Willem Boshoff at Goodman GalleryBy Matthew Partridge
18 August - 24 September. 0 Comment(s)
In many ways the work of a critic is easy, we risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.
But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
But there are times when the critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the ‘new’. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends.
- Anton Ego
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In these words from the animated movie Ratatouille about a rodent with a particular penchant for the culinary arts, the character of the art critic, Anton Ego (masterfully voiced by Peter O’Toole), reflects on the fate of his profession. At the heart of this reflexive moment of self-awareness and vulnerability is the fact that criticism is usually taken with a healthy pinch of salt, with the object of criticism’s focus long outliving the secondary words on a page. Unlike Ego, I have never mastered the art of negative criticism. For me it is no more fun to write than it is to read. I for one think it the responsibility of the critic to shed light and illuminate, providing an insight drawn out of balanced meditation, bringing the reader to their own conclusions.
But our own conclusions are never really our own, they are always subliminally and discretely constructed out of what is written on paper, what is told to us, and what we are told to see. This is ultimately the fate of the codification of meaning. ‘Meaning’ is then ironically the enemy of understanding, for it is always dictates and presupposes our responses to objects. This was my experience recently at the Goodman Gallery during a walk-about given by Willem Boshoff after his second show with the gallery, titled ‘SWAT’. What were most alarming were the explanations given about the work, with Boshoff eventually growing tired of his convoluted elaborations and declaring finally, ‘I can make a philosophy about anything I can wish’. What followed next was even more disarming; ‘But the irony’, Boshoff mused in a smug turn, ‘is that rich people will buy my work’.
Uncomfortably leading the audience like a preacher, this sudden turn, fait accompli, to the guise of capitalism that this new body of work seeks to criticise, seemed like cynical collusion that renders the majority of its criticism redundant. There is no doubt that artists need to eat. This is a simple fact of life. Like any other profession the fruits of their labour are equitable to a monetary value, such is the way of our capitalist-driven society. But when Boshoff alludes to this in works like BULL (referring possibly to bullish markets) with the text covered in thorns, the prickly complicity is laid bare.
There is something literal about this new body of work, perhaps it is a frankness that is politically motivated. With his attention turning closer to home the work that greets the gallery visitor at the entrance to the Goodman is somewhat baffling and can be considered partially reactionary. Titled Racist in South Africa the text piece on anodised aluminium panel is headed by the words ‘I am proud to be labelled Racist in South Africa if it means that...’ followed by a series of qualifications that read like a conservative response to South African crime and corruption. Here Boshoff seems to be taking a very firm position on what the popular mainstream press reports and sensationalises when it comes to elected officials dealings with tax payers money.
Whilst his qualifications are understandable - ‘I am dismayed that unemployment and poverty keep getting worse’ - what is baffling is the header. Proud to be labelled a racist in South Africa seems a somewhat radical position when measured against his observations. In the new dispensation of South Africa, with the jaded reality of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, being proud to be labelled a racist seems to antagonistically miss the point.
Here social activism falls on the side of a declaration that does nothing but effect an oppositional sentiment that seems on its surface to be misguided. However where this sentiment does strike an uncomfortable cord is in the work Dubul’ iBhunu, which as most South African readers will know, is the title of a struggle song that translates into ‘Kill the Boer’. Having found recent mileage in the hands of the now beleaguered leader of the ANCYL Julius Malema, the song has stirred up and threatened to polarise the most flagrant racial separatism. Boshoff’s work is thus situated in the centre of this troubling discourse. Made out of paper collage which includes the names of 1000 murdered farmers that are affectively ‘silenced’ by sharp shards of wood made from imbuia that penetrate the writing. Boshoff sees this work as breaking the taboo he feels is imposed on South African artist to not speak out about these kinds of atrocities.
Art is designed to be uncomfortable, with the best kind destabilising the way that we interact with reality, leaving the viewer with a visceral response. There is something intriguing in the work, causing the viewer to look harder, to discover more. Whilst Boshoff’s labour-intensive production certainly entices one to look deeper, it nevertheless threatens, by its polarising political ideology, to be reduced to a superficial glance at the issues. With the multivalent field of possibilities that text presents, here it however merely fixes itself within a literal hierarchy of representation.
The one work that however stood out as an anomaly on the show was the Druid’s Table. Insiders of the local art scene will know about the recent ‘death’ of Gimberg Nerf which was announced in February this year in the obituary column of The Star. The duo of artists Douglas Gimberg and Christian Nerf, who had attempted to work as a single unit, was thus dissolved, some might say rather dramatically, with Gimberg virtually disappearing from public sight.
This story is full of personal details and tragedy, of broken ties and lost connections, the type of which are best to be respected, in the popular press at least, by silence. So it was surprising when Boshoff chose to elaborate on this story when speaking about the Druid’s Table. However, his explanation weaved a tail of woe and tragedy that gave the table a somewhat maudlin presence. Boshoff told how he had given woodwork lessons to Gimberg and Nerf, shown them the secrets of joinery and even given them a selection of exotic woods, to take away and practise with. Another interest which he imparted was divination, an area that aided the esoteric aims of the duo to work as and develop a singular entity.
Boshoff’s tale then went to the details of the gradual dissolution of this working pair, of depression, of the possible involvement of a woman, finally arriving at a letter in the post from Gimberg accompanied by bits and fragments of joined pieces of wood that he had made. ‘My wood found its way back to me, and this was very troubling’, Boshoff explained, visually upset. The only recourse for Boshoff was to channel this energy into a ritual practice that he likened to ‘throwing the bones’, scattering the pieces across a table surface fixing them where they fell.
This self-proclaimed druidical persona here seems to carry some resonance in the table, partly because of the recognisable craftsmanship of Gimberg’s hand evident in the work. But the prophetic overtures of Boshoff’s druid become tiring when measured against the political browbeating that the rest of the show carries. The fact that meaning can be read into the work doesn’t imply that it is there from the start. The viewer naturally brings their own preconceptions to any work of art, their own prejudices and sensibilities. What this show reveals is the jagged edge from which many of those are cut.