The South African artist Willem Boshoff recently donated his digital archive, which serves as the source as well as the documentation of his artworks, to the University of the Free State in order to make it more accessible to researchers. Thus far (in the current interpretations of his artworks) the historical and philosophical complexity of Boshoff’s thought world, which is connected to his artworks and is becoming accessible through his archive, has not been interpreted. In the national and international research domain parts of the Willem Boshoff Archive have been explored, but the Archive has not been contextualized generally within archival discourses. The Archive has also not been interpreted as a meaningful cultural technique and has not been compared with other visually based intellectual projects. Therefore this article serves as the first contextual exploration of the Willem Boshoff Archive. Through this article we also suggest further research possibilities.
Comparable archival projects include the work of various contemporary artists who have also been influenced by “archive fever” (Derrida 1995) and the “archival impulse” (Foster 2004) as well as various cultural thinkers of the 20th century, e.g. Gerhard Richter’s (1932–) Atlas (1962–), Hanne Darboven’s (1941–2009) Kulturgeschichte (1880–1983) (1980–1983), Horst Haack’s (1940–) Chronographie Terrestre (1981–), Ydessa Hendeles’s (1948–) Partners – The Teddy Bear Project (2004), David Goldblatt’s (1930–) Intersections (2005) and other exhibitions, Pippa Skotnes (1957–) and her leading role at the Centre for Curating the Archive,Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, Katie Paterson’s (1981–) Framtidsbiblioteket or Future library (2014–2114), Ernst Haeckel’s (1834–1919) Kunstformen der Natur (1904), Karl Blossfeldt’s (1865–1932) Urformen der Natur (1929), Aby Warburg’s (1866–1929) Mnemosyne Atlas (1924–1929) and Walter Benjamin’s (1892–1940) archive and writings, e.g. Das Passsagenwerk (1927–1940).
Willem Boshoff’s archive is a unique example of experimental and conceptual archiving and imaginative, digital curating which involves a disciplined, thorough, systematic approach, but which is at the same time alternative, creative, open, playful, informative, performative, artistic and sensory. In the current academic environment digital archives and imaging records accompanied by texts are considered recognised forms of scientific practice and inquiry of which museums, academies, laboratories, observatories, test centres and publication networks are examples. In this article we refer to Paul Ricoeur’s insightful views on fiction and imagination, especially as expressed in his article “The function of fiction in shaping reality” (1979). We refer to the thoughts expressed there in order to unleash the creative and conceptual nature of the archive. This leads to the comparison of the archive with specific archival collections like Wunderkammern as an early modern phenomenon, as well as with later intellectual projects like those of the German cultural thinkers Aby Warburg (Mnemosyne Atlas, 1924–1929) and Walter Benjamin (Das Passagenwerk, 1927–1940, Der Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels, 1925) and the British artist Damien Hirst (1965–) in order to illuminate the distinctive nature and meaning of the Willem Boshoff Archive.
Through these comparisons we argue that these intellectual projects not only offer new descriptions of reality, but also reveal new insights and dimensions of knowledge. We argue that the collections of Willem Boshoff, as in the case of these figures, originate in the spirit of the critical reconsideration and questioning of thresholds, transitions, turning points and cultural-historical crises. By comparing the diverse imaginary worlds created by each of these remarkable figures we highlight facets of Boshoff’s individual enterprise in comparison to theirs.
We argue that the ways in which Boshoff and other creators of fictitious worlds highlight specific idiosyncratic concepts to explain the meaning and structure of their distinctive collections are comparable. With the Willem Boshoff Archive it is the persona of the Druid, created by Boshoff as a figure of artistry, around which Boshoff’s conceptualisations of cathexis, catharsis, chiasm and chance revolve. In comparison with Walter Benjamin it is primarily his concepts of the ruin or the relic and allegory, and with Aby Warburg it is his innovative concepts of pathos formulae and Mnemosyne (Nachleben der Antike in the collective memory) which summarise the rationale of each of their projects. The performative ways in which each of these imaginative worlds generate new concepts and knowledge are investigated comparatively.
In the article we first provide a brief overview of the Willem Boshoff Archive. The archive’s fictional, imaginative and creative nature and its capacity to create interrelated imaginative worlds make it historically comparable with early modern Wunderkammern. This comparison highlights specific dimensions of Boshoff’s archival fictitious world. We refer to the more recent analysis of fundamental archival concepts by Jacques Derrida (1995), Wolfgang Ernst (Parrika 2013) and Ernst van Alphen (2014a), which contribute, to our argument that a Wunderkammer mentality is relevant to contemporary society. The concepts of fiction and imagination aid us with a comparative study of Boshoff, Warburg, Benjamin and Hirst when we discuss and compare each of these creators’ fictions and imaginary worlds.
Boshoff’s archive provides a fictitious world that consists of various elements from diverse fields of knowledge; it includes: digital photographs of plants taxonomically ordered, various music recordings, dictionaries that he has written and photographs of his artworks. Reality is redescribed and a new dimension of reality is revealed by the intertwining of these elements through the fiction of the Druid and the continuous hard work and determination of the artist.
This fictitious world can be interpreted und understood in terms of the “submedial space” of archives to which Boris Groys refers. According to Groys (2012:10), paper, films and computers are usually seen as the carriers of data and media in the archive, but they are also technical equipment forming part of the archive. “Behind” the carriers of data and media lie diverse production processes, electrical networks and economic processes. But what lies “behind” these networks and processes? The answers become vague among the various options: nature, history, reason, desire, a series of events, serendipity, subjects and dust. This is the obscure “submedial space” to which Groys refers where hierarchies of sign systems sink into dark, cloudy spaces. This “submedial space” is the das Andere of the archive. It is probably behind these material carriers of media and data, networks and processes and in the dark, cloudy spaces of the archive that fictions, fictitious worlds and the conceptual nature of Boshoff’s archive exist. This is where the researcher finds the Druid tending to the fictitious world of Boshoff’s mind.
Keywords: Aby Warburg; archival collections; Damien Hirst; imagination; Walter Benjamin; Willem Boshoff; Willem Boshoff Archive; Wunderkammern
Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Verkennende verbeeldingswêrelde: die ontsluiting van die Willem Boshoff Argief