In February 2019, a collection of 60 bookworks by the sociologist-artist Jan K Coetzee was exhibited in Everard Read Gallery’s CIRCA in Johannesburg. The bookworks bring sculpted and found objects into a dialogue with old books to reflect something of the wider social, cultural and historical structures and refrains of our times. The full collection is featured in Coetzee’s book ‘Books & Bones & Other Things’ (SUN PRESS 2018).
The bookwork ‘Failing to learn, doomed to repeat’ comes from this collection. The 7 volumes of Wieland’s work (‘S M Wielands Werte’) contains novels by the German poet/novelist Christoph Martin Wieland. He calls the first novel ‘The History of the Abderites’. This novel – published in the first 2 volumes of the collection in this bookwork – satirizes the inhabitants of small-town Germany, using the ancient Greek town of Abdera as a stand-in for the contemporary German towns that Wieland was critiquing. Wieland’s satirical intent is clear: although Abdera had long disappeared, the Abderites still exist and are to be found in every town and city in Germany.
In complete contrast to the small-mindedness of humans eluded to by Wieland in his novel ‘The History of the Abderites’ and in other writings, fossils represent stability and reliability. They are the oldest natural forms and shapes available to us. Fossils tell the oldest stories of our planet; they hold the oldest memories of our past. In a symbolic sense, fossils are the archetype of memory. But also of forgetting, particularly forgetting the lessons of the past. Therefore the title of this bookwork: Failing to learn, doomed to repeat.
The installation consists of 7 volumes of Wieland’s work, all bound in half-leather with marbled board covers, secured by 5 raised bands. The books are accompanied by an antique silver magnifying glass. The books were printed in 1784 by Joseph Georg Trassler in Troppau. Each book measures 17cm in length, 11cm in width and 2.4cm in thickness. The condition of the books is very good. With the books are 4 fossils:
A trilobite from the Devonian period
A cockscomb oyster from the Jurassic/Cretaceous period
A whale ear bone from the Palaeocene/Miocene period
A sea urchin from the Palaeocene/Eocene period
The installation is on a teak tray. In addition to its artistic appeal, this bookwork makes for a meaningful piece in any private or public library. A signed copy of the book ‘Books & Bones & Other Things’ (2018, SUN PRESS: Bloemfontein, 212pp), stitch-bound in hard cover, accompanies this bookwork. The bookwork is fully illustrated and documented on pp. 82-83 of this book.
Jan K Coetzee dedicated his working life to academia. At the age of 31, in 1979, he became a Professor of Sociology at the (then) University of the Orange Free State, then moved to Rhodes University where he spent 23 years as Professor and Head of the Department Sociology. He returned to the University of the Free State as Senior Professor in 2011. He initiated and directs the programme ‘The Narrative Study of Lives and Documents of Life’. He has published more than 70 scientific articles in accredited and international journals and authored/co-authored more than 20 book publications. He received the Vice-Chancellor’s Book Award in 2002 at Rhodes University for his books ‘Plain Tales from Robben Island’ and ‘Fallen Walls’. His latest book, published in 2019, is ‘Narrating the Everyday’ (with Asta Rau).