Live Virtual Auction, 15 February 2020
About this Item
Parallel rulers, invented in 1584 by Fabrizio Mordente, and modified by Captain William Andrew Field in the nineteenth century, are instruments used by ship’s navigators and pilots as tools of their trade, the purpose being to ascertain the present position of a ship or an aeroplane, and to determine the speed and direction required to reach a specific destination. Two rulers, usually made of boxwood, ebony or ivory, are joined with articulating brass hinging devices, enabling the user to hold down one ruler on the present position of a ship and move the second ruler, in a parallel manner, to the position intended or aimed for. Parallel rulers, along with other traditional navigational instruments including charts, dividers and nautical almanacs, have been rendered completely obsolete by digital technology and they exist now only as antiquated curiosities of a bygone era.
Willem Boshoff’s studio is full of such curiosities, instruments, implements and the tools of all kinds of trades. His father was a cabinet maker and so is one of his own sons. Boshoff’s love of wood, and of working wood, is inborn. When he deems a collection of tools or instruments sizeable enough, he conceptualises an artwork around them, which is then beautifully and skilfully executed.
There are two types of parallel rulers in Boshoff’s collection: the common type that has a linked pair of flat rulers, and the ‘rolling’ parallel ruler.1
In the artwork Parallel Rulers, the surface is composed of a veritable ‘sea’ of horizontal wooden strips, interlaced with small vertical brass pieces that seem to keep the strips intact. Boshoff jokingly refers to these brass bits as ‘stars’, invoking a much older tradition in the art of nautical navigation.
A strong sense of latent movement is suggested by the parallel rulers affixed to the surface of the artwork, inviting the viewer to take hold and move them up or down, sliding them to the left or the right, effectively making them ‘sailing vessels’ as well. He invokes a sense of being ‘at sea’, but simultaneously provides the means of finding one’s way again using the parallel rulers.2
The playful and yet ambiguous nature of this work reminds one of the sculptures of German Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, especially his Mechanical Head (Spirit of the Age), 1920, where various measuring instruments, such as a ruler and a piece of a measuring tape, are affixed to the wooden head of an artist’s old manikin. In 2010, Roger van Wyk and Kathryn Smith curated Dada South? Experimentation, Radicalism and Resistance at Iziko South African National Gallery. This exhibition anticipated Dada’s centenary and provided a sense of Dada’s legacies from various South African perspectives. Boshoff was one of the artists whose work was included in the show.
2. Personal communication with the artist, 30 October 2019, Johannesburg.