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Expanding the range of sensory engagement: A Q&A with Willem Boshoff

CF: Revisiting The Blind Alphabet in a time of distance and intangibility can have a strong resonance with the work itself, but it can also add new layers of meaning and ways of engaging with the work. What are some of the benefits and challenges of showcasing this work digitally?
WB: Each form sculpted for The Blind Alphabet project is a morphological interpretation of a key word quite complex in meaning. It is encased within a dark steel mesh container, making it invisible. The selected word is defined in Braille according to the dictionary convention. The Braille is fixed to an aluminium touch-plate on the lid of the container, which only a blind person is permitted to open and ‘read’.  The Braille text describes the conceptual origin of the form inside, its shape, the wood used and the etymology of the word it represents. The word, bidentate, for example, describes a form consisting of two teeth and is thus represented.
     The lockdown period we are experiencing similarly robs us of direct experience of many aspects of life. Most of us are used to being prohibited from touching the artworks in a gallery, but now we might be refused entry altogether! Viewing art on the internet becomes a virtual experience and as such, arguably not a real one. We are denied the immediate pleasure of laying our eyes on things, much as the Blind Alphabet Project originally intended.

  • UJ Moving Cube online gallery Willem Boshoff
  • UJ Moving Cube online gallery Willem Boshoff
  • UJ Moving Cube online gallery Willem Boshoff
  • UJ Moving Cube online gallery Willem Boshoff
  • UJ Moving Cube online gallery Willem Boshoff
  • UJ Moving Cube online gallery Willem Boshoff
  • UJ Moving Cube online gallery Willem Boshoff

A virtual experience of The Blind Alphabet denies the visually impaired tactile access to the work. This is an important consideration, as the work was primarily designed for the blind viewer and the digital format is removed from the original motivation of the work – to give the sighted an experience of what it is to be marginalized in one’s perception of the world. Usually art galleries prohibit touching the works with an uncompromising DO NOT TOUCH sign.
     During the 1990s, when the work was conceived, the digital age in which we are currently engulfed was simply not a firm reality. The work engages with the senses of sight, touch and also the smell of wood.
     New Music composer Jaco Meyer and I have been in dialogue for some years, both departing from a conceptual approach. Over time he made compositions in response to several of my sculptures.  Now his engagement with The Blind Alphabet Project introduces the sense of hearing.  Admittedly, Braille might eventually disappear as technology expands and digital solutions are developed to aid the visually impaired in daily life. One could therefore argue that his intervention expands the range of sensory engagement in the Blind Alphabet Project.
     This is a departure from the original intention of the work, which was to give the sighted a direct experience of what it feels like to be excluded from the art gallery experience and the appreciation of art.
     The digital format with its new musical accompaniment now also caters to the sighted, bypassing the original intended interaction with the blind.
     But, to experience and understand the chosen enigmatic words presented by Blind Alphabet Project, the sighted are dependent on another person who cannot see. This is not only because the gallery allows blind people to touch the work, but because their sense of touch is sensitive and highly developed, allowing them to unlock subtleties of meaning I have tried to communicate sculpturally through the morphology of words. For me as a conceptual artist working sculpturally, exploring the meaning of each word by touching and forming my material is as important as seeing it.

Continue reading our Q&A with Willem Boshoff >>
View The Blind Alphabet in Motion
Watch The Blind Alphabet Docuseries

Navigate through our Moving Cube articles:
Willem Boshoff exhibition – The Blind Alphabet
Moving Cube – a newly developed UJ Art Gallery website
Mentorship, education and the Emerging Artist Development Programme – how to enter
Exploring The Blind Alphabet with MTN Foundation’s Niel Nortje
Curating context online: Annali Cabano-Dempsey discusses UJ’s Moving Cube

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