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Andie Miller

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Big Druid’s fingers do the walking

A year ago today, as the World Cup began, I took a walk with conceptual artist Willem Boshoff.

Having spent the past six years writing about walking, I thought I had looked at it from every angle: From pilgrimage to cruising, interviewing moms of little people learning to toddle, refugees and those who simply walk because they can’t afford a car. But I hadn’t walked with the Big Druid, conceptual artist Willem Boshoff.

For the duration of the World Cup, Boshoff is performing Big Druid in His Cubicle and Big Druid Walks in the City as part of In Context, a series of exhibitions, installations and performances happening around Johannesburg.

The aim of the series is to explore “tensions of place” and notions of home. During this time Boshoff is living in his exhibition space at Arts on Main. He leaves only to do his daily walks along Main Reef Road from 8am to 10am. Over the course of the month he plans to explore most of Main Reef Road. Anyone is welcome to join him.

Main Reef Road was built at the end of the 19th century and was originally created to service the mining industry. It stretches across 45km and 28 pages of the Witwatersrand Street Guide — from Roodepoort in the West, through the city centre, to Boksburg in the East.

‘I walk very slowly’
“I must warn you,” Boshoff said when I let him know that I was keen to join him for the first day, “I walk very slowly.”

I was relieved. I’d imagined having to stride alongside this tall, bearded man — who was once described as looking like “part messiah, part bergie” — just to keep up. A slow walk with him and his camera, I thought, would be like walking with the small children of a friend of mine, where every found object is a potential treasure with a story to tell.

As it turned out, it was more of a mini-road trip — in the quaint Druidmobile, a turquoise retro Chevy truck from the Seventies, with a bumper sticker that says Sien jou daar (see you there) — and an hour-long exploration of a very small section of the road. Every day he will stop at a different point.

We had been warned by a note on the gallery wall before we set off that “during the actual walk visitors may accompany him by walking with him or by watching him from a distance but, regrettably, he will not be able to answer questions, be sociable or even talk during the walk. The purpose of the walk is to create an opportunity for Big Druid to see and record what he sees. This takes concentration and he apologises if he may appear unsociable.”

It was an icy, overcast morning and, after pacing up and down for half an hour trying to keep warm while watching the big man with a very small camera (Canon G10) peering up close at barbed wire, walls and gravel, the wind-chill factor got to me and I retreated behind the windshield of the Druidmobile with Boshoff’s assistant, Juliet.

‘I think he is looking at textures’
Paul Botes, the Mail & Guardian‘s photographer, seemed to be getting what Boshoff was doing. “I think he’s looking at textures,” he said, apparently as fascinated by Boshoff as Boshoff was by whatever he was seeing through his little lens.

Back at the Big Druid’s cubicle in the gallery, everything was revealed. “Come, let me show you,” he said. The miracle of modern technology — he plugged the disk from his camera into the computer and instantly there they were: the surprisingly captivating colours and shapes, spikes and spirals that he had seen. If I didn’t know better I might have thought it was paint on canvas.

“They’re fragments, figments,” he said. “I’m putting things in a window so that I can see them, and I’m opening a window for other people to see as well.”

Suddenly I got it — what he was finding on Main Reef Road as I was caught up in being dwarfed by the trucker-sized signage for places “To Let”, “Giant Motor Spares” and a billboard for margarine advising us to “Share a little more sunshine”. My tendency would have been to walk through it and experience what it felt like, being a pedestrian in this apparently barren industrial area alongside the Cleveland railway station.

From Boshoff’s point of view, what author Phillip Lopate said of his own walks could just as well apply here — that it was not the walk itself that was important to him “so much as to be invaded by sharp glimpses of heart-stopping beauty, to take back with me and muse over in my rooms”.

“I took 121 pictures this morning,” said Boshoff. “It will be a bit of a battle, looking at them and not knowing … In the end I might throw all of it out because I might be terribly disappointed and I might have to adjust my thinking. Or I might be very excited. This one hour that we just spent will turn into many hours of working, making sense of what I saw. After 30 days I’ll have about 3 000 to go through, which might give me about 120 images. From this morning I may keep three or four.

“I’m looking for the nymphs, the mythological spirit of the place. The nymph comes to you through the cracks of the dust and the dirt.”

I’m reminded of the idea of pentimento, the traces that remain of the beginnings of a painting after the artist has changed his mind and painted over it. Occasionally when the paint peels away, or you scratch at it, the earlier remnants are revealed.

“I’m looking for the nymph of the migrant workers, people temporarily dislocated and relocated and messed around by circumstance, the finite existence of transient things, people who have no real home except ­in-between things.”

‘My whole life changed’
He first performed Big Druid in His Cubicle last year in Basel. “The idea of the Druid lifestyle was prompted when I discovered that I had lead poisoning five years ago, from sanding and inhaling old paint, and basically I was dying. I was in incredible pain all the time and, I thought, this is it. And then to discover what was wrong with me … My whole life changed. I started looking and seeing more attentively. Coming back to life, it brings back colour. I see things more vividly. I feel more alive than I’ve ever felt before.”

If you’d like to see the Big Druid in action, wear a warm jacket and prepare to be loitering rather than walking for an hour. He sets off from Arts on Main at eight every morning except Thursday, when he leaves at 9am, and on Monday the gallery is closed.

Or visit him in his cubicle between 10am and 4pm. And after you’ve looked at his exhibition, ask him to show you his pictures of Main Reef Road. They’re strangely beautiful.


This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 18-24 June 2010.


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