This article explores the importance of breath in the oeuvre of Willem Boshoff. I argue that breath and the associations it triggers with wind, language and the spoken word are representative of a rich, personal symbolism in Boshoff’s oeuvre which has not been researched or explored sufficiently in the existing literature. According to Vladislavić (2005:12) Boshoff has developed a complex personal and religious symbolism. He argues that Boshoff has constructed from the pieces of his own experience as well from the broad beams of Christian imagery a personal symbolism in which wood and the Word are central concepts. I expand the breadth of these two concepts and their relevance for Boshoff’s oeuvre by exploring the ways in which they develop even further into a network of associations including tree (wood), breath/wind (word), and language and the spoken word. I interpret these concepts as the concealed life force (or breath) of Boshoff’s oeuvre.
Vladislavić’s (2005:6) emphasis on the importance of wood and the Word in Boshoff’s oeuvre links with his argument that the viewer of Boshoff’s artworks is actually a reader and that Boshoff is essentially a writer; not only because the majority of Boshoff’s artworks explore concepts related to language and books, but also because Boshoff writes concrete poetry, dictionaries and commentary on his own work and methods. Therefore Vladislavić (2005:6), himself an author, compares Boshoff’s work to a shelf of books which he unceasingly researches, writes and annotates. In contrast, I argue that breath and the spoken word are central to Boshoff’s art and that the performative aspect of breath relates to Boshoff’s interest in trees, books and language.
Vladislavić (2005:15) also argues that Boshoff’s later artworks are “drained” of their religious meaning, even though they are still filled with Christian imagery. This is visible in artworks like Tree of knowledge (1997) and a relatively recent work like Tien teen een (2012). I contend that the Christian and religious references in Boshoff’s work have been largely ignored in interpretations of his work, since the artist has gradually distanced himself from Christianity later in his life. However, Vladislavić (2005:15) points out that many of the themes Boshoff had wrestled with at the beginning of his career became prominent themes which the artist continually explores. I argue more extensively that breath and the various religious connotations that breath unleashes for Boshoff create a profound and integrative constellation of themes which anchor Boshoff’s entire oeuvre and which may assist in unravelling the alluring ambiguity of the religious nature of Boshoff’s work.
In an unpublished manuscript by the artist, titled “Genesis” (1974–6), which until now has not been sufficiently engaged with in the interpretation and discussion of Boshoff’s oeuvre, the central themes are breath and the spoken word. This text was written by a devout Boshoff and reveals a variety of themes which are of continued interest to the artist. The text is also written in an experimental style and might be seen as a precursor to Boshoff’s well-known KYKAFRIKAANS (1980), an anthology of concrete poems. In this text Boshoff explores a variety of concerns related to “creation”, including the Creation, the relationship between humans and the Creator, the role of humans within creation, creativity, the relationship of the Creator with his creation and the influence of the Creator’s breath on creation. Boshoff argues in “Genesis” (1974–6) that everything is language. According to Boshoff this language is the Word, or rather words, spoken by God when the world was created and that as spoken words they are closely related to breath: “Creation happened when the creator broke the silence with his sound [breath or spoken words].”
In the description and analysis of Boshoff’s personal symbolism I refer to specific texts and artworks in which the artist intertwines the themes of breath, wind and words, such as Wind words (2008), an artwork that triggers a variety of themes related to wind, breath and spoken word which I explore further through a comparative analysis of Boshoff and Walter Benjamin. Even though Boshoff makes no direct reference to Benjamin in his own oeuvre, they share an interest in the interconnection of creation and language, as well as the diversity of languages. This comparative analysis, along with an interpretation of sections from “Genesis” (1974–6) and of selected poems from KYKAFRIKAANS (1980), scrutinizes the significance of breath and the spoken word in the oeuvre of Boshoff. The Kabbalah’s conceptualisation of God’s creative breath resonates with sections from “Genesis” and a discussion of it contributes to unpacking the importance of breath and its relationship to language in Boshoff’s oeuvre. In this context I benefit from Clarkson’s (2006:10) argument that Boshoff searches for meaning through the “patterned media of language”, which highlights the sensuous nature of language and the ways in which it relates to breath and wind. Lastly, I analyse Kasboek (1981), Stokkiesdraai (1980) and Letters to God (1997) in order to answer the following: What is the importance of breath for Boshoff’s oeuvre? How does it contribute to the artist’s personal symbolism? How does Boshoff conceptualise the relationship between language/breath and creation? How can a text like “Genesis” (1974–6) highlight and enrich aspects of Boshoff’s oeuvre as it relates to language and lexicography? Which spiritual or religious elements related to breath are present in the work of Boshoff? In which ways do these artworks allude to the relationship between books, trees, wind and breath?
Keywords: breath; Willem Boshoff; language; trees and books; wind; written and spoken word