Reviews & Articles
at 11:10am on 17th September 2012
1. & 2. Books from the author's bookshelf, 2012.
3. & 4. A small exhibition of Xu Bing's Book from the Ground; inside Eslite Bookshop, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, 2012.
All photographs by John Batten
This essay was written for the bōk- exhibition catalogue published in mid-2009 (8 months after the exhibition at 1a space, Hong Kong, 2008). The frenzy accompanying the August 2012 opening of the Eslite Bookstore in Causeway Bay reminded me of this essay and recent discussions about the viability of physical books in the Internet 'age'. In the wake of the crowds visiting Eslite, I have recently made a concerted effort to 'support' buying books at other bookshops - some, like the established Commercial Press Bookshop in Causeway Bay, have recently renovated and revamped some of their archaic and annoying book-selling ways. Hong Kong does not have London's Tottenham Court Road, but bookshops Kelly & Walsh; Swindon's, Joint Publishing, Commercial Press and smaller bookshops such as ACO in Wan Chai; The Bookshop at the Hong Kong Arts Centre; and Hong Kong Reader in Mong Kok stand-up very well against the noise and crowds seen at Eslite.
My visit to the bōk- exhibition was momentary – a brief look and a section of the exhibition had already been dismounted. One artist kindly unpacked and showed me his beautifully crafted work; a collaboration with a recent fine arts graduate and the deft assistance of a sharp cutter: it was bubble-wrapped and the anticipation of showing was heightened by the filmy transparent bubble. I walked around the exhibition, taking some idle notes. Not, if I remember correctly, happily; but that memory is now quite filmy; as filmy as a slowly developing cataract.
So, let’s start with my Bok.
The word ‘bok’ has one particular connotation for me. One only. As a child growing up in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s this word was the shortened form for ‘Springbok’. Webster’s online dictionary explains:
Springbok (Afrikaans bok = antelope, deer, or goat), a small antelope (Antidorcas marsupialis) that stands about 75 cm high and can weigh up to 40 kg. It inhabits the dry inland areas of Southern Africa. It is the national animal of South Africa. It can run at a speed of 80 kilometres per hour (50 miles per hour).
It was also the national symbol of South Africa under white minority rule, being adopted by a number of South African sports teams to describe themselves, most famously by the national rugby team. It also appeared on the emblems of the South African Air Force and as the logo of South African Airways, as well as the national coat of arms.
After the demise of apartheid, the ANC government decreed that South African sporting teams were to be known as the Proteas. The rugby team still maintains the name Springboks, however, after the intervention of then president Nelson Mandela, who did so as a gesture of goodwill to the mainly white rugby supporters.
Any thinking person was, on principle, against apartheid – and South Africa became, because of these racist policies, an international outcast. Trade boycotts and countless countries imposed travel restrictions on South Africa. However, outside South Africa the most graphic opposition towards the South African government’s apartheid policies was often seen on the sports field – or, to be more precise, in debates about whether a country should play sport with South Africa.
I lived in New Zealand from 1980 to 1988 and one of the most traumatic events at the time was the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. It was a tour that took place, according to the then incumbent conservative New Zealand government, because “politics has no place on the sports field”. During that winter of 1981 scenes of violence and protests against the tour were beamed on televisions screens around the world. 1.
My own memories from the time include: families split into “pro-the Tour” and “against-the Tour” factions; running battles with police around the streets of rugby grounds where the teams were playing; the pushing and shoving of protesters and police; the smell of sweat and fear; the sudden violence, scattered shoes and blood that littered Rintoul Street in Wellington after an unnecessarily violent police baton charge; the spitting, swearing and macho-bravado from rugby supporters – some of whom, oddly, were my friends; and, of politicians who, when it suited them, would argue ‘the law and order’ issue when facing opposition to their policies rather than discussing the morals and principles of the situation.
And the memory of the awful, stupid and aggressive bloody-mindedness of it all.
Webster’s exploration of the word ‘Springbok’ is wide: it offers more than its etymology and places the word within its recent controversial social context. Words carry both meaning and context – and in the ordered sequence of a writer’s composition we can see the results of a cogent argument or a building of an imagined story.
Until YouTube arrived we only had words - mostly, and usually, in books.
Books have been – and, I would strongly argue, still are, our major source of archived knowledge and imagination.
Steven Pinker reminds us: “As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision….That ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds….” 2.
Language is the articulation of thought and the written word is the recording of those thoughts. Books are our most common means of record and they contain - as an evolving continuum – an expanding documentation and history of individual cultures.
Sitting around with friends, at dinner or in a bar involves conversation. We all talk and we all talk a lot – the sociability of the occasion makes conversation inevitable: it is what is done when people meet. The permutations and combination of words is unique every time people meet and converse. Apart from ritualistic phrases such as “good morning, how are you?” conversations will spiral and traverse around a multitude of unrepeated paths.
Most verbal and oral encounters are unrecorded – they happen and most are then forgotten. If they are recounted and related again, then it is through the intermediary of memory sitting between the actual event and the relating of that event. Memory, as we all know, can be both inaccurate, because we do not quite remember the event exactly, and it can be reinterpreted to the advantage of the speaker e.g. a simple story can be changed to make it more interesting and then changed again to make it more exciting and changed again to make a moral point.
Memory retains much that is unwanted and skews our ability to control the logic of a situation. It is annoying and traps the psychosis of much that we would rather abandon. The written word is an annoyingly slippery method of communication to express and articulate exactly what we feel or heard or wish to relate – we must find the correct nuance; the correct degree and the correct relationship of language to successfully offer competent meaning and comprehension.
Writers, and in particular good fiction writers, should be admired and honoured for tackling an impossible job: the battle with words.
I began this short essay by using an example of association; the word ‘bok’ has a connotation about and a relationship with South Africa – this is far from the ‘bok’ used as reference in the 1aspace exhibition: ‘bok’ being the Germanic root for the word book. Although completely unrelated to books, my anecdote about the South African ‘bok’ has greater meaning than it deserves by simply placing it within a discussion on books. I quite like that – the anarchy and dada of disassociation that many thinkers and artists use to reveal a new or another truth. When the Belgian artist Rene Magritte says something is not a pipe alongside an image of a pipe that he has painted, we are still intrigued by the conundrum.
Writing and words and books and art are precisely all about that.
In a recent interview, the writer Kate Grenville was asked: who is your perfect reader; her answer: “Someone who has the time to read slowly, is fascinated by people and wants to be taken into another world”. Reinforcing that answer she was then asked: what novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
Her answer was Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.
I agree - what a wonderful book. I read it when I was eight or nine years old. I should read it again. I can still recall the pleasure of reading it and the simple illustrations by the author; an accomplished graphic depiction, as I remember, of the layout of the land; a mapped depiction of the summer holiday adventures of a group of children in the English countryside.
Love In the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in its excellent English translation, is an adult equivalent. This brooding, masterful exploration of love lost and then regained years later is the sort of marvelous fantasy that touches the heart both with its tingling story and compact fluid language. Similar to the pleasure books give children as they lie in bed secretly reading under the covers ignoring parental instructions to go to sleep.
It is all communication. Good communication. To often it is bad communication.
Words can also be oppressive. Those words saying ‘don’t smoke’; ‘don’t play ball games’; ‘don’t gamble’; ‘don’t hang washing’ seen in Hong Kong parks or the pleading exhortations of advertisers: Carslberg is ‘probably the best beer in the world’ or Canon which is ‘delighting us always’! Seen everyday and all around, it makes me weary and eye-sore.
Before the Internet, there was the “tyranny of distance”. 4 The world was not instantaneous and words, information and news took time to travel, but they did eventually travel. In the 1970s I loved (and still do) a British band called Van Der Graaf Generator – getting an imported record took forever and knowing how they looked and heard ‘live’ was almost impossible; I once bought an expensive ‘bootleg’ record: an illegally recorded and pressed record of a live concert. The quality was awful, but at least I heard them ‘live’.
The Internet and YouTube have changed all that. Distance and time have been dramatically cut and – importantly – our attitude to information is much more relaxed. Someone recording a concert on their mobile phone and posting it on a website is both easily done and acceptable now. Facts and figures and lyrics of songs and clips of music and images that can all be downloaded and used, as we like.
Previously words, information and books were only in libraries. Days would be spent sifting through books for information and references. Actually, I think for serious study, this is still the case. The Internet, with its uncomfortable interface of the computer monitor, offers articles, soundbites and snippets, but true in-depth intellectual exploration remains contained in books.
An art gallery should also be a place for intellectual exploration and intelligent writing. So often it is not. Jackie Wullschlager’s review of the Tate Modern’s recent Triennial, Altermodernism, by the curator Nicholas Bourriaud is withering in contempt:
“… curator Nicholas Bourriaud has produced an exhibition drowned in his own critical theory jargon, which justifies a closing-time-in-the-gardens-of-the-west scenario by gathering from across the world the most uncharismatic, low-key, cheap, ill-thought-out, self-indulgent works imaginable.
… yes, Bourriaud continues as if globalization, mass communication and migration had just been invented. (Bourriaud explains): “Altermodernism can be defined as that moment when it becomes possible for us to produce something…from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities. Disdaining the nostalgia for the avant-garde…The artists turns cultural nomad….Post-colonial criticism of western pretensions to determine the world’s direction and the speed of its development, has allowed the historical counters to be re-set to zero.”” 5
So often, I just do not know what curators are actually saying. They are often just bad writers and worse, precisely because they are showing to an audience, bad communicators.
A good writer communicates. A good artist does the same. A good exhibition is lyrical, explores, challenges, debates, offers argument, points fingers, and is passionate and impassioned.
Just like a good Bok.
1. See New Zealand 1981 Springbok rugby tour footage at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW_wdqeCVDw
2. Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1994, p15
3. Kate Grenville, Financial Times, 7-8 February 2009, p17
4. Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance, Sydney, Macmillan, 2001
5. Jackie Wullschlager, “Art in Search of a Label”, Financial Times, 7-8 February 2009 or online at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6b0e0b2e-f4ba-11dd-8e76-0000779fd2ac.html
An essay included in the bōk- exhibition catalogue, 1a space, 2009.
Date: 8.8. – 21.9.2008
Venue: 1a space, Hong Kong
Curators: Ali Wong & James Chong
Participating Artists: Yuk King Tan, Michael Lee Hong Hwee, Huang Xiaopeng, Yuen Cheuk Wa, Jeff Leung Chin Fung, Liu Wai Tong
*bōk- is the Germanic root of the word BOOK, where the Old English "bōc" comes from; it is an instrument for carrying messages, history and wisdom; *bōk- also has its ability to create certain ambience with its poetic uniqueness. One can feel the aura of books even without reading them
More about the exhibition