The Answer is Under the Rock
IN THE FIRST OF A SERIES OF ARTIST-TO-ARTIST EXCHANGES, JOHAN THOM INTERVIEWS WILLEM BOSHOFF. THE PAIRING IS APPROPRIATE. BOSHOFF, WITH HIS LONG-TERM INSIGHT AND PERSPECTIVE, NOT TO MENTION HIS KNACK FOR VERBAL TOMFOOLERY, IS THE PERFECT FOIL TO THOM, A YOUNG PERFORMANCE ARTIST STILL WORKING IN RELATIVE OBSCURITY. THE CENTRAL ISSUE OF THEIR DISCUSSION: FERRETING OUT THE NUANCES OF TALK AROUND CUTTING-EDGE ART PRACTICE
While still at school some friends and I had this standing joke. If we didn’t know the answer to an exam question we would draw a rock. “The answer is under the rock,” we would write next to the picture. It seems a fitting metaphor for the situation the South African art world finds itself in at the moment. Our postmodern obsession with modes of representation and preference for “concrete experience over fixed abstract principles”, to quote the philsopher Richard Tarnas, points towards an impasse: We no longer hide the answers under a rock when we don’t know them. Now, instead, we fervently believe that the answer is the rock itself, the drawing, the text, the paper on which it is drawn, the object to which it refers. But, in the final analyses, the joke is still on us. As a teacher pointed out in a note written next to my drawing: “Your mark is under the rock too.”
Kendell Geers’ description last May of South African art resembling “the kind of stale growth that one finds underneath large rocks” seems particularly apt when measured against contemporary South African artists inability to look under the rock. Stated somewhat differently, our inability to pry open the critical (non) space between materiality and abstraction speaks of our failure to open the Pandoras box that lies between the past and the future, the singular and the collective, reality and desire. I do not think this a uniquely South African phenomenon but have to agree with Geers’ remark about the resultant outcome: “cutting edge art has been downgraded to an optional extra rather than an intrinsic part of nation building”. I think the reasons for this state of affairs are multiple, and veer between being wholly obscure and academic, and stupendously practical.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation I had with the artist Willem Boshoff at his Johannesburg residence in September last year. Vereeniging-born Boshoff is an important figure in the history of local conceptual art practice, and his fondness for language made him the ideal person to discuss Geers’ remarks about the potentiality of radical, cutting edge, elitist and avant-garde art, amongst other things. Broadly defined, the objective of our conversation was simple: to try and sneak a peak under the proverbial rock that is the contemporary South African art world. Boshoff’s characteristic wit and audacity provided a fresh counterpoint to the sometimes dull, academic tenor of such debates.
Do you agree with Geers’ statement that the contemporary South African art scene resembles a “festering sore” and is wholly lacking in examples of “cutting edge” work that could compare favourably with current trends in international art?
WB: I do and I don’t. Yes, if one contextualises the statement by saying that, contemporary South African art is not supported by a healthy national infrastructure. Our best artists are at the mercy of commercial art galleries, corporate collections and corrupt governmental organizations. Everyone is struggling and we really have social problems that far surpass that of ‘quality in art’. Perhaps, because of this, artists have a particularly raw deal here – no tax concessions, or even a general sense of goodwill towards them for that matter. These are all things that will encourage them to continue. Nonetheless, I know there is money enough in government to help contemporary artists take their rightful place internationally, but I get the feeling that government would rather die than spend their money on supporting contemporary art. And I speak from experience here. I didn’t get a cent to participate in the Havana Biennale or the Venice Biennale. According to the Minister of Arts and Culture, his department’s top priority is international participation. I can quite honestly say this isn’t true. Money is mostly given to artists who seem to benefit the community. Those, such as Geers, who are full of reproach and condemnation for the so-called philanthropic, albeit slapdash system do not stand a chance of receiving any funding.
I do not agree with Geers on the following. Firstly, one must be very careful to position yourself as the minister of avant-garde. By which right and at whose expense will you take your place on the pedestal? Secondly, the avant-garde art scene in South Africa consists of real people and I think him cowardly not to use a single example to illustrate his point. It is not the ‘naming game’ I am after but, rather, I question the inclusiveness of the statement. Does he include his work or is he referring specifically to the work of William Kentridge, Steven Cohen, yours or mine? Does he mean every single artist in South Africa? In this sense it is a meaningless statement and I challenge him to be more specific.
If anything as coherent as a cultural avant-garde is to exist it has to be premised on a collective vision of the future as well as a plan of action through which to realise it (which is exactly what we do not have in a fragmented postmodern society). More to the point, South African history has been shaped by various forms of exclusion and marginalisation that make any contemporary attempt at centralizing art here vis-à-vis constructs such as the “avant-garde” suspect. Where, if possible, could we locate something like an avant-garde impulse in South African art?
WB: Well, I am not sure that artists can agree on any one thing. They all want to be different and for the most part have no concrete plan of action. This is the nature of art but also the relevance, necessity and beauty of it. The word avant-garde simply means advance guard or front rank in French, and there is always a clear difference between those who are leading the way in any field of practice and those who are merely following. Besides, it is up to history to determine the success of our artistic endeavours. In a century from now we may find a completely different picture emerging of our present situation. Think of Van Gogh, who never had any worthwhile success in his own lifetime. There is nothing that can guarantee your place in history. We should do our work because we believe in it and never conform to the definitions or expectations of the contemporary art scene.
Narrowly defined, the expression avant-garde has its roots in early twentieth century European artistic practice. In this regard, Steven Shaviro (Artforum, May 2005) identifies the values of “transcendence” and “transgression” as two of the most distinguishing features of modernist art practice, as they inevitably lead beyond the limits of representation, “into to the realm of the inexpressible”. He, like Jean Françoise Lyotard, believes that this search has exhausted itself and now seems futile: “There is no more ‘inexpressible’ to bear witness to; it’s all been shown already on cable.” By extension, our attempts to forge a progressive practice may seem positively tame in comparison to the extremes found on the internet or on the eight o clock news, for example.
WB: I partially agree with Shaviro, who places the values of transgression and transcendence in contradistinction to those of representation. Many artists, including Geers, find it increasingly difficult to shock and dumbfound – real life seems to do it incessantly and in vivid detail on television. How does the avant-garde make a living? Today people want easy, cheap thrills. They want chocolate and Rambo rather than Shakespeare. Cutting edge art is irksome and needs committed makers and viewers. We have to linger with it a while in order to understand and enjoy it. Art still has to do the impossible and go beyond the borders of the present. And, we have by no means exhausted all the possibilities. Everything has not been seen. It’s like the British patent office that closed their doors a hundred years ago because they said that everything had been invented. I think art can still be “cutting-edge” or trenchant – in French trancer means to cut. Artists with acumen (talent, audacity, wit, etc.) will always be able to split art and society wide open, cut through it like a knife and reveal things previously unseen. Art cuts through the veil of certainty and exposes the illusion that protects the status quo. We haven’t scratched the surface. Furthermore, we cannot be sure who will do the scratching.
Yes, the kind of negative defeatism so often noted in postmodern art is perhaps rather due to the fact that today cutting-edge art – and the philosophies that underpin it – may originate anywhere. The west no longer has the sole mandate on the utopian project. The search for a collective solution to human misery by a select few European ultimately proved disastrous. The artist Coco Fusco recently argued, if we as postmodern artists are doomed to explore personal, minute utopias only, we are also doomed to accept global capitalism and its faithful travelling companion, liberal democracy, as the status quo. The fact is that both these systems have done a particularly good job at hiding their own grand ambitions for society. In the process, they have discredited any other modes of discourse and practice that may oppose them, on the one hand making them seem unfeasible and on the other quickly incorporating them into their own commodity logic. Other avenues must be explored.
WB: Of course, we cannot be as pessimistic as much postmodern theorists would have it – there is nothing worse than a professor who has nothing to profess. Art is not about morals; it is about exposure and shifting expectations. We must constantly shift, change and usurp the common sense of the day. What we know and see now is nothing compared to what may be known if we are only prepared to open our eyes and be willing to change our minds. We must continuously go into things with the intention to change. No teacher would continue if they did not think their students eager to change their minds and no student would listen if they did not believe it possible. The only certainty is change and it is fear that that makes us blind to this simple fact. Fear makes us defensive and stale.
We can speak about “lifting the veil”, as you put it earlier, but right now art is more institutionalised than it has ever been. For example, things like the failure of the utopian project, the demise of 1960s liberal left wing politics, the death of the avant-garde are all taught, or at the very least implicit in, the syllabi of most art schools globally. This creates a self-sustaining system that continuously re-affirms the so-called “dystopian impulse of postmodern art”, to quote Frederick Jameson.
WB: I have a problem with teachers of art. Unlike teachers of law, science or any other discipline, art teachers can get away without having to prepare for their lectures and can rely on the spirit of the moment to guide them. But if that spirit is 50 years old, has blonde hair and blue eyes then its children will inevitably continue its Aryan heritage. Sometimes we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. The best moment for this to happen is when someone becomes absolutely convinced of his or her principles or methods. Students should riot if their lecturers are not prepared to shift their parameters, at the very least. Or better yet, get out of the system. If you asked most of the so-called professors of art to put together a list of their top ten contemporary South African artists on the spur of the moment, you would laugh your head off. But, this is how you know what they actually stand for, what they hope their students will become.
Currently the South African government’s fist priority is the re-discovery of long neglected traditions, such as the celebration of Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the art forms that embody them, like ‘craft’. The point I am trying to make is that I don’t think the local contemporary art scene would survive for long without commercial art galleries and corporate collections. When contemporary art and government do meet it is mostly under the guise of uplifting community projects, where the underlying assumption is that art is good for us. I do not think that art should be good for us in any socially acceptable way.
WB: Yes, we have a lot to learn still. Andrei Zhdanov led the post-war purge of non-conformist artists and intellectuals in the Soviet Union. He made a list of laws decreeing that art should always be for the upliftment of the community and always celebrate and respect Soviet achievement in science, sport and culture. In order for this to be done effectively, he decreed that art (music, fine art, literature) should be understood by the proletariat and thus not be dissonant, discordant or confusing. If you disobeyed these principles by making so-called difficult or anti-revolutionary work, your work would be destroyed and in all probability you would be thrown in jail. Of course, artists still made difficult work and authors still tried to publish anti-conformist literature, exactly like it was here under Apartheid, and even as it is now. In the Soviet Union all dissenting artists vanished, they defected or went underground. In some cases they conformed and began churning out the formulaic product demanded by their government. Right now, in the European Union, no one wants to be the secretary of culture. Everyone is too afraid to take the position because they know that artists are a notoriously difficult bunch who do not want to be told what to do. You simply cannot get them to follow the program.
More or less the same thing happened in Senegal with the artists at the Ecole d` Dakar who followed the principles of Negritude, as formulated by their then president Leopold Senghor, and became know as the Negritude painters. They pioneered an incredibly formulaic style of African painting by only using certain symbols, forms and approaches to their subject matter. Of course, they were government funded and also showcased as being the best examples of Senegalese art at the time. But, in hindsight, other groups like the Agit Art group, also operating in Senegal at the time, were making much more interesting work. But, as always, it is easy to look back upon history and to see the mistakes we made.
WB: Well, we have to learn from our mistakes. Under Apartheid, contemporary artists like myself never got much funding or recognition and now it’s the same under the new government. The administration should grant funding and have new schemes in place that support artists without meddling too much. But, unless a miracle happens, this is but a dream. I think that the craft workers in South Africa are at least enjoying better funding. We have so many people who have nothing and craft seems a good way to begin to empower them. But it is only the start. Craft is growing too and soon it will not just be an easy way to empower people, to justify government spending in the arts, for example. For quite some time supposed crafts people have been making work of international stature. What will government do if some of them become famous international artists? The system has to think about quality.
Agreed, artists do their best because they believe in the potential of their work to grow. Where will we house our dreams once they exceed our initial, modest expectations? Perhaps art cannot give us solutions but it can allow us the freedom to explore for ourselves. Whether these explorations take us somewhere in agreement or at odds with current government policy or accepted social norms is beside the point. Art is revolutionary by virtue of the freedom and concrete uselessness it embodies. It moves and excites us in surprising ways that more often than not, do not fit into any existing category. When last did you see a show that made you so excited that you phoned someone?
WB: I often see art shows that I like and I then talk to others about them. I must say that since the Biennale closed down in South Africa we don’t get to see so much exciting work anymore. Kendell Geers is right. The Biennale brought many curators and they were not primarily interested in the small group of established artists who had formerly got all the attention. This gave many young and exciting artists the opportunity to show their work and brought them much needed attention, even here at home. Of course, it also angered a lot of recognized artists who thought they were the cat’s whiskers and suddenly found out otherwise. I came through that process, and so too did Candice Breitz, Kendell Geers and a number of others. These days most young artists do not have the same opportunities, which is truly a pity.
Curators occupy such a position of power in contemporary art. They have to assume some responsibility for the state of art in South Africa. When last did a professional South African curator visit your studio? I have to ask because lot of the artists I know have never had a studio visit from a professional South African curator.
WB: A curator visited me two weeks ago, yet lack of attention seems to be everyone’s lot. Artists are treated like racehorses here and every curator or gallerist sticks to their stable. One must never resent a lack of attention though. All my life I have collected newspaper clippings related to art and I can show you how history has a way of sorting things out. Many of the faces that used to grace the press every second week are now long forgotten. As a matter of fact, if I re-published some of those old artists’ statements today those people would be livid or embarrassed. I spent most of my early career in obscurity and never became part of any clique.
What about the role of national art competitions? How do they influence the contemporary South African art scene? I cannot remember the last time a really crazy, difficult piece won first prize on any local competition.
WB: Art competitions can only select work out of what is submitted. Then, of course, they get a couple of academics or famous artists together to judge it. The line that separates not being selected from winning can sometimes be fine indeed and often it takes only one obtuse judge to change the whole thing. I remember about twenty years ago being a judge on the Volkskas Atelier (now the ABSA Atelier), and an unknown Marc Edwards had submitted a piece that no one liked initially. But, we all looked at it and I argued for it throughout. Eventually it won. There is no impartial judge and one shouldn’t take it personally (even, and especially, if one wins).
Last question, Willem. Who do you think is producing cutting edge work in South Africa right now?
WB: I have a fair list, including some completely unknown people, students mostly. But, you should rather ask me this: “What is the worst thing that ever happened to contemporary South African art?” The sinking of the Johannesburg Biennale left many artists without hope.
Johan Thom is an artist and a part time lecturer in Fine Art and Art Theory at Tswhane University of Technology