Willem Boshoff's 'Word forms and language shapes' at the Standard Bank Gallery
by Landi Raubenheimer
Willem Boshoff is known as one of South Africa's leading conceptual artists, and according to him, willing to tackle issues that other artists may shy away from. On seeing the most recent of his works at his retrospective, I felt inclined to think that some of those issues are not effectively addressed by him either. It is specifically works like FLAG I, FLAG II, What is our oil doing under their sand and War and peace that make me doubt the integrity of political comments in Boshoff's work. The fact that his work features in most corporate collections further makes me doubt the extent of ideological criticism in his artistic practice. This artist has built up a formidable body of work, and has carved a distinct niche in the insular art world in South Africa. He has even attained significant international acclaim. What does this encompassing exhibition reveal beyond pleasant geometric corporate artwork, and the bearded genius persona?
Most of the artworks on the exhibition, which is strangely entitled a (midlife?) retrospective, are autobiographical to some extent. Seminal works such as Bangboek speak not only about Boshoff's personal and cultural heritage but address larger semiotic and ideological issues. That fact makes works such as this conceptually powerful and layered. The relationship between images and text has been pondered for centuries and, with the advent of digital media, it is more complicated than ever to separate or reconcile these two forms of visual expression. This is what makes Bangboek and similar works so important.
Ideology is complex and nuanced, and this fact gets lost in Boshoff's more recent work. War and peace seems like a poorly executed matric level artwork. The use of cement and sand as signifiers of urban and economic territory is both clichéd and näive. The scratched out words that recall images of the Berlin wall only add insult to injury. When Boshoff clarifies his thoughts in a little statement next to the work it becomes clear that these artworks are too contrived to effectively comment on ideology and hegemony. They make the world seem like a giant conspiracy masterminded by supervillains America and Britain.
It seems easy to condemn political actions and agendas from one's armchair and Boshoff appears to think that the viewpoint his living room affords him is a suitable place from which to consider global politics and morality objectively. This is exactly the power of the deception that accompanies ideology. The audience for contemporary mass media, or Marx's bourgeois and subaltern classes, are encouraged to think they resist popular opinion while willingly accepting what is tabled as 'the best solution to the world's problems'. As an artist who is interested in power relationships and how these translate into images and texts, one expects Boshoff to use a more sensitive approach that acknowledges the complexity of the nebulous ideological framework that pervades contemporary societies.
In certain instances, conceptual art seems to favour ideas as more important than impressions, and systems as more important than individual solutions. In fact one can argue that conceptual art, as Boshoff conceives it in his use of systems and bodies of knowledge, echoes the system of ideas that constitutes ideology in the Western world. At the risk of exposing my own unconscious ideological prejudices, I feel that Boshoff's exhibition affirms that conceptual artwork can at its worst be intangible and alienating to the viewer. One feels left out of the equation, although ostensibly one is engaged on levels other than just the visual.
This exhibition made me feel like I was in a natural history museum, studying the life of a mystic visionary or John Nash of sorts. Most of the artworks appear in this context to be reflections of idiosyncratic obsessions with systems such as language and ideology. Boshoff apparently interprets conceptual, visual and stylistic problems in the same way one would a puzzle, which implies that there is a solution and that every piece has its place. This is the most irritating aspect of his 2004 body of work, the works are just too neat and tidily resolved, and communicate nothing of the human suffering they superficially allude to. Adorno writes of art that it has the task of embodying human suffering through the device of suture. Far from employing an avant-garde strategy, conceptually explicit artworks such as War and peace turn out like clinical abstractions of suffering and war.
The clever conceptual resolution Boshoff achieves in KYKAFRIKAANS and other of his text-based explorations is the result of his personal fascination with the written word. The artist's references to his resistance to joining the South African Defence Force, and bearing a personal grudge against the British colonialisation of South Africa, seem like interesting episodes in his life story. They only add to the mystique of the Boshoff persona, but are not sufficiently nuanced to communicate critically in his earlier works. While this is not problematic in Kleinpen, which refers to his personal preoccupations and values, it becomes a problem in recent political work like Nothing is obvious. In this case it seems that everything is far too obvious.
Like a cult figure, Boshoff ultimately seems to be wrapped up in self-righteous explorations of his own beliefs and pre-occupations. One cannot argue with his established reputation and the sculptural integrity of his work. His pseudo-scientific approach to ideological critique does, however, seem dubious to me. Boshoff weaves a myth around his persona which approaches that of Joseph Beuys, and in a similar way his artistic integrity is perhaps questionable. I am yet to be persuaded by some his artworks.
Opens: September 25
Closes: December 1
Standard Bank Gallery
Corner Simmonds and Frederick Street, Johannesburg
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