An art exhibition is often exciting not only because of the creativity but also the idea that holds the project. Jan Coetzee’s Books & Bones & other things is an example of just that kind of imagination:
DIANE DE BEER
From the beginning of time, individuals have at some stage of their lives questioned the meaning of life in some way.
It makes sense that a man who has spent his whole working life in academia, studying and researching, would use these tools to question his own life – and thus began what has turned into an exhibition, Books & Bones & other things, which Mark Read of Everard Read Gallery invited academic/artist Prof Jan Coetzee to present for the month of February in CIRCA.
Jan Coetzee started his career at the University of South Africa; later became Professor of Sociology at the University of the (Orange) Free State (1979‑1986); and then moved to Rhodes University (1987‑2010) as Professor and Head of Department. In 2011 he returned to the University of the Free State as Senior Professor of Sociology where he initiated and directs the programme: The narrative study of lives.
Within this research programme, he became interested in books as documents of life. “Throughout my life I’ve always been attracted to old texts – maybe not surprising given the fact that I did classical Greek and Sociology as majors for a BA. Together with my interest in narratives, I’ve also been playing around for years with sculpting,” he explains.
In short, he says, he put together almost 60 installations of “bookworks” consisting of old texts combined with found and sculpted objects. Most of these are enclosed in acrylic museum cases. “The object of this whole exercise is to attempt a reading of these aesthetically pleasing old texts – all of them old and many of them written in closed languages such as Latin, old German, old Slavic, etc.
“The installations attempt to unwrap/open the meaning of this collection of old texts: to try to hear what they are telling us today.”
As an academic he has thoroughly explained this complicated yet fascinating exhibition which would appeal to both scholars and the lay public.
“From the very beginning, humans have been living in storytelling societies. The earliest recordings of our stories are found in art and artefacts, and later on, in documents — the predecessors of what we call ’books‘.”
Books & Bones & Other Things is thus a dialogue with a collection of books serendipitously encountered across Europe and South Africa. What started as a collection developed into a project to make the author’s own life, as well as life in general, more intelligible to himself and to others, he believes – and hopes.
The books in the collection are old texts which have considerable aesthetic appeal which originated from and bear witness to the actions, intentions, motivations, joys and hopes, as well as the fears and sufferings of human beings.
Each text, he says, narrates a story. But as his process developed, he realised that our ability to hear what they are trying to say is undermined: most are written in old, inaccessible languages which meant that Coetzee could not merely present these books as is.
And this is where interpretation came into play. He needed to find a way to retell the stories, to break them open and even subvert traditional narrative conventions by presenting them in a way that conjures up new stories in his mind and – hopefully – the minds of his ‘readers’.
This is when he began critically inquiring into the aims, context, and content of these books by systematically engaging with the title pages of the texts.
“Only the title pages,” he underlines. It meant that without studying the rest of the texts and without examining the meaning of the inside pages, he set out re-imagining the texts by recalling stories from his own life and readings.
He also initiated conversations between the different books so that the individual stories would resound more emphatically.
The bookworks, he says, explore the historical development of society and its structures — religion, colonialism, imperialism, racism, language, identity and time — all steeped in Western thought and tradition. “This I relate to the books themselves, and to the sculptures and the religious and cultural artefacts that accompany them.”
Coming to terms with yet another phenomenon of our time, an acknowledgement that in these European texts the voices of indigenous peoples are silent and their values, laws, and cosmologies — their very lives — are largely discounted. He emphasises this in the use of sculls and chains for example. “What survives all individual authors, all human remembering and forgetting, I show in prehistoric fossils — a knowledge in the bones.”
He compares the results to a small private library in an ordinary family home which reflects something of the family. This collection of documents he feels, uncovers and reveals something of his own roots as it resonates with wider social, cultural, and historical refrains.
“I cannot think of a more accomplished scholar of stories, or the narrative study of lives, than Jan Coetzee who in this ground-breaking book demands a reckoning with all those stories, of ourselves and others entangled in this post-1994 dance. This attempt at excavating the ‘knowledge in the bones’ is truly an exceptional piece of scholarship by Coetzee and an outstanding set of authors and should be required reading not only for sociologists but story-tellers and -listeners across the disciplines. It is the curriculum we desperately need.”
This is the recommendation of Jonathan Jansen, former Rector and Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Free State of Coetzee’s book which is at the centre of this exhibition.
The exhibition will end on February 28 with an endowment auction of these bookworks – conducted by Strauss and Co – the proceeds going to Kim Berman’s Artist Proof Studio and William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea. The exhibition/auction consists of the almost 60 bookworks/installations that form the basis of a book Books & Bones & Other Things published by Sun Press in 2018.