Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Exquisite pursuit - Willem Boshoff

If it were up to me Willem Boshoff would be declared a living treasure. Not only is he enchanted with words, and deeply examines our taxonomies and lexicons, he constantly flags, in a prodigious body of ecology aesthetics, our destructive presence on the planet.  In the words of Natalie Souchon*, “He is not working with the image[s] of plants, but with the hopeless memory, where words become gardens of remembrance. The memory is what grows, not the plants themselves.” Keywords, for me, through which to read his work are numinosity, silencepatienceexquisitus negotium (I looked up the Latin for the title of this piece because Latin features among Boshoff’s  projects of remembrance).

Over the years Boshoff has taken it upon himself to memorise the names of thousands of extinct flower species. In the spirit of transmitting cultural history through vocal utterance in oral traditions, remembering equals preserving. In an e.mail Boshoff writes: "I do not include the names of plants in my artworks Gardens of Words I, II and III if I had not actually encountered them and if I had not tried to fix their names in my memory; only real experiences count. That does not mean that I do not look at plants in books and on the internet. I do that all the time, but I only consider the ‘face-to-face’ experience as relevant for the artworks." And: "For my sins I become endlessly and boringly philosophical about memorising existing plant species. I refer to my head as a ‘garden’ and my activities of writing of dictionaries and compiling plant lists and other notes as ‘gardening in my mind.’ The trouble with this garden in my head is that, like any other garden, it needs constant care and attention. I need to repeat what I remember of the 20,000 plant names on my list of encountered plants often and for good reason, or else those plants die of neglect. The GARDENS OF WORDS projects and all other efforts are there to help the plants in my head not to become extinct. As I get older, I get a very real experience of what it means for words and names to become extinct by simply forgetting them."

The thousands of ‘flowers’ in Garden of Words III are made of white cloths folded into red holding cups and both the botanical and vernacular names of the flowers are printed on the cloths – rendering these elegiac conceptual representations of the living plants both epitaphs and mnemonics.
                                                          Garden of Words III, 2006 (Source: Art South Africa)

This is not the place to even begin to explore Boshoff’s philosophical concerns, which are rich and deep, but I want to pay tribute to his cranial garden and the way in which his work of preservation is 'never ending', that is, can only end when he dies. In a culture that marginalises invisibles and forgets all too easily, we need custodians like Boshoff. His meticulous pursuits remind one of Bacon’s identification of 'exhilarated despair…[that] painful yet lyrical disturbance felt by all those who, living in these times of horror spangled with enchantment, can contemplate them with lucidity.'
 When Boshoff dies, we lose a chunk of living history.

*Dissertation: Repositioning Marianne North and Botanical Art, 1999