Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Words are Stalking Our Brains

Approximately 400 000 pages of different kinds of literature are printed in the world every minute. I heard this on NPR but have forgotten who said it. Words are like organisms, they are born, they give birth to new words, they merge, blend, evolve, die. They fill the earth, in myriad languages, dialects, pidgins and slangs. They are printed on paper, they fill the air, spoken, sung, blasted through loudspeakers. They make forays into the deep sea and into space. Perhaps the language crawling out of me, out of my brain, onto these electronic pages, and onwards into your brain as you read, is a parasitical life form, for the time being using us to be born and to live, all the while fooling us into thinking we are its masters and creators. Or perhaps It is God itself, taking form in human words as well as insects, rocks and wind. In the beginning was The Word. Perhaps everything else is shadow.

Concrete poetry is a term coined in the fifties and sixties, when people started using typography as a form of expression. Or perhaps when language the organism, language the monster, language the Great Consciousness incarnate, found a clever way to play a little, to express its independence of us and its ability to reshape our concept of "meaning". Ubuweb has a great collection of conceptual writing, which takes a further leap into language-for-itself, away from expressive writing altogether, revealing language as a narcissist, gazing lovingly at itself in the mirror of the page.

The South African artist Willem Boshoff has a gorgeous body of work which often takes concrete poetry as its starting point. Through Boshoff, language steps into the concrete world as shapes, objects, codes and secrets. Language is an animal of prey, stalking us in what we thought was our safely structured and manicured garden of meaning. In the late nineties Boshoff created a trilogy of works called Tree of Knowledge. One part in the series,
Letters to God, celebrates the tree in its sacrificial form - the book. The work studies the fibrous nature and structure of wood, recreating a model of paper under the microscope. The deconstructed wood pieces conceal letters of the Greek alphabet, the forbidden fruits of the tree of knowlegde. The other parts of Tree of Knowledge are Druid's Keyboard and Broken Garden. In all of these works, language lurks dangerously, as a threat to trees and to us.

Abamfusa Lawula - the purple shall govern, Boshoff gave a concrete form to slogans and chants shouted in African languages in anti-apartheid rallies. Here he celebrates spoken language, its power to transform and question. In Kykafrikaans, he uses a typewriter as a writing instrument, "a crochet needle" and a paintbrush, creating visually ravishing concrete poems. Some of them act as maps that the viewer can only get lost in, glimpsing the occasional sliver of meaning. Accompanying the works, created in the seventies, was originally a recital of words in a church. A startled audience was asked to repeat loudly words such as "church" or "sand" or to assert "peel" as a swearword. Did God hear the question behind what was spoken? Was "peel" "peel" to God, or was the intention what was actually being said? If I ask you to say "peel" as a swearword, and you do, are you swearing or am I? Is the church a church because of its name, or because of the intentions of its builders? Can the real intentions be known? Is God brought into the church with the words that are spoken in it?

In the eighties, Boshoff worked for 370 consecutive days, seven hours every day, carving a
wooden calendar detailing his goals and achievements for each day. The intricate blocks are carved out of different types of wood, and were exhibited in giant panels, alphabetized according to the type of wood. After the initial, brief exhibition they were stored in a specially made set of drawers. Part of the key to the secret symbols on the blocks is in two red notebooks, buried within all the wood chips from carving the blocks, in the base of the storage system.

The 370 Days Project seems to me a gorgeous poem about the universe, about the secrets at its root, and about what we can know. A language known only to itself can only reveal itself to us in glimpses, in segments of code, in shapes which we may or may not misinterpret. Finally uninterested in stalking us, having discovered enough entertaining ways to manifest itself through us, language retreats from the garden. We hear only a slight rustle as it, like a jaguar, softly leaps into the great jungle. The story is not something that we can even begin to know. We are left to prune our bushes, plant our flowers in rows and harvest our fruit trees, creating order instead of meaning.

(Information for this post was harvested from
Willem Boshoff's website, and the photograph of Letters to God is his copyrighted material.)

This long thing is another one in a series of re-posts from my old blog.

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