Arts and Culture
HALF ART: Willem Boshoff in Venice
For thousands of years, human beings have sought to leave traces – to inscribe some marks of themselves in a world that would otherwise happily ignore them while they live or forget them when they die. Until fairly recently in human history (aside from architects and builders, leaving behind monumental constructions paid for by the rich and powerful), this act of inscription was a privilege reserved for artists and the literate few.
In the age of social media, by contrast, we can all leave daily traces of ourselves; we can build huge virtual repositories of these traces, curating them more or less as we wish. It is unclear how permanent such digital archives will be. But, for now, anyone with access to the Internet can adopt the archetypal role of the artist and the scribe.
No individual’s Twitter timeline or Facebook wall could survive thorough scrutiny without causing him or her some discomfort and regret – from minor cringes to mortifying embarrassment. Archivists and researchers of the future, ploughing through this material, will unearth statements and comments from which the subjects would doubtless want to distance themselves.
This is a particularly acute anxiety for writers (bloggers and columnists and opinionistas, as well as “literary” authors), for whom it is a professional point of honour to stand by words penned long ago even though we have subsequently changed our minds. Artists can get away with it; the standard biographical approach to an artist is to consider his or her different “periods” as changing expressions of a creative self.
If an artist is dead, it’s easy enough to pick and choose: to say, “I don’t like her early work” or “His blue period is self-indulgent” or “What the hell was he thinking when he made that?” without allowing this distaste to tarnish our pleasure in the artist’s wider oeuvre. With living artists whom we admire, it is more difficult; “glitches” can expose something that affects how we see the rest of their work.
I’m battling with Willem Boshoff’s contribution to the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Titled Racist in South Africa, the piece (with text engraved into aluminium) declares “I am proud to be labelled racist in South Africa it if means that...” before listing 24 complaints about poor governance; it is implied that, when these objections are voiced by a white person, that person’s protest is deflected by accusations of racism.
Boshoff’s work is usually intellectually compelling and linguistically rich. He is fascinated by where words come from, how they are used, what happens when they take “concrete” shape and form. He has both an environmental activist’s and an amateur scientist’s interest in the earth, its resources and their exploitation. He takes satirical aim at those who abuse political power.
He is a pacifist who even, a year before #RhodesMustFall hit the headlines, noted his long-standing campaign against a military tank installed at the University of the Free State, hinting: “I’m the kind of guy who wants to go and crap on the tank – then you’re famous forever. And it counts even more against the thing and then they take it away.”
Given Boshoff’s productive eccentricity and playfulness, I want to believe that in the Venice piece he is “quoting” a certain kind of white South African. Yet there seems to be no such ironic distance between the artist and the text. He claims that “the work speaks for itself”. If so, all it says is that Boshoff has slipped into a lazy white discourse. Does he really think that only white people worry about corruption, energy woes, the government’s inability to improve education and healthcare, poor policing and so on?
I write this after a few days in which the syndrome identified a few years ago by T.O. Molefe as “Black Anger and White Obliviousness” – so evident in the first few months of 2015 – has again come to the fore through “traces” on my social media pages: Facebook discussions about race at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, David Bullard followers bashing me on Twitter. When I look to South Africa’s artists, I expect to see nuanced and not narcissistic responses to our social and political challenges. Willem Boshoff has disappointed me.