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ISBN University Series: University of Stellenbosch
Fabian Saptouw
Artwork 2015
Digital print 'University of Stellenbosch' from Fabian Saptouw’s ‘ISBN University’ series, with layered ISBN and ISSN numbers from South African university libraries.
Artwork: Fabian Saptouw, ISBN University Series: University of Stellenbosch (2015). Digital print. 70 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Artist Fabian Saptouw Title ISBN University Series: University of Stellenbosch Date 2015 Materials Digital print Dimensions 70 x 100 cm Credit Courtesy of the artist

An abstract visualisation of South African universities’ libraries, ISBN University Portraits Series comprises layered prints featuring all ISBN and ISSN entries in each institution’s database. ISBN and ISSN numbers identify the edition, publisher, and physical properties of a book, allowing libraries to efficiently search for publications; their assembled knowledge reduced to numerical signs. In sourcing this data, Saptouw engaged the bureaucratic gate-keeping of such knowledge, citing software challenges and difficulties in communicating with the various institutions as challenging to his process. The black-and-white images, which appear as obscure diagrams or illegible documents, offer portraits of only the more recent life of each library (ISBN technology having been used from 1970 onwards). With each portrait necessarily incomplete, Saptouw’s seemingly futile exercise in accumulating data becomes central to the project – the artist pursuing a visual representation of the untranslatability of archive.

Equal parts artist and academic, Fabian Saptouw centres his practice on the production, storage, and distribution of knowledge. Through repetitive actions – unravelling and reweaving a section of blank canvas, pushing and pulling at a pill of prestik – Saptouw attempts to laboriously unmake and remake the mass with which he began. Seldom are the originals restored, the end results experiments in scientific method rather than finished products. Of attempting (and failing) to precisely re-weave a canvas, Saptouw says, “in this sense the very premise of the project becomes more like an idealistic goal, rather than an achievable outcome.” It is the futility of such actions that satisfies the artist’s primary enquiry – that of accounting for time spent. Saptouw’s qualitative and quantitative observations, distilled in seemingly unremarkable objects, make apparent his wider preoccupations with system and structure.