As a conceptual artist, Willem Boshoff’s self-portrait could never be representational. Instead, he dives into the recesses of his own thinking, playing at the popular conception of a primarily rational left side of the brain, and a less rigidly organised and intuitive right side. A primordial mix of ideas, as yet unformed, are recognisable in some of the materials that led to the resolution of ideas in many other works over many years.
Much like a crossword puzzle, a multiplicity of letters on square glass beads invoke recent works such as Auxesis (2009). But they also refer far back to a youthful Boshoff and the early origins of his fascination with language. As a young Afrikaans speaking teacher he would expand his English vocabulary by doing a crossword puzzle in the staffroom every day. This led ultimately to a fascination with unusual words and to Boshoff writing his own dictionaries. Bundles of twigs have been fixed onto the work as they have fallen, as if thrown by a visionary or a druid. They also rather resemble the artist’s long hair and beard, or his pogonomania – explained in his dictionary ‘What every Druid should know’ – as an exaggerated love of beards.
‘I have made rather large installations in which I study how randomly deployed objects and experiences may hold the truth. The correct word for such endeavours is divination and the practice of divination is older than any record of human existence’, writes Willem Boshoff.
In a few eternities
It’s almost two-and-a-half months that I have tucked your e-mail into the corner of my must-do box, hoping to answer you very soon. I’ve been to Israel and back, the flu had me down for a month on end. I have also made a host of artworks and all this time your note stared me in the face. My dragging feet answer, partly because I want to contribute to your cause, and more importanly because my letter-writing gives me a chance to cope with my own steam, to offload or overload my head with it. I haven’t yet met you or seen you and because I don’t know what you look like, I am at a disadvantage. Yet it is not fair to say that merely because I don’t have a face to talk to that I don’t know you or who you are. It’s a bit like talking to God – even if you don’t really know or believe in Him. Talking helps.
And that is the aleatoric thing. So is your and Cicero’s 21 letters that might one day make sense or Borges’s repeated book trials until Hamlet comes. I am a Dadaist at heart and I have worked with casting things all my life. Walks are fascinating to me and in 1972 I tried to find my way on one such a Borges walk. I would study a piece of writing as it grabs me from ‘nowhere’, something I might have found to be interesting, something that somehow got to me. The finding of this piece (or its finding me) would be done as Dada poetry is written. I would open books in my library and put my finger on the text. The first secret is to do this in the firm belief that that particular accidental/incidental act will lead me to find a great pearl of wisdom, no matter what the text may say. The second secret is to give myself only one chance, one stab of the finger at an all-encompassing universal truth. Later on I read that Wittgenstein believed that such a linguistic frolic is in any case what happens in ‘all’ conversations and writings and that one will ‘always’ make sense from the incidental and co-incidental in a way that is profound.
Once I had my message to the world, I would go and look for the world. A message is not a message if it has no audience. I would meditate for some time and then venture into the street to deliver my message. My chosen method would always be to ‘trust’ the road and what it accidentally has to offer – accidentally being the operative word. I was later to see that distinctions made between serendipity (happy accidents) and thaumaturgical experiences (serious acts of God) are superficial. It’s all one and the same thing and any distinction should follow this because I manage my thoughts thus. The road offered me traffic lights. I would follow the green lights for as long as possible. I would walk across every green light opportunity and this would decide my path. I would, for example walk from Hillbrow (where I once lived) to somewhere in downtown Johannesburg. Once I ran out of traffic lights, I would look on the ground. The ground is as much an ‘open book’ with instructions to follow as any randomly opened book. I remember that the first bit of paper debris I spotted was a bus ticket with numbers on it. I would follow that number to a specific building in that street and follow the subsequent sequence in that number to a specific door where I knocked. Some people opened that door and I asked as nicely as I could whether I might tell them something important – and so my message was delivered.
In the early seventies, as a student’ I learnt about Jean Arp (1886-1966) and his experiments with the ‘Laws of Chance’ (1916-17). All my life I have experimented with these. Levi Strauss speaks the contingency of incidence and co-incidence. Cage speaks of aleatoric (throwing the dice) work when he ventures more into the co-incidental and Xenakis uses the term stochasitic (guessing/aiming) for his rationalising of irrational happenstance.
Jean Arp’s story is that he tried to make some compositional sense of a few torn pieces of paper on his desk. He tried to arrange these sensibly and with an expectation of well-resolved design – but failed. Then the wind blew the bits and pieces off the table and gave him a much more exciting composition on the floor. He claims that he then stuck the bits of paper down in the position that they had landed and named this effort the ‘Arrangement according to the Laws of Chance’.
The term ‘Laws of Chance’ is a paradox. It seems contradictory that chance, a phenomenon that appears to function outside the law, should have laws. One can’t claim that it will always be lawless. Cicero and Borges were waiting for chance to deliver the ultimate answer to a specific expectation and they were prepared to wait forever – and who is to say they won’t be indulged.
My study of Jean Arp's composition made me come to the conclusion that he is a fraud. But I may be wrong. His compositions show a sense of vertical/horisontal formatting. There appears to be a fairly even space between his bits and pieces and they appear to fit relatively snugly onto his picture plane. I too experimented with similar bits and pieces of paper as he did, but regularity and regimentation has never been my fortune, but, who knows – perhaps Jean Arp knocked on that one single moment in the history of eternity where his pieces fell within the expected/unexpected Annals of Ennius.
I have devoted my life to live in a stochastic/aleatority manner and I have made rather large installations in which I study how randomly deployed objects and experiences may hold the truth. The correct word for such endeavours is ‘divination’ and the practice of divination is older than any record of human existence. I am now writing a book: “What every Druid Should Know”, in which I devote considerable time to how we might manage to decipher our Hamlet from chicken bones, bird droppings and a monkey playing with a typewriter.