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“I am against books”: A summary of a discussion with Willem Boshoff 2004-11-05
Katja Gentric

By Katja Gentric, artist, art historian and assistant of Willem Boshoff, and Andrew Munnik, artist

* This discussion was held with Boshoff as a consequence of his recent exhibition NONPLUSSED, of which the catalogue is available at the Goodman Gallery, Rosebank, Johannesburg

Andrew Munnik: Why do you camouflage those tools with words? (He means SDROW FO NWODKAERB) Is there a relationship between the text and ‘covering’?

Willem Boshoff: The text is dead, the word is dead. They are in a graveyard called a dictionary. I discover that they are relevant today but they are a memory best forgotten. Man is the result of the tools that he has made and the words that he has created. It is interesting that the word ‘seed’ is also a ‘word’, in Latin the ‘semen’, a seminar is where we sow seeds, to talk to somebody is like sowing seeds. Those works are so finely sown; they are like a field, an overgrowth of linguistic complexity. Words create more entanglement than disentanglement. The tools in this work are old tools. We don’t use these tools anymore. So I have linked obsolete words with defunct tools because we get entangled and ensnared in the tools as much as in the words we have created.

AM: The text you use to camouflage is printed in columns; do you use those elements to create some sense of order almost like a ploughed field with crops?

WB: Columns attempt to create stability, graphical, as in a telescope. Dictionaries are navigational tools. You can locate each word in the alphabet from A to B to C. So the columns are longitudinal and latitudinal lines on a map. But ironically they are also a labyrinth. It is difficult to distinguish between language and tool, words are daedalean…they tend to lead you astray and no matter how much you try your dogma and your creed whether you go to the synagogue or the church or the masjid. Dogma is the thing that people fight over – I am against books. Books are prisons, they enslave us, books are square, they look like prisons. Real life is a bit more convoluted. We don’t think the way books are laid out. Our minds don’t have a beginning and an end. Our heads are more like a tumble dryer or a computer. We can make things bigger or smaller in our heads. We can throw things out of our consciousness and we can decide to accept things in. Books can only be the way they are; what is written is written and it is the most dangerous thing to happen.

KG: In this context then, what about the earlier bookworks you made; the books in three-dimensional form?

WB: The first book I made was called Tafelboek then Kasboek which is a mess of splinters carefully glued together. If it is closed, it looks like a cupboard with rectangular sides. Opened, it is a crucifix. Kasboek was made because of the Word of God being crucified. The Word of God… I have worked with words all my life. I asked myself what method of preservation we have for the Word of God? – We have books. All our language, all our thoughts are preserved in books. Libraries are trees, because books are just demolished and smashed up trees. It is a crucifixion of the tree itself and Christ was crucified on a kind of tree. In the book of Genesis we are told not to eat from fruit of a tree, of knowledge… of good and evil. But what is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge … is a book. Paper under a microscope is splinters and fibres, intertanglement. In Kasboek I created a microscopic vision of a tree, the forest of splinters. Books are not going to be made for much longer, I hope that there will be another solution. These first books I made are about systems of storing information and that these systems are treacherous.

KG: In that sense SDROW FO NWODKAERB is still the same as Kasboek?

WB: Yes, in Kasboek the words are splinters and pulp. SDROW FO NWODKAERB addresses the fragmentation of language and syntax. The Greek word ‘syntax’ means to arrange and order. Syntax is composing or constructing meaning. Linguists seem to use the word in a restricted sense for the construction of sentences…to inseminate someone is to make them pregnant with child or to make them pregnant with new thought. I work with seed directly and I work with plant elements directly. The soil is to seed as paper is to words.

KG: Andrew knows about soil in NONPLUSSED

AM: Yes, I pick it up and stick it down. What about the open Bibles and those beds (he refers to SKOOB) I see them as beds, they are seedbeds. Is there a relationship between Tree of Knowledge and open Bible?

WB: The Bible is an arrangement of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, is book, is paper. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is what we are not allowed to eat and eat is to harvest. When you read a book it is harvesting knowledge. Nowadays we have computers. We have new ways of harvesting knowledge, of finding the fruit of the tree of our intent and our thoughts. It is quite different to read a book.

AM: So if you read 200 Bibles each in a different language are you implying that if everybody learnt from this Tree of Knowledge, the result could be much more harmony, or not?

WB: The knowledge of ‘good and evil’ is as liberating as it is enslaving, it imprisons people. The more one thinks about its intent, the more one becomes a slave of what you think it might be and that was always part of what is ‘written’, dogma. Dogma, by which we ensnare ourselves, would have been non-existent if we did not have writing. Analphabetic societies do not have to fight the kind of wars we fight. The text of the Bible has caused more wars than the text of any other book, so perhaps because of misinterpretation or wilful interpretation or…

AM: I was wondering… each person will interpret, manipulate the Bible because of their culture and because of their place on the planet, the way they grow up, speech …I mean if you are Chinese you do not care about certain things…

WB : Fair enough, everyone must interpret by virtue of his cultural background, but the people in power feel that because of who they are, they necessarily have to interpret in a certain devious way, so that people will ‘be true’ – ‘Being true to what?’ – in the end ‘truth’ becomes an instrument of death, usually to steal land from other people.

AM : … I would not recognise a Chinese Christian because he is so different to what I think a Christian should be like…

WB : You are right, more Christians have fought against each other than any other people and it is because of dogma!

KG : The logic link between the works in NONPLUSSED is maybe through the story of Babel (which you refer to in several works). To simplify: people were supposed to speak the same language to build something together until the moment when they lost each other …

WB : In NONPLUSSED I felt that the ‘good’ people of the world seem to be the worst and the most conceited and that they were out to steal land. It looked as though the ‘bad’ people had to deliver the goods… so that these rich people, who were squashing them to death because of Christian indoctrination, could get richer. Some ‘terrorists’ should be called ‘peaceful citizens’. Some ‘liberating forces’ should be called ‘terrorist’ because of the presumptuous way in which they have twisted their words in order to fit their own political pace. I think words are a nightmare for everyone because some ‘good’ people read the Bible.

AM : But is it the fault of the Bible?!?

WB : No, it is not, the Bible’s fault, people wilfully bring a pretext and a context. Books are not themselves evil…

AM : … I suppose I am saying it is the fault of the people who wrote the Bible because of the open-endedness…

WB : It is much worse than that - not only the Bible is interpreted, but entire legal systems. These ‘good people’ of the world and the ‘liberating forces’ have vast knowledge of law. The two main characters in the saga which we call the Iraq war have been to Harvard and Oxford. I think they do not know anything about people, they only know how to twist words and how to make money on a good deal.

KG : In BREAD AND PEBBLE ROAD MAP there is one more way of using words: names. We wrote the Arab names and their translation, for example Anwar meaning ‘light’, or Yasser meaning ‘wealth, ease’…

WB : … they are names that have substance, ‘good’ names… innocent things of life

KG : …we wrote them on bread and on stones, they can now be used physically as a weapon,…

WB : If I have a stone and I write your name on it this means ‘I am going to throw this stone with your name at you.’ But if I have a stone with my own name it simply means: ‘Is this my stone? Where is my land? I just want to know what has happened to what I once had…Somebody stole it and made me a villain and a victim, why should I be where I am now? Where am I? I’m left with only a stone…

KG : We have been talking about the text, the word, the book, we ended up talking about soil and now we are talking about land …

WB : If you put text in a book it is not permanent and it will vanish in time. But if you engrave it on a stone the presumption is that it will be permanent. In the ROADMAP I hope that they will last forever. Abraham threw Hagar and Ishmael into the dessert because he considered him a bastard son and all Ishmael’s children have been thrown into the desert ever since… but it was said to Ishmael: ‘your children will be like the sand of the sea you don’t have to be forgotten you are going to be a great nation forever’. I would like to take this thought further, there is a line from Shakespeare, ‘the evil that men do is written in stone the good is written in water’. So I am planning a work where I write in water …


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