13.03 - 09.01.2022
There’s a moment in Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival in which Amy Adams’ linguist, Louise Banks, turns to Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly with an unreadable expression on her face. ‘If you could see your whole life from start to finish,’ she asks a confused-looking Renner, ‘would you change things?’ In fairness, it’s the kind of question that’s easier to ask than to answer, and the reach for an answer is at the heart of the film. By this stage Adams is cracking the code of an alien language that’s rewiring her perception completely. Linear time no longer limits her; the expanse of her life unfolds ahead.
However, the film’s core concern is less with reconstructed consciousness than with the power and the problem of language itself, especially in climates of mutual suspicion. We’re presented with competing visions of communication as a world-making, world-bridging tool – that is, as the key precondition for any shared reality – and as evidence of the chasm of difference. Is language what separates or unites us? A gift or a weapon? Something I use, or something that uses me? Our answers, Arrival claims, are a test of all our hopes and fears, because what they ultimately measure is the distance we already understand to lie between us.
Curated by Hélène Smuts, Willem Boshoff’s ‘Word Woes’ at Javett Art Centre UP offers this same kind of test over the span of a career, or so the conceit of ‘the retrospective’ suggests. A retrospective is exactly the opportunity to see the peaks and valleys of a life, after all. Gathering together more than forty years of the artist’s creative output, the show profiles the shifting terrain of a very individual relationship to language over time, mapped onto South Africa’s broader sociohistorical landscape in fascinating but sometimes uneasy ways. Boshoff has long established himself as an explorer in, more than an interpreter of, that landscape. Indeed, the artist is an anti-translator of sorts. Where a translator shuttles essential meaning across the gap between worlds, privileging content over form, he is more interested in what happens if we stick with the form, watching instead how meaning splinters, multiplies, or falls away.
The title says it all. In English, “word woes” captures the troubles of language and the unhappiness it can cause. In Afrikaans, ‘word woes’ operates in a more active register: to become wild, possibly uninhabitable, and even unrecognizable, maybe in rage. Reflecting on the artwork that inspired that title, Boshoff explains ‘The words… make strange sense when combined,’ and they make sense-making feel stranger too. Any reader familiar with both languages can’t help but be tugged in several directions at the same time. The artist makes us to hold the intensities of woe and wild(er)ness, which are also the differences between losing and getting lost.
Although the wordplay feels lighthearted, languages are not value-neutral media. In a speech accompanying the opening of ‘Word Woes’, the poet Johan Myburg points out how much history is held in the balance between English and Afrikaans. Outlawed in schools during British rule, Afrikaans went on to become the official language of the Apartheid regime, including in its suffocating education policies. Today the majority of Afrikaans speakers are not white, for all that the idea of a suiwertaal continues to dominate school curricula. Deep disagreements about the role of the language in contemporary education reflect this complex history. As a language where the social majority of speakers constitute the cultural minority1 ‘Is Afrikaans In Danger Of Dying Out?’ , Afrikaans can look like it’s on top or under threat, depending on the skin you’re wearing. Somehow English always comes out of these debates unscathed, by the way, the lucky lingua franca of transnational capital. Which is simply to say, multilingualisms carry the weight of more than one history, as do the literacies necessary to experience Boshoff’s work to its fullest.
Contextualized by these histories, the narrative arc of Afrikaans stood out for me in ‘Word Woes’, as much a thematic thread as meticulous craftsmanship is a technical one. That arc is plotted by the decision to zone work in a loosely chronological fashion within the gallery, and made inevitable by the artist’s enduring interest in his mothertongue. Early pieces, most notably the concrete poetry anthology KykAfrikaans (1980), signal an initial turn to conceptualism with a Dada spin, but more than that, they showcase a sense of the language as almost infinitely plastic, as running wild. Treated like aesthetic objects as well as bearers of meaning, Afrikaans words tumble, spin, and rain down on one another. They create openings even when they keep secrets, maybe especially then. By pulling apart the monolith of the language, Boshoff repeatedly tests its limits as a sense-making instrument when the sense made is violent. He gets at how language and social life constitute each other, and restages the relations of power between them. Later installations like Blind Alphabet (1993) chase that impulse into sensory experience more generally, exploring how sight and touch each keep us from, and open us to, one another.
And yet, despite formal and conceptual continuities, there’s a shift in tone in recent pieces, with Afrikaans coded as more fragile. The Death of Afrikaans (2021) is a mournful work, a gigantic black granite monument to fifteen thousand words that have fallen out of use. Interestingly, the piece visually reaffirms the language as a monolith, resembling a gravestone or memorial. Boshoff’s love for lost words is well known, but it’s difficult not to read the conjunction of form and title as a dogwhistle to white anxieties about the future – the woes winning out. Next to Death on the wall, Fallen Two Letter Words evokes a less somber human loss, as words wash up on a beach like so much detritus. But the point stands. More than a quarter century after the end of institutionalized Apartheid, it is meaningful to define Afrikaans by loss more than elasticity, a move that can’t be easily separated from fearmongering about a racialized attack on its speakers, cultures, and traditions. To grieve a changing language is different from the vantage point of power. It represents the desire to retain a discursive space that is already imagined, exclusions and all.
To that point, it’s pretty customary in writing about Boshoff to center controversial pieces that are more strongly framed as artefacts of his identity, particularly Racist in South Africa (2015), a work that collected phrases associated with (predominantly white) post-apartheid cynicism. I don’t want to ignore that context, because I recognize that any retrospective is a project of reputation management as well. These works are conspicuously absent from this show, the result of an abundance of curatorial caution about how they would dominate the conversation. The risk of too many words, or not the right words, or not the right words about the right things.
Something rarely addressed by either Boshoff’s critics or his defenders is how completely the reception of that specific piece coupled artist to object, a collapse of several distances at once. Representing those sentiments is a speech act, speaking them is believing them, and believing them is blameworthy. Hence, we can only contend with the content of the speech to correct the error, as happened in the press. To the wrongheaded, we declare, no, tourists do come to South Africa! And if we’re white, we settle back, reassured of our own essential goodness. Boshoff offers more challenging tools for dissecting his own work, irrespective of original intent. Sited less coyly within his practice as a whole, Racist would function as form before content, facilitating a necessary shift from meaning to visual uniformity, temporal stasis, and structure… the cumulative impotence of words that, like the people who speak them, are inflexible and anachronistic. His lesson stands: language may not say what we think it does, even when we mean it.
Willem Boshoff would be the first to tell his audience that to under-stand, te ver-staan, is always embodied as well as cognitive. It is rooted in the bodies we have and their interactions with a material and cultural surround. Maybe those relations are as much Boshoff’s medium as words, if there’s any real distinction to be drawn there. It matters that I encountered these artworks in the world Covid-19 has made, where prescribed distances have sensitized me to bodies in relation. Many pieces insist on proximity. Details of the mutually intelligible etching ‘Word Woes’ vanish from further away. In Blue, the word ‘blue’ disintegrates on closer inspection, as a solid field of color becomes folded paper fragments, each cut by the artist during a meditation practice to manage chronic pain. It matters, too, that I watched viewer after viewer go through the same motions with these pieces, activating a common ground of embodiment circumscribed by speech but not reducible to it.
What hangs in the air like a gift in Boshoff’s exhibition is the multiply mediated reality of a shared social world, made up of many wor(l)ds resonating with one another. It is bigger than any one object on display, bigger than the artist, bigger than the gallery. Here’s what I think that gift isn’t. It isn’t the certainty that language will eradicate all misunderstanding and usher in new community (from muni, the same root that anchors communication). That’s the fantasy that animates Arrival: that words can cross the vast distances of history and difference and become glue, sticking us together. It isn’t the idea that language keeps us safe, or is something we have to keep safe, either. No language is safe. The woe contains the wild and vice versa. Instead, in the interplay of physical and linguistic proximities that Boshoff models, language means something else.
It reminds us above all that we are not alone.