Feeling the Presence of the Druid Willem Boshoff
“Keeping that in mind, some pieces are chattier than others. Boshoff’s Political Candyfloss diptych – simultaneously a quirky interrogation of empty political rhetoric and an exercise in markmaking – is determined to strike up a conversation. At first one’s eye darts erratically across the fractured surface in a bid for comprehension.”
Feeling the Presence of the Druid
When I took on the task of reviewing Willem Boshoff’s latest offering, ‘Big Druid in his Cubicle’, at SMAC gallery in Cape Town, I don’t think I had fully realised what I’d signed up for. Not because the show is dense and warrants vigorous, even exhaustive interpretation - although, this being Boshoff, that’s certainly the case - but because over the course of three decades as a practising artist, his reviewers are now too numerous to count. And as the artist himself puts it, 'Writing stinks, because... once [a text is]written, the thing stays written.' It’s unsurprising, then, that in attempting to locate this particular show in the artist’s overarching creative narrative, I found myself adrift in the words of every writer before me and, at first, rather at a loss for some of my own.
Willem Boshoff Druid in his Cubicle - Installation View 2013, Installation,
The more I thought about it, the more I realised a search for words might be the most honest point of departure for engaging with ‘Big Druid in his Cubicle’. Words - the material, semiotic and performative properties of language - are, after all, Boshoff’s medium of choice. And this latest show presents a body of work determined to speak for itself in both medium and content, although sometimes in a deeply personal dialect that resists easy translation.
Keeping that in mind, some pieces are chattier than others. Boshoff’s Political Candyfloss diptych - simultaneously a quirky interrogation of empty political rhetoric and an exercise in mark-making - is determined to strike up a conversation. At first one’s eye darts erratically across the fractured surface in a bid for comprehension. Gradually recognisable phrases or lone legible words emerge, until one is enveloped in a cacophony of text. This is Boshoff doing what he does best: creating a work that needs to be read on its own terms in order to be "seen".
There’s a flip side to this strategy though, and it can occasionally result in a literally and metaphorically monosyllabic end product. Prick sees the title formed in acacia thorns and alphabet beads, a double entendre that doesn’t really get away from being a bit of a one liner. The same is true of Nuclear/Unclear, in which audience members are invited to turn a stainless steel block to complete the word. Again, although the work is undeniably beautiful, there’s a sense of the artist shyly clearing his throat behind the scenes to punctuate his own punchline.
However, more interestingly, there are those pieces that elude such easy categorisation. Speechless, one of several eclectic collections of objects, is a series of dental mouth casts arranged on handmade paper. They’re odd, uncomfortable little things, perhaps because of their obvious antiquity (those mouths have long since stopped speaking) and perhaps because, en masse, they read almost as text. A text made up of silences, of palpable absences. Alchemical sigils accomplishes a similar end, its neat arrangement of intrauterine devices lined up like mystical code awaiting translation. These moments of almost-meaning, of sense and nonsense colliding, are eerily compelling. I kept coming back to Adorno on natural beauty: 'If the language of nature is mute, art seeks to make this muteness eloquent'. An eloquent muteness, a silence that nonetheless speaks volumes, wends its way through these quieter pieces.
This holds true, too, for many of Boshoff’s ‘druidic’ objects on display. Collections of walking sticks, of stones, of spinning tops, of spices, of china fragments and fool’s gold... each new arrangement reads like an invitation to knowledge that falls just short of fully explaining itself. Perhaps the key is the Druid himself, and luckily he is readily available. In the third iteration of the work from which the show takes its name, Boshoff took up residence in the gallery, physically reinserting his presence into his work as the guardian of his own indigenous knowledge system. One can even join him (as a silent and unobtrusive companion) on one of his druid walks around Woodstock and the Foreshore, in an attempt to 'uncover places and to see things in Cape Town that others would hesitate to explore'.
Willem Boshoff Nuclear/Unclear 2013, Sculpture, 66cm x 174cm
If anything, the implied guiding hand - or, in the case of his walks, foot - is the element of ‘Big Druid’ that I found most difficult to parse. It’s not that Boshoff’s fully developed druidic persona (he was once referred to as part messiah, part bergie) is problematic in itself - his self-mythologising is unabashed without being self-aggrandising, and utterly and inarguably genuine in its intentions - it’s more that such an approach can too easily become prescriptive, delimiting the space for individual interpretation. Boshoff is almost too present, there to facilitate, to elaborate, to offer insight, to frame and to form.
I’m reminded of Joseph Beuys’ mantra, now rendered cheesy by repetition: 'Everyone is an artist'. Beuys imagined an expanded field of human creativity in which making meaning was a shared endeavour; the climax of critical and creative cooperation. In that sense it’s interesting to compare Boshoff and Beuys, and it’s a comparison I’m surprised isn’t made more frequently. Both artists suffered near-death experiences - Boshoff’s the drawn out lead poisoning that gave him years of pain, and Beuys a WWII plane crash that saw him allegedly nursed back to health by Tartar tribesmen; both were instinctively drawn to Celtic mythology; both underwrite their practice with pedagogical, ecological, socio-political and spiritual agendas; and both cast themselves as artist-mystics. Beuys was always the shaman; Boshoff is the druid. Where Beuys claimed to work against the modernist artist-as-genius model, though, Boshoff seems sometimes to reinforce it.
But hell, maybe that’s a misreading informed by my own struggles with authority. Maybe Boshoff’s druidic presence is an opening to critical insight rather than an ideological lapse. His desire to illuminate the intentions and histories that motivate his working methods is certainly hard to fault, and perhaps it can open up additional avenues of understanding rather than close down alternative routes. However one conceives of it, ‘Big Druid’ is a rich and varied body of work. And really it is testament to the skill of Boshoff himself that this is a show equally capable of being eloquently mute, and adroitly verbose.