Writing Art History Since 2002

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Of the Taxi books published thus far, Willem Boshoff is among the most sustained, informative and well conceived. As the first monograph on Boshoff, it offers readers a substantial introduction to the artist and his work by means of extensive high-quality reproductions and a solid, fluent, ample text by Ivan Vladislavic.To write on Boshoff today is as challenging as it was to write on Walter Battiss 20 years ago. The physical and intellectual robustness of the man would press many a writer into the moulds of myth and legend. In Vladislavic’s case what one encounters is a deep respect that occasionally manifests in the form of anecdotes about the artist’s often mind-boggling activities. Who would not, after all, be awed on reading that Boshoff ran the Comrade’s Marathon in 1983 and on that same day – or night, rather – stuck to the selfimposed task of sculpting one of the pieces for his 370-Day Project?Boshoff himself speaks of his “patience, discipline, conscientiousness and perseverance”, and there is indeed scarcely a work in his extensive and varied oeuvre that does not appear to have been made according to these dictums. From his early concrete poems (assembled in KykAfrikaans) to his intricate constructions in wood (Tafelboek) to his painstaking collections of such things as the seeds of numerous plants (Bottled Hope), he has always evinced a devotion that crosses the border between secular and sacred.The beauty of Boshoff’s work is that it invites the adoption of numerous interpretative strategies. The beauty of Vladislavic’s text is that it touches on these strategies, while leaving room for other writers to explore them in greater detail. Future investigations drawing on Post-Structuralist theory and museum studies would be most welcome – especially the latter, given that Boshoff’s fascination with the collection, classification and display of objects parallels the museological turn in the work of international artists such as Damien Hirst and Mark Dion.Vladislavic successfully alerts readers to the consistency of Boshoff’s work: in particular, its ongoing concern with (the tactility of) words. Signifiers may be a better term, for even works like Tafelboek, Kasboek and Kubus, in which no words are to be found, are akin to linguistic assemblages that allude to the tension between structures and the units that comprise them.In this light one could propose certain affinities between Boshoff’s works and the writings of Jacques Derrida. Not only were these former coevals pushing the boundaries of the text in their own distinctive ways at similar times, but there is in Boshoff’s play with language a subversive strain that instantly brings Derrida’s deconstructive activities to mind. From a relatively early point in his career he has used his art to dismantle the dominance that a language like English has achieved in most spheres of cultural, political and economic life.KykAfrikaans forced the viewer to look at Afrikaans, even though it was (re)presented in patterns that were difficult to read; works made by quoting from his own Dictionary of Perplexing English threw English back in the face of his growing viewership, but in a form few would have recognised; and in The Writing in the Sand he increased the difficulty of the English-speaker’s decoding process by exhibiting some of English’s most unknown words and appending dictionary definitions in the nine official black languages.For Boshoff “what’s important is to look for someone to play with”. His works are like puzzles and games: they encourage participation. Once drawn in, however, one soon realises that one has been trapped by a master gamesman whose playing is by no means as trifling as the above statement might suggest. Indeed, the play of signification into which one enters is always one that in fact limits one’s ability to play. This is nowhere more evident than in Blind Alphabet.Boshoff’s act of sabotage in this immense undertaking involves a cunning play on sight and blindness, which affords neither the sighted nor the blind full access to theexhibition’s carefully-carved wooden objects. Boshoff privileges blind visitors by allowing them to run their fingers over both the objects and the aluminium lids of the boxes, which, through the raised stipples of Braille, furnish extensive information on the objects inside.For sighted viewers permission to touch the artworks in any way is withheld, and there is no printed text to guide them. The only sense they can exercise is that of vision, but even this is thwarted because they may view the objects solely through the grilles of the boxes. In this way Boshoff enhances the partiality of the viewer’s experience of the work, thereby reinventing age-old questions about art’s aloofness exclusivity and obscurity.Willem Boshoff reveals the degree to which the artist enjoys such play, yet also discloses that what lies behind it is an affirmation of what Boshoff views as “our own redemptive blindnesses”.Michael Herbst lectures in Art History and Visual Culture in theDepartment of Fine Art at Rhodes University

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