is the Dutch version of Michael Mandiberg’s Print Wikipedia. The paperbacks scattered on the display table began their textual lives online. 

Print Wikipedia (Dutch edition, 2016)
Michael Mandiberg
Jack
Tweetbundel (2015)
Jan Dirk van der Burg
Unsolicited autobiography created from the subject’s Twitter feed.

Although printed text seems to be having the last word, attend to the curators’ last words on your way out:

Reading and writing have become increasingly open arenas: there are more readers than ever before, there are more books and publication outlets, which can reach vast readerships thanks to the internet. Readers feel more empowered and are able to combine or alter texts found online. Readers become writers. Online texts have therefore come to resemble oral literature, in that they are constantly changing and being passed on from one person to another, retold — sometimes differently. They are unstable and at the same time highly accessible.

Text in books appear to be fixed, but annotations and deletions change the printed text, just as editorial changes alter a page on the internet…. Even so, printed texts are in principle less changeable than those posted online. This makes them appear inviolable and irrefutable. Some people fear that young people believe everything they read on the internet. That is nothing new. Philosophers from Socrates to Locke thought that written or printed texts would be accepted as the absolute truth.

Where do we stand today? … How reading will develop in the future is unclear, but one thing is sure: connection and interaction will be key to that development.

Leaving The Art of Reading and thinking again about a post-text future, you can be sure of one other thing: the art of living will still depend on the art of reading.