An exhibition of four Danish and three South African Artists
The title of the Danish/South African collaborative exhibition is PLACE and in two new artworks I 'dwell' on PLACE from my perspective. First, consider the place I chose to be my home.
For the past nineteen years I lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the formerly 'white' suburb of Kensington, so named after the royal borough of Kensington in Greater London, where members of the British royal family still live in Kensington Palace. My street is named King Edward Street - after King Edward VII, who succeeded his mother, Queen Victoria, to the throne of Britain when she died on 22 January, 1901. These two monarchs reigned during the time of the Anglo-Boer War, also called the South African War (11 October, 1899 until 31 May, 1902). King Edward Street is not very long and is fenced in on one side by Roberts Avenue. Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl of Viscount St. Pierre, or as he was also called, Baron Roberts of Kandahar, Pretoria, and Waterford, was British commander-in-chief for the earlier part of the Anglo-Boer War. On the other side of King Edward Street is Kitchener Avenue, named after Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl, Viscount Broome of Broome, Baron Denton of Denton, also called Viscount Kitchener of Khartoum, of the Vaal, and of Aspall, the British commander-in-chief, taking over from Roberts in November 1900, for the latter part of the Anglo-Boer War. Not far from my home, these two streets are connected by Milner Crescent before they join up at Rhodes Park. Milner Crescent is named after Sir Alfred Milner of Saint James's and Cape Town and Rhodes Park is named after Cecil John Rhodes, for whom the erstwhile Rhodesia was named and organizer of the giant diamond-mining company De Beers Consolidated in 1888 - both British statesmen, empire builders at the time of the Anglo-Boer War and the driving force behind Britain wanting to seize the old republic of the Transvaal, then under administration of President Paul Kruger and the republic of the Free State, then under President Marthinus Theunis Steyn.
All four my grandparents were part of the Anglo-Boer War. Ouma (Granny) Driekie (b.1889 d.1966) on my mother's side was taken into in the concentration camp at Krugersdorp in 1900 when she was eleven and she was very lucky to survive. The cemetery of that camp has over two thousand grave-markers for children of her age and younger. Oupa (Grandpa) Willie (b.1880 d.1928) on my father's side was only twenty-one when he became a prisoner of war in 1901 in Bellary, India - I still have a beautiful walking stick that he carved over there.
In the sixties, when I was still at school, my grandparents instilled in me a sense of hatred for the British, for their culture and language. Their tragic stories inspired in me a spirit of intrepid daring-do. I fought the Boer War all over again in my own high school - in the English class. I made life intolerable for my English teacher by writing senseless crib notes, simply to prove that he can't catch me out. I would, for example, pin a crib note right on the teacher's back under the pretext that I am rubbing off some dirt - a large enough note for everyone in the class to crib from. I was the 'super' Boer spy Danie Theron or that damn elusive general Christiaan de Wet. In my Afrikaans medium school I had the support and admiration of my friends who were all equally anti-British/English. But, listening to the popular music of the Beatles, and reading wonderful English books made English a trifle more palatable. I loved reading and when I was eleven I often read two books a day. I was able to read in both English and Afrikaans, my home-language, and I usually took home piles of books from our school and town libraries.
There are not many Afrikaans speaking people in my part of Johannesburg. So, you might ask what I'm doing in a place like this, a place that venerates the memory of those who, in history, killed and shunned defenceless members of my own family and people.
NEGOTIATING THE ENGLISH LABYRINTH
In 1971, when I was in my second year of studies at art school, my life changed drastically. I became driven by a sense of religious responsibility and I sincerely wanted to reconcile with my former enemy - the British. It was the beginning of a life of pacifism for me and I decided the best way to 'put things right' in a real sense was to swallow my pride, let go of my intolerance and to try and understand English people. For the first time in my life I sought out the company of English speakers. My former spouse is, in fact, English speaking and I have raised two English speaking children.
My first full-time teaching job was in 1974 at the staunchest of English-medium schools - Parktown Boys' High. I wanted to really speak and perform well in the English language and I came close to memorizing the entire New Testament of the King James Bible. I also made many terrific English friends in the staff room. During our breaks they introduced me to their passion for English crossword puzzles. The cryptic one is really hard to do. Because of my love for language I desired dearly to be able to accomplish this. I watched my friends closely and after some time I began to figure out the 'secrets' of the clues. What was a curiosity became an irresistible obsession and I have been filling in crosswords now for nearly twenty eight years. My earliest conceptual artwork was made up of small blocks of filled-in crossword puzzles and when I started writing concrete poetry in the seventies, I used the acrostic resolving of meaning in the criss-cross pattern of back-and-forth and up-and-down letters in many of my poems. My work at Gallery Asbęk, NEGOTIATING THE ENGLISH LABYRINTH is a new and much larger take on my old crossword puzzle artwork that is now lost.
Crossword puzzles gave me a respect for 'words as words'. I hope to redeem words from being compromised under the restraints imposed by dogma and politics. I always say: "We first save the word and thereafter the word saves us." Words in themselves are harmless, but in the mind of a shrewd thinker, an evil-sounding word can be deployed to enchant or heal and likewise in the perverted mind, even the most innocent-sounding words can be used to cause injury and devastation.
So, through lots of reading - through a love for their words - I slowly reconciled with the British and the English language. I developed a fondness for dictionaries. Today I use language and text in my conceptual artworks as tools of social reconciliation, to upend those entitled to exclusive privileges. In the BLIND ALPHABET PROJECT, for example, I get blind people to help sighted people to see and understand difficult morphological concepts. In my work WRITING IN THE SAND, I get people who speak Zulu and Xhosa at home to explain perplexing English words to the English intelligentsia. Through filtered systems of interpretation I have become a bit of a linguistic terrorist and perhaps, as I did at school, I am still upstaging those in a position of power.
I see the writing of dictionaries almost as my second occupation - second to the making of art that is. I wrote my first dictionary, a DICTIONARY OF COLOUR, in 1977 and made this into a large artwork with many small colour charts reflecting possible colour combinations. Thereafter I compiled many word-lists and dictionaries. I have studied 15,000 plants and these are exhibited as installations reflecting 'gardens of words'. I have also written a massive dictionary (18,000 entries) of perplexing English. Since 1977 I have written about 20 larger or smaller dictionaries. Some titles are: 'OLOGIES AND 'ISMS, MANIAS AND PHOBIAS and THE OH NO DICTIONARY in three parts: PLACES MOTHER MIGHT NOT APPROVE OF, UNMENTIONABILIA and RED NAMES. The BLIND ALPHABET is a dictionary of morphology, so large that people walk around in it. Its various chapters can be found in different galleries in South Africa, England and Germany and only blind people can read it in order to guide sighted visitors through its labyrinthine passages and closed boxes of sculptural riddles. In my library of about 10,000 books I have a wonderful collection of more than two hundred dictionaries, helping me to make artworks that make visual cross-overs between social dilemmas and impossibilities.
When we write or speak, language emanates as the different, continuous lines of sentences. The word 'text' is from the Latin texere 'to weave'. Writing is like a cloth, woven of sentences. The Greeks speak of writing in strophes or lines. When we try to make sense of our world, it is like unraveling the entanglement of a ball of language. Disentangling the worlds of others - those that are not like ourselves - is complex if indeed not entirely impossible. Our most common tool of unraveling is of course language: speech and writing. In Old English, a ball of string was called a clew. The word clew changed a bit in history and today we know it as clue. To conquer the maze or labyrinth of communication one must use the clue of memory. For me, to fill in crossword puzzles is like stalking the English maze. A crossword is indeed a maze of passages that can only be breached by a sound knowledge of language and its intricacies. One often has to look at the same clue many times - from different angles - and often in the light of success already obtained by resolving what looks like the easier, more ordinary, clues first.
NEGOTIATING THE ENGLISH LABYRINTH maps out a labyrinthine path across the work. The path is made up of hundreds of English crossword puzzles that I have filled in over the last ten years, each of which is a labyrinth in itself - hundreds of labyrinths within one large overall labyrinth. The meandering pathway enters and exits the work quite noticeably on the sides - the implication being that its convoluted pattern extends beyond, and can be repeated eternally on the outside of the work. We unscramble one set of intricate problems by means of negotiation and consultation only to find that we have created new snares from which we need extrication. The endless filling-in of crosswords has kept me on and off my 'philosophical toes' and continuously makes my 'English head' spinning in and out of orbit - to write better dictionaries and to be somewhat more endearing to the English - if that's at all possible in my part of the world.