Monday, 12:00am
9 November 2009

Clever chameleon

Rick Poynor examines Mono-Kultur, a smart and ‘exquisitely scaled’ independent publication. Critique by Rick Poynor

Mono-Kultur 22

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If my own experience is anything to go by, Mono-Kultur might be a little too chameleonic for its own good. Scanning the racks for the Berlin-based interview magazine in a gallery bookshop that usually stocks it, I concluded that I was out of luck. It was only when I returned to look at the magazines a second time, before leaving, that I realised Mono-Kultur had been there all along, sitting next to 032c on a lower shelf. I had even glanced at the cover without recognising what it was.

The tiny masthead and the size, slightly smaller than A5, remain constant, but everything else is in flux. Every issue has a different designer and the format follows suit. Mono-Kultur will probably be portrait, except when it needs to be landscape. It could be a poster wrapped around a smaller booklet, or you might have to remove the missing pictures from a little bag inside and stick them in yourself (and this old trick won’t even seem tiresome). The cover will perhaps be a partial wrapper that looks like an add-on to the real cover underneath, which might just be an ordinary page. The paper will also vary so that Mono-Kultur never feels like the same publication twice.

These restless adjustments are the closest Kai von Rabenau’s project, launched in 2005, comes to any kind of extravagance or whimsy. In every other respect, Mono-Kultur maintains a disciplined but never too heavy focus on its chosen editorial task, and that confident sense of purpose is part of its considerable charm. Each issue carries a long interview with a notable figure: they have included Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, performance artist and film-maker Miranda July, photographer Taryn Simon, Dutch architects MVRDV, and actor Tilda Swinton. Apart from a brief introduction, outlining the subject’s significance, there is no other editorial content and not a single ad. The issues typically consist of 32 pages, though this can also vary.

The latest issue, the 22nd, features Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, architect, activist and blogger. The interview is slightly longer this time, running to 40 pages, and the issue is printed on thick uncoated paper that bulks it up slightly more than usual. The glossy cover shows a picture of Weiwei with a hard white border. The image, which appeared on his blog under the title ‘All Chinese people come from the same source’, has a composite quality – it’s a photo collage – and makes him look like a businessman. Pictures of Weiwei inside show a wilder, less barbered figure. In an image from a notorious stunt in 1995, we see him unmaking history by dropping a Han dynasty urn on the ground, where it shattered. A wallet in the back cover contains a folding poster with many thumbnails of his projects, including the ‘bird’s nest’ stadium in Beijing by Herzog & de Meuron – Weiwei was an adviser and contributed to the design.

The Haus der Kunst in Munich is showing an exhibition of his work, ‘Ai Weiwei: So Sorry’ (until 17 January 2010) and Weiwei was in the news in August after Chinese policemen beat him up in an attempt to stop him acting as a witness at a dissident’s trial. He later required urgent surgery in Munich for intracranial bleeding. At great personal risk, Weiwei uses his art to challenge the Chinese authorities and pursue his political ideals. In a highly revealing interview, he describes the citizens’ investigation, involving 200 volunteers, which he co-ordinated in Sichuan province to discover how many children died during the May 2008 earthquake, due to the collapse of poorly constructed school buildings. The authorities had repeatedly refused to make this information public. Weiwei published the names and details of more than 5000 lost children on his blog.

As with previous issues of Mono-Kultur, the design – here by Yvonne Zmarsly – supports the content. The two-column format is highly readable on the small page. Reversing the usual emphasis, Zmarsly puts the questions into a regular serif and sets the answers in a bold serif. She uses space sensitively, opening up larger than usual intervals between sections and placing occasional, discreetly-sized pull-quotes in the centre of otherwise empty pages. These counterbalance the pictures, which always occupy a similar space. The text has authority without looking ponderous or worthy and the issue is nicely unified. Once again, Mono-Kultur achieves an ideal balance: serious content engagingly presented. This modest, exquisitely scaled publication has matured into one of the smartest and most collectable independent magazines now operating.

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.