Platter rooster tasting
In May, 2011 I visited Stellenbosch to discuss the envisaged Twenty exhibition with Baylon Sandri. I am (painfully) aware of the squabble over Afrikaans as a language of prerogative at Stellenbosch University and I proposed an artwork consisting of one word that makes some sense in both the English and Afrikaans languages, but of which the meanings in the two languages differ significantly. That work was BOOM. I envisaged this work to be a nice big gabeon wall (a thick wall made up of stones stacked in wire baskets) in which two different coloured stones would be so stacked as to spell out the word boom on both sides of the wall. The wall would be placed in Jonkershoek, a get-away nature reserve where romantic couples often enjoy sanctuary in the shadows of large trees and the spellbinding vistas of mountain cliffs. The wall had to be large and inviting enough for the amorous to steal kisses behind. The word boom, in English, is rather onomatopoeic and spells out the noise of exploding bombs, as in the big boom! In Russian boom! is an accepted toast like cheers! – celebration laid on thick! In a more sedate sense, boom is also ‘barrier’, a kind of bar usually pivoted to go up and down to let traffic through. In Afrikaans boom is ‘tree’ a word that would confirm my life-long interest in and respect for nature. I have tried very hard to learn the names of all the plants in the area and I am not doing too badly. Boom, however, has another, far more stress-free meaning in Afrikaans. To the unperturbed it spells out marijuana (Cannabis sativa), also called dagga, pot and hashish. The more easygoing students would immediately chuckle at this usage and might even be tempted to slink behind the boom wall for a whiff or two of the beleagured stuff. I wanted the work to poke some light-hearted fun at the obsessive linguistic preoccupation of the frantic local Afrikaans academic fraternity. It would clearly satisfy them on one level and most certainly raise eyebrows on another. Unfortunately, or is it fortunately, I never got around to make the work and another, already existing work was chosen in its place. There is every reason why, given the logistics can be put in place, I should still make BOOM in Jonkershoek.
The idea that one can have words of the same spelling in Afrikaans and English, but that differ totally in meaning, stayed with me, and when I was again approached by Baylon to have a solo exhibition in his SMAC gallery in Stellenbosch 2012, the memory of BOOM milled about in my head and I began to collect similar words. After more than a year I had come up with a list of two-hundred-and-forty words.
To stay with the idea of using the earthen substance (stones) envisaged for BOOM, I decided to use the sand/soil from the town of Darling, also in the Western Cape. I mapped out the words on small brick-like plaques and I asked my friend Andrew Munnik to collect the soils and fill in the words and their backgrounds on the plaques. Finally, we would have a brick wall for the linguistically-minded to run into.
If you are English and had never spoken a word of Afrikaans, the list of words in PLATTER ROOSTER TASTING will appear totally English to you. You might not guess at the reason for finding these words together in one art work. If you are Afrikaans and had never seen any written English, which is unlikely, you might recognise these words as totally Afrikaans and you might also not know why they are there. A person, bilingual in English and Afrikaans, will easily see that all the words are in the two languages. The two shades of soil of the ‘bricks’ create a situation where the words and their sense tend to emerge softly from the wall and sometimes one has to look twice to read them. The marvel of it all is to see words as from one of the two languages, and then, upon reflection, to find the meaning of that word slowly dawning upon one in the other language.
In a way these words are a Dada list – a mini Dada dictionary. Their inclusion is strangely dependent on the throw of a dice, in this case, the dice is the fact that the English and Afrikaans meanings of the words have absolutely nothing to do with each other.
At first I thought of calling it LOST IN TRANSLATION because the words play with irreconcilable meanings. This ‘English-only’ title would, however, only serve to anger sensitive members of the Afrikaans community and I decided to call the work PLATTER ROOSTER TASTING. The reason for this is explained in the ‘rules’ I invented in order to develop the work and to help avoid ambiguities as to its purpose.