For the DRUID, as I guess for most other people, writing about oneself is horrifying. One lies without knowing because one tries to make others see personal things in a certain way. Everything trips up equally on pretence and the refusal to be pretentious. Writing stinks, because it can be held as evidence – once written, the thing stays written. Druids and gnostics are inherently from an oral tradition. I take my cue from that arch-druid who was crucified for what he said, not for what he wrote.
In my younger years I was ridiculously religious – to the extent that I went into full-time preaching on the streets of Johannesburg and other South African cities. At the end of this phase, in my early thirties, without realising it, I fell prey to a rotten spell of lead poisoning (also called plumbism, colica Pictonum or saturnism) and was then subjected to twenty years of intense pain and discomfort. Driven to distraction I came to the inevitable conclusion that God is a fiction, but that He is nevertheless real. If you ask me today whether I believe in God or not my answer is unequivocally: “Yes, of course I do.” – and then again in the same breath: “No, I certainly don’t.”
Years ago I had all but memorised the entire New Testament and while poisoned, I was on a quest to understand every word in the more-than-twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. I felt I had a keen grasp on where the notion of God came from. I also set myself the impossible task to know every plant on earth by its botanical name and to tell it apart from all other plants. Not being able to sleep at night, I managed to write about fifteen dictionaries and transformed some of them into art installations. While raising a family, I kept to a stoic, Spartan, monk-like way of life and to cope with the neuropathic discomfort, I made more artworks than anyone I knew. Working and red wine were my pain-killers – pills did nor work. When I worked, my head went somewhere else and I did not feel the bloody hurt. I had never drunk a drop of alcohol till I was thirty six and thereafter I felt compelled to drink all the wine produced in the Cape, literally. At the end of this time I could no longer walk and the doctors, especially the specialists, told me to cut down on my lifestyle. I should be thankful for having led a ‘great’ life and that it was time to stop – I was getting old.
In 2005 Dr Derrick Wilton, a wise and wizened old medical specialist took a snippet of my hair for testing. He phoned back with the sombre result that I had been poisoned. I had to see him immediately!
It turned out that I had an inordinate amount of lead poison in my system – not merely the small amount of heavy metal poison we all have from exhaust fumes and factories. My excessive level of poisoning caused intense neuropathy and pain. I had contracted the problem by not wearing a mask when sanding down piles of antique wooden doors and windows some twenty years before and I should have been dead already.
In 2006 I received a few months of chelation treatment to remove the lead. During weekly sessions EDTA (Ethylene Diamine Tetra Acetic) was administered by syringe, accompanied by a torrid drip of hydrogen peroxide at the end which I was left dizzy and miserable.
At about this time I read some books on druids. Even though we don’t know a great deal about them, I thought that my lifestyle was to a great extent similar to theirs. Their name ‘druid’ is from an old Greek source drus, ‘tree’. A ‘dryad’, as found in folklore and Greek mythology, is a nymph inhabiting a forest, or tree, especially an oak tree and also derivesfromdrus. My father was a carpenter and I had worked with wood all my life. Furthermore, I had spent many years studying trees and plants and I was able to identify most of our the local flora as well as a large number of universal species. I had taken three massive ‘gardens’ of plant words on exhibitions to a number of countries. I lived a little like a reclusive monk studying dictionaries, religion, philosophy, anthropology, botany, music and art. I imagined the druids as not necessarily religious, but knowing the secrets of why people were devoted to religion. Druids occupied a position where they were able to marry the ‘sciences’ of agriculture, healing, the stars, seasons, psychology, the weather and so on. Like me, they had studied many methods of divination and figured out why augurs were successful in making insightful pronouncements. The suspicious Romans were so afraid of druids that, in the year 70 AD they killed all of them. It should also be noted that they tried to kill the arch-druid seventy years earlier when, under the rule of Ceasar Augustus, they killed all two-year old babies.
In my books I came across some information indicating that in order for one to become a druid, one has to go through a near-death experience. I noticed that this was also true for the African sangomas and inyangas. In a project entitled INDEX OF (B)REACHINGS I had carefully studied divination as practiced by the ancient Greeks and today’s African healers and sages and I believe that they are somewhat aligned with the druids. The word inyanga literally means ‘man of trees’. I took note of the fact that these all had to face death and then come back to life and I thought of my own escape. Maybe I was a silly old druid after all or perhaps just a little druid.
The chelation treatment drew to an end, and I began to surface from my misery – badly battered, but alive. The lead was gone, but it had caused untold damage. My legs, in particular, continued to be extremely painful from neuropathy, but the rest of my body saw a great change. I felt renewed and exhilarated to the extent that I became acutely aware of the colours, shapes and textures of the world around me. Everything looked so new, it was as if I could see it for the first time. I had spent many years practicing different forms of meditation and it felt as if I now meditated for the very first time. I walked on water and I soared above the clouds. Life was distinctly grand.
As time went on, the sense of incredible sight and awareness increased. I was reminded of the fact that druids are seers. Paradoxically I was attracted to splendour and awe in the dust and muck on pavements and walls, so I started photographing it. I also, slowly at first, discovered that I could walk again and I began to venture on slow druidic walks.
My first druid walks were undertaken at the NIROX artist residency in the Cradle of Humankind, west of Johannesburg. It was wintertime in 2007 and the stems of the trees were exposed. I discovered signs of intense suffering in the Celtis trees. They are of the elm family (Ulmaceae). The elm trees had been blighted in Europe by Dutch Elm disease and I felt strangely attracted to be with Ptelea, the tragic nymph of the elms. My first druid walks made me see signs of abuse on the bodies of the Celtis trees that filled me with a sense of grief. I photographed what looked like sexual abuse and genital mutilation.
More druid walks seemed to bring me in touch with the very spirit of things. In September of 2008, I stayed in New York, at the apartment of the Ampersand Foundation, a city block away from Ground Zero. I moved about slowly and carefully around the streets of that beleaguered precinct to see if I could find tell-tales of the disaster that had happened seven years earlier. I felt led by the rather timid nymph residing in lower Manhattan. The nymph of a city is called a poliad and the one I sought out appeared overcome with a sense of numbness and desolation. After recording the impression of gloom visible in the cracks in the road and the debris stuck onto lamp-posts, I decided that it was time to share what was happening to me.
In 2009, after more druid walks and druid musings, the Basel Art Fair committee, gave me permission to set up my cubicle as part of Art Unlimited. I had given the idea of a silly little druid renewed attention and I became BIG DRUID IN HIS CUBICLE instead. The information submitted to the art fair committee was later also adapted to advertise the installation and activities of BIG DRUID:
South African artist Willem Boshoff lived like a druid for much of his life and presents his experiences in person as BIG DRUID at the Basel Art Fair of 2009. BIG DRUID resides in a custom-made cubicle where he does battle with shadows, aesthetic constructs and words. He occupies the cubicle2 throughout the art fair. His irregular sleeping pattern dictates that he sleeps and meditates at unforeseen times of the day or night. He only leaves his cubicle for meals, ablutions and solitary druidic walks in the mornings. BIG DRUID works on computer, writing druidic dictionaries, plotting philosophical strategies and documenting his experiences and large collection of diviners’ articles. The cubicle has an area of retreat and contains the divination collection. It is also fitted with exhibition shelves and a work area where BIG DRUID makes and shows artworks and thought processes that reflect on the outcome of his extravagant3 druidic insights and multivagant4 itinerary.
An exposition of light, form, symbolism and thought.
- BIG DRUID writing dictionaries, especially: “What Every Druid Should Know”
- Images and sound in slide shows reflecting on solitary druidic walks
- Screening of peripatetic discoveries in places far and wide (Wales, New York, Kalahari and Karoo deserts)
- BIG DRUID’S relationship with plants and his battle to:
- Protest the extinction of plants through memorial word gardens
- Tend to the garden of his mind with texts and images
- Realize healing and empowerment through plants
- Compile plant profiles
- Identify and correspond with ‘nymphs’, especially with ‘dryads5’
- Display and handling of objects and ingredients used in divination
- The documenting of objects and ingredients used in divination
- The documenting of performed acts of divination in an artistic matrix
- BIG DRUID’S aleatoric and stochastic life style and activities
- The formulation and presentation of visual and optophonetic poetry
- BIG DRUID’S research for connections between audial and optical aesthetics
- Meditative techniques as aided by visual and concrete phenomena
- Manipulation of thought processes – thought-play, thought-puzzles, thought-shifting and techniques of observation and reflection
- The making and installation of art from druidic insights
- Meaningful attainment, custodianship and release of energy (energeia) and power (kratos/amandla)
- With BIG DRUID’S presentations at designated times
- By posting questions or statements to BIG DRUID at designated times
- Because of the high volume of visitors BIG DRUID will not be available for personal consultation (it might take hours to have a meaningful session), but reasonable communication with BIG DRUID is possible in the cubicle
- *Dicionary 1: druid An ancient Celtic order of priests, teachers, diviners, and magicians. The name itself relates to trees – in Greek drus is ‘tree’ or ‘oak tree’. The druid is also a traditional seer, an elder with special discernment in the wellbeing of individuals and society, practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counselling, griot priest, shaman, sangoma, inyanga, greegree man, grigri man, magician or fetish priest, one who shares charms and talismans. Julius Caesar reports that druids met annually at a site believed to be the centre of Gaul and he mentions a Chief Druid
- cubiculum Latin for a bedroom or place where one sleeps. Today the English word ‘cubicle’ denotes a small partitioned-off area of a room, especially one containing a bed or desk. A cubicle has nothing to do with a cube – in Latin cubare is ‘to lie down’.
- extravagant In Latin vagere is ‘to walk’ and –extra ‘beyond’, ‘in addition to’ or ‘differently to the norm’. To be extravagant today is to lack in restraint in spending money or using resources, but there was a time when it meant ‘walking unlike anyone else’, ‘walking in a special way’ or ‘walking where no-one walks’.
- multivagant Given to much wandering or straying, especially in foreign countries or dwelling on many ideas. Multivagant people are restless individuals, they might hit the road to nowhere; mundivagant ones travel all over the world. In Latin vagere is 'to wander'. A nemorivagant person wanders about in the woods, a montivagant one roams about in the mountains and a nubivagant one takes to the clouds. A vagabond is likely to trample roads to dust or surf the internet to pieces.
In 2010 BIG DRUID AND HIS CUBICLE formed part various exhibitions held at Arts on Main in Johannesburg to coincide with the Soccer World Cup. The event lasted for four weeks. Although druid walks took place at the Basel Art Fair, they were not extended to the public. In Johannesburg the historic route of Main Reef Road was chosen and visitors were invited to attend the daily walks. A quaint old 1950’s transport van was converted into the Druidmobile to carry visitors back and forth to the point of departure. The number of academics, journalist and other interested parties grew with each walk and towards the end a long, silent throng of individuals were strung out behind the DRUID in downtown Johannesburg.
BIG DRUID IN HIS CUBICLE is to feature for two weeks in November, 2011 at the South African National Gallery, with the druid walks planned for the Cape Town area.
Willem Boshoff (born 1951) is a South African artist primarily known for his conceptual installations. He is one of South Africa's foremost contemporary artists and regularly exhibits nationally and internationally.
Born in Johannesburg, Boshoff trained as a teacher at the Johannesburg College of Art before pursuing a diploma in fine art, with an emphasis on printmaking, in 1980; he received a master's degree in sculpture from Technikon Witwatersrand in 1984. His installations are frequently based on the exploration of language and are created in materials ranging from stone to paper to sand.
Boshoff lived like a druid for much of his life and presents his experiences in person as BIG DRUID at the Basel Art Fair 2009. BIG DRUID resides in a custom made cubicle where he battles with shadows, aesthetic constructs and words. He occupies the cubicle throughout the art fair. His irregular sleeping pattern dictates that he sleeps and meditates at unforeseen times of the day or night. He only leaves his cubicle for meals, ablutions and solitary druidic walks in the morning or afternoons. BIG DRUID works on computer, writing druidic dictionaries, plotting philosophical strategies and documenting his experiences and large collection of diviners' articles. The cubicle has an area of retreat and contains the divination collection. It is also fitted with exhibition shelves and a work area where BIG DRUID makes and shows artworks and thought processes that reflect on the outcome of his extravagant druidic insights and multivagant itinerary.
1. druid An ancient Celtic order of priests, teachers, diviners, and magicians. The name itself relates to trees - in Greek drus is 'tree' or 'oak tree'.
2. cubiculum Latin for a bedroom or place where one sleeps. Today the English word 'cubicle' denotes a small partitioned-off area of a room, especially one containing a bed or desk. A cubicle has nothing to do with a cube - in Latin curbare is 'to lie down'.
3. multivagant Given to much wandering or straying, especially in foreign countries or dwelling on many ideas. Multivagant people are restless individuals, they might hit the road to nowhere; mundivagant ones travel all over the world. In Latin vagere is 'to wander'.
4. dryad In flolkore and Greek mythology, a nymph inhabiting a forest or a tree, especially an oak tree - in Greek druas is 'tree nymph' from drus 'tree'.