In 2013, I played a minor role in the production team for Ruth Sacks’ third artist book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under Seas (2013) a textual-illustrative re-imaging of Jules Verne’s 1870 science-fiction novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas. I was to help facilitate the packaging of Sacks’ books into ornate boxes. Admittedly, I did not read the book at the time and, if I’m being honest, I also did not understand why artists made books. An artist book felt like a burden to me: an object-export of a material practice, indiscernible from a sculpture on a plinth. And not, as in Sacks’ case, an instrument to pick apart the seams by which I thought I knew how to read the text. Almost 10 years later, as I write about The Remaindering – Sacks’ fourth published artist book – I find myself grateful for her unwavering generosity in this medium.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under Seas is where I would like to begin my history of Sacks’ artist books. I consider this work the precursor to her later-published academic and artist books, the most recent of which is the subject of my review. In her rendition of Verne’s sci-fi novel, Sacks included most of the text from the original work, with certain details changed, such as a ‘re-stocking’ of the library of the submarine, in which the novel takes place. Sacks’ rendering of the text was not so much to rewrite the content as to reformat the word-as-image.1Sacks’ serious playfulness with the written word(s) as reference to other forms outside of the text makes me think of Vicki Kirby on writing as a lively archive of ideological discourse: “Consequently, language bursts the boundaries of its conventional articulation, engendering a reality whose inscriptive production implicates the ideological with/in the physical.” Sacks plays out the ideological within the physical by lending and bending the form of the text to an architectural curve: a curling tendril that gives form to a French-imperialist outlook on an alien underwater world for conquering-by-writing. She drew out certain sentences from the novel that highlighted imperial-ideological sentiments on the part of the author, a 19th century French man writing a sci-fi novel about the discovery of new land under the sea. She then arranged them into elaborate and spindly tendrils which collectively made reference to the forms of ornamental embellishments characteristic of the Brussels Art Nouveau movement. Sacks notes that she wanted to underscore the architectural movement’s “relationship to the forms of colonialism” implicit to the imperialist architecture of Belgium, where Art Nouveau originated.2It is worth noting that ‘Jules Verne style’ is also a 19th Century French off-shoot of the Art Nouveau architectural movement. I imagine this has something to do with squid tentacles.
I am curious about the lively intersections of text (as a still-productive site), architecture and the post-colony in Sacks’ work.3I use the term ‘post-colony’ here as a placeholder on a timeline that delineates the before and after ‘official’ ‘independence’ of formerly colonised peoples. Namely, I want to talk more about her use of text as a generative site for meaning outside language’s capacity to hold it. Sacks’ latest offering, The Remaindering, reads as an object first: made in close consultation with Johannesburg-based artist-book-making pioneer, Victoria Wigzell of PULP Paperworks, Sacks and Wigzell resolved to base the design of The Remaindering on an off-cut of another book PULP previously produced. The book is rectangular for the most part: the spine at the short-end sits at a 90 degree angle, while the fore-edge of the book slants at a diagonal cut. With a black, embossed cover, the book-as-object alludes to a building block of some unknowable structure. In an email correspondence, Sacks explains, “The Remaindering is based on the objects and environmental elements/actants that did not fit into my PhD, which then became my first academic book, Congo Style: How the Congo influenced Modernism, from Art Nouveau to l’authenticité in the postcolony’.”4Congo Style will be published by Michigan University Press later this year. Sacks’ area of expertise is specifically in the colonial-architectural export of Art Nouveau from Belgium to the Congo with King Leopold II’s Congo Colony, through to Kinshasa’s post-independence modernism under Mobuto Sese Seko’s Second Republic.
The Remaindering was launched at PULP Paperworks studios as an exhibition titled Concrete Ecologies in Johannesburg in May. Comprised of solid white pages of printed text in Sacks’ customary word-imaging, each text formation in The Remaindering corresponds in form with an overlay of translucent paper, featuring a constellation of curious illustrations. The illustrations appear as the solid black silhouettes of machine cogs, jagged stairwells, brutalist ornaments, butterflies, praying mantises, birds of prey, windswept machine apparatuses and what I imagine a wrought-iron-rendering of mushroom spores might look like. Sacks describes the imagery in her book as “fragments of the plans, drawings or photographs of the constructions under discussion.”
Paging through the book, certain text and image overlays appear as bodies: wrought-iron mushroom spore constellations laid over a corresponding text give the image of a fruiting body that both ejects and consumes itself. I find that I can’t read the text while viewing the body and vice versa. At this impasse, I think of of Vicki Kirby’s provocation, “For what is writing when it is more than writing—when the familiar meaning of the word assumes such monstrous elasticity that it surrounds and invades everything, when it is everything, when there is no getting outside this ubiquitous text?”5Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal (1997). Sacks’ affective writing-bodies demand a present-reading of the text, which make me aware of the limitations of the signifying systems by which I have learnt to enclose my world. Sacks’ work thus invites the reader not just to read the text but to invent within it. Words offer themselves as spores that release and reconstitute themselves elsewhere.
The Remaindering could be described as a poetic lexicon of favoured “awkward objects”– for instance, remnants of 19th and 20th century architectural and public artwork structures in and around Kinshasa. However, the verb-title The Remaindering ascribes an animacy to the structures of Sacks’ enquiry, which corroborate their monstrous elasticity. They are not only the excess of colonial-architectural endeavours and their reverb in the post-colony; they are also, subsequently, polyphonous sites for different tonalities of ecological activity.
Take, for instance, the chapter ‘Bridge Stairs.’ Sacks describes rows of identical corresponding staircase components on either side of Boulevard Lumumba, Kinshasa, which allegedly twin-mark bridges that never materialised. She describes the structures based on their current ecological and communal functions: concrete surfaces teem with moss and mould, while the remaining stairs provide seats for gatherings and tables for the sale of alcoholic beverages and snacks. Sacks recalls an architect’s digital rendering of the original plans for the twin staircases conjoined by a bridge structure: “Straight lines and correct angles do not describe what have become monuments to the shifting everyday life of a micro roadside environment.” I think of Sacks’ monuments as the monstrous elasticity of landscape as text: incomplete concrete forms that were once moulded by colonial enterprise are consumed by moss; together they hold history-in-relation. The Remaindering is testament to Sacks’ proclivity for bending the text into a material site that holds histories, ecologies and the written word in its fold.