It is not what you think: Willem Boshoff is Nonplussed
The thrill and trick of good conceptual visual art happens on different levels. A viewer needs to be struck by its cleverness, and a viewer needs to be seduced by its magnificence. True to form, Willem Boshoff satisfies both of these criteria in his exhibition 'Nonplussed' at the Goodman Gallery.
But there are extras, including political currency and thought provocation. The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'nonplussed' as descent into a state of helpless perplexity, and indeed, this understanding merges seamlessly with the exhibition as it stands.
I say this not to condemn it, but to revere it. A helpless level of perplexity is indeed a valid reflection on the current state of our world. Comprising over ten major installations and works which flirt between the two- and three-dimensional, the exhibition confronts one with a potent sense of developed sophisticated aesthetics: everything is very obviously and very carefully considered and beautifully put together.
On closer consideration, however, the bubbling madness of language lying palimpsestically over language and text intertwining seductively with political nuance, is rich with barbs and pricks as it entangles meaning with message.
There are reflections on the puzzle of September 11, as there are some open-ended aspersions cast on the USA's position in Jerusalem, in stone, in the detritus of machinery and in sandblasted text, proclaiming that nothing is obvious. There are allusions to stone-throwing and pebbles left in memoriam on gravestones. Babel and bibles dominate the central spaces of the gallery, with seven well-used shovels representing different levels of work ethic and land ownership.
In his press material, Boshoff bills this exhibition as an attack on the meaning of words, and he signs and seals this attack with an extraordinary and powerfully nostalgic installation entitled rather disappointingly obviously Sdrow fo nwodkaerb, using the familiar technique of backwardising text.
It's a series of words and objects no longer in popular use. The words are arranged as they would be in a dictionary, and the objects are wrapped within these words. The detailed components of a hand mincer or the head of a pitchfork mummified in this way bear muted testimony to a world of manual labour and language no longer valuable to us.
Indeed, nothing is obvious, and looking from the floor installation of splayed Greek, Hebrew, Cyrillic and English language bibles all open on Exodus 20, which contains, amongst other things, the ten commandments, the viewer is forced to acknowledge a speed and sophistication of lateral thinking exciting in its embrace, and exhilarating in the rich comment it offers on so much endemic to our troubled world.
The presence of socio-political issues in art is irrevocable, but not simple. If it is too overt the art can skip the boundaries and become activist, or worse still, propaganda, empty of soul. If it is too subtle, the message might not be apparent.
Boshoff's gesture, or rather plethora of gestures upon gestures, in this exhibition, presents and packages this approach, but it doesn't leave one unmoved in terms of rethinking situations, empathising with that position of aggression against language, which if one boils it down, has fostered so much misery in this world.
Ultimately, though, building and unbuilding of political agendas aside, the exhibition is an extraordinary conceptual and visual gesture, happily keeping Boshoff on his pedestal.
Opens May 22
Closes June 19
Goodman Gallery, 163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood
Tel: 011 788 1113
Fax: 011 788 9887
Hours: Tues - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 9.30am - 4pm