more feature articles:

by Gean Morenu

Kendell Geers‚s art of terror

by Joseph Whitt

A bomb has been hidden somewhere in this exhibition, set to explode at a time known to the artist alone. While it is not my intention to kill anyone, that risk does exist. I apologise in advance for any injuries, fatalities, damage or other inconvenience that my work will cause. In this matter I have no choice, being as much a victim of the course of Art History and contemporary politics as those who are hurt in the process. I take consolation in the fact that chance will be entirely responsible for the final statistics...
The bomb will cause serious, if not structural damage to the Virginal White Cube of the space as well as totally destroy any works of art in immediate vicinity of the explosion. The debris and shrapnel will later be mounted and sold as individual sculptures...
A police investigation will follow and a warrant issued for my arrest. Being guilty I will not resist, accepting full responsibility for my actions and implications thereof...Art Historians, Critics, Philosophers, and Sociologists will be called upon to explain why my actions constitute a relevant work of art at this point in time. History will later debate and decide the merits of the piece...
This text will be presented as evidence of fair warning of the existence of the bomb as well as my intentions...The form of the piece (being what amounts to a terrorist attack) is simply a contemporary African artist‚s response to the world he lives in and the histories he has inherited.

Aluta Continua.
Kendell Geers from „By Any Means Necessaryš (abridged), 1995.

The art world is a cult. Posterity will see it that way, just as History always has, and conceivably always will. Art has its own insular lingo, unspoken caste system and order of protocol. And, from the moment that Marcel Duchamp once famously asked, „How does one make a work of Art that is not Art,š it has been a bone of contention that we, dear readers, may be doing nothing more than testing the boundaries of an intellectual ghetto every time we make, speak or experience under the long and solemn shadows of art history. Or, at least, that is how such long-winded nay sayings go.

Countless throngs of art school postgraduates, freshly versed in French postmodern theory, may gripe fashionably for a couple of years about the nepotism of gallerists, critics and the system of cultural commerce; but very few do anything other than pander to it when the student loans kick in. Real insolence is rarely profitable or marketable, and no one likes a tenure track party pooper. Notwithstanding the occasional nomad with a trust fund, artists
and aesthetes are professionals. Or, at least, that is how such a defense might rest.

Needless to say, such simplistic binaries always miss something. But given that much critical and historical discussion in the arts similarly pits „outsiderš against „insider,š one might suspect that a complexity is being ignored these days, largely at the expense of recognizing real innovation. In most parts of academia, as a dialogue narrows in scope, don‚t the questions involved tend to beg or contain answers that their language anticipates? Do magazines like this one effectively assist a larger networkųof galleries, exhibition spaces and graduate schoolsųin setting the stage for a type of sanctioned anarchy, where various unspoken semantic and contextual strictures temper the artist‚s free will? Rhetoric can often place conditions on freedom in any arena, but in the sphere of Art, where autonomy and choice are sacrosanct, the concerns are especially acute. At what point, exactly, do we begin to experience such limits as an audience, or feel the consequence of them as makers? And, most importantly, where or to whom should we turn for hopes of upheaval?

Kendell Geers is one obvious choice. For more than a decade, his interventions have criss-crossed the globe, „scratching,š as the artist has often said, „where it does not itch.š2 A self-described insider‚s outsider, his varied oeuvreųof conceptual gestures, accompanying documentation, objects, photographs, installations, video projections, texts, wall drawings and sound workųspecializes in inverting power relations, most often through the performative, where private and public mirror one another. Norms, such as the sanctity of the exhibition space, are suspect. The viewer is regularly implicated in some way, and the intrusion of a tense collective reality mocks the passive expectations of an audience hoping to glimpse slivers of the artist‚s „private world.š The spirits of the trickster, the activist and the art historian find a fearless synergy in Geers, and his strategies engage where others might lapse and merely sermonize. Giving „expression to that point where emotion strips language of all its power to control usš remains his dream and task.3 No apologies. No regrets.

Geers has been identified as one of the most suspect people on the planetųan apartheid-era white South African maleųsince his birth in May 1968, a date that he changed in 1993 to coincide with the 1968 student rebellion in Paris and the utopian activities of the Situationist International founded by Guy Debord. At 15, he became a runawayųabandoning his father, an abusive alcoholic mechanic, and several unabashedly bigoted extended family members who worked as police officers. His mother fled when Geers was a boy for similar reasons. Upon leaving, he changed his given name of Jacobus Hermanus Pieter Geers to the less provincial Kendell and vowed to avoid speaking Afrikaans. He also swore to wear black as often as he could to express of his newfound identity as „a quintessential African,š someone black on the inside regardless of heritage.4 He managed to attend university and discovered fine art by chance, while sitting in on a particularly engrossing class devoted to the history and practice of Dada. After publicly refusing to serve in the South African Defense Force during apartheid, he was forced into exile to escape a six-year prison sentence on the heels of his graduation. He lived in New York City for a year, worked as a studio assistant to artist Richard Prince, among others, and returned to South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela precipitated his formal pardon.

Kendell Geers, Bloody Hell, 1990, photograph, dimensions variable (photo courtesy the artist).

Then 22, Geers began taking photographs of himself in privateųfrontal head shots, snapped minutes after pouring pints of blood over his freshly shaven, dramatically darkened and encrusted head. The blood was his own, gradually extracted from his arm just prior to the grisly baptism. These stark self-portraits, oddly punctuated by the artist‚s piercing blue eyes staring forward, are enduring archetypes of the time and place in which they were made. The spring of 1990 was an arguably heady period that seems almost foreign now, given the uber-cynical aftermath of our post 9/11 worldųlest we forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square uprising preceded Mandela‚s freedom by mere months. On one level, the image of Geers still seems to embody the brief political exhilaration of that season almost wistfullyųaffirming South Africa‚s (and the world‚s) shared ties of blood, the need for autonomy and the sense of individual impermanenceųthe „we all die, we all bleed, unite all creedsš mantra given a full didactic treatment. However, as effectively as it pleaded for an end to suffering, it also hummed with a sinister and prophetic auraųone that any look at the current international news will emphasize. In the years that followed, and even now, South Africa has been bathed in blood. The social destruction and educational neglect caused by apartheid‚s divisions mean South Africa leads the world in violence, murder and rape. Geers‚s deadpan visage continues to stare at his home from a seemingly distant past, embodying the hopes and contrition of an entire nation implicated in its own undoingųa mirror held up to, and a warning for, the world.

I have tried to critically use the tactics and strategies that I learned in the fight against apartheid as strategies for creating art. I am not interested in illustrating themes of apartheid as much as trying to translate the resistance to one power structure as a method to resist another power structure. Both apartheid and the art system are built on a consumer capitalist culture and both rely on the complacency of the bourgeoisie. So why not use the same strategies? I think that as time has gone by, my method has been greatly misunderstood, for the violence seems to be the only thing that people focus on and reject. On the other hand, I come from the most violent city in the world, so why is it that I should not use that space and resist the cool temptation of translating everything into some kind of designer dissent? There is no anarchy of the mind in the art system I knowųjust loads of safe cathartic rituals.5

Throughout the nineties, Geers‚s career ascent appeared to be much like a tightrope walk without a net; and along with his reputation as enfant terrible came more than a few enemies. Installing a six thousand volt electric fence in several international group shows and turning it on with only one deterrentųa small metal warning signųmay have imposed some curatorial distance, even if Geers conceived the work, respectfully enough, as a reference to Sol Lewitt‚s thin pencil line drawings „with 6000 volts running through each line.š6 Acts such as throwing a brick through a gallery window and displaying the detritus as an installation, or placing texts that were effectively personal bomb threats against the art establishment in museums, also did much to ensure some backbiting. The number of feminist diatribes written in response to the artist‚s presentation of a leg-splayed (notably Caucasian) Hustler centerfoldųcomplete with the ornamental topping of his own semenųin a display case could provide enough raw material to stuff an effigy. But it was his one-time voluntary conscription to every existing political party in South Africa, and the eventual display of the nine ID cards that were issued to him, that elicited his first death threats. He began the project just hours after hearing of the massacre of seven Zulu taxi passengers in Johannesburg at the hands of gunmen demanding to know each passenger‚s political preference. „Only one man survived,š Geers reported at the time. „He lied about his political allegiances. That got me thinking.š7

When Nelson Mandela opened an exhibition in Berlin‚s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 1995, Geers arrived to greet him, at the end of a long line of artists and handshakers, wearing head-to-toe camouflage and a latex mask caricaturing Mandela‚s own face. A surprisingly good-natured exchange followed, with Mandela laughing and complimenting the artist on his idea. „I did not know how to greet a god,š Geers conceded, „so I thought about the African tradition of masks in which the wearer showed their highest respect for a god by wearing a mask of the god. I also wore camouflageųthe modern African őfabric and mask‚.š8 A mob of angry German onlookers saw no humor or meaning in it, however; and as Mandela left the reception, Geers was attacked and a loud debate ensued among everyone involved.

Granted, listing such acts and responses in a reductive way, without the benefit of each one‚s complete context and two steps removed from a real experience, is unfair. Yet doing so sheds a lot of light on how many misconceptions of the artist‚s work have grown and reinforced themselves in some parts of the art world. Geers is not interested in illustrating shock tactics, nor does his work easily lend itself to summary. He creates deceptively simple situations: simultaneously embodying a thought and the end product of a process, his work often functions more like the scene of a crime, where visitors try to reconstruct what has transpired and then try to find their own relationship to that understanding. Inside such a process, the viewer can clearly see the self and how the self is constructed inside language, and inside what some might call morality. In a strict sense, a covert politics operates here as well, due to the commitment demanded of the viewer when he or she assigns or, rather, decides meaning. The fact that Geers never makes his position clear in relation to the object, image or situation is perhaps the greatest source of frustration for some of his most vocal critics. But, without this ambiguity of stance, the artist‚s strategies would quickly become pedantic, moralizing and, worst of all, predictable.

When surprise is so important, it usually follows that anything goes, often with or without the consent of an audience. This year, Galleria Continua hosted Geers‚s latest solo exhibition, „Mondo Kane,š in San Gimignano, Italy. At the request of the artist, staff members were instructed beforehand to inconspicuously collect used or empty wineglasses and cocktail tumblers from all of the attending arts patrons during the opening reception. Each glass was taken without the knowledge or permission of the user, and later carefully dusted for fingerprints by a police officer called in for the occasion. The next day, the glasses were labeled and displayed on eight virgin glass shelves as a project entitled Fingered (2002).

Fingered makes everyoneųfrom the tipsy international curator to the baker in the gallery kitchenųone and the same, and cites all involved equivalently. The piece registers much like a line-up of suspects of the kind that police show crime victims during a manhunt, except that here the victims are on both sides of the one-way mirror looking down at themselves, while the real instigator, Geers, remains at large and invisible. Viewer and art system are implicated in the creation of the meaning and value of the piece, and perhaps broadly by extension, of everything the artist has „touchedš in the name of art. Fingered parodies the idea of originality by using the fingerprintųthe thing most commonly held up as most unique to each of usųto represent something that is at once a universal hallmark of guilt and a constantly discarded self-portrait. When viewed as a whole, the dusty blackened prints read as a sea of casual featuresųeach expressing the same thing, each pointing back unexpectedly to the culpability of
the audience.

Kendell Geers, Masked Ball, 2002, latex mask, soccer ball, 19 by 19 by 19 inches (photo courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Italy).

Masked Ball (2002), on the other hand, not only requires viewer consent to function, but also participation. Masked Ball is exactly thatųa latex mask of Italian president Silvio Berlusconi (caricatured in the same manner as Geers‚s Mandela mask) with a soccer ball placed snugly inside. The artist refers to it as a „nomadic sculpture,š due to its constant displacement by occasional uninstructed nudges and kicks from visitors.9 Berlusconi, in addition to being Italy‚s president, also exercises a controlling monopoly over all major Italian television channels. Masked Ball touches on a nation‚s mania by referencing its passion for sport, and then challenging that energy‚s direction by encasing it within the grinning face of control. It is both a comic invitation to play and a situation to elicit childish opposition. Word has it that the artist has plans to create a similarly masked football „teamš composed of all of the world‚s major political faces (Bush, Blair, Castro and so on), no doubt with the intention of enticing future roomfuls of art lovers to really kick around the powers that be.10

In Truth Or Dare (Jan Hoet) (2001), a roomful of bugle megaphones, huddled together amid a tangled mass of connecting cables, softly broadcast several audio loopsųeach documenting erratic cries of pain from international curator Jan Hoet. Hoet had agreed beforehand, at the behest of Geers, to submit himself to the talents and expertise of a Dutch dominatrix for the sake of the recording. But, judging from his wailing, the curator got much more than the simple art prank that he clearly expected. Geers indulges his sado-masochistic urge toward authority in a much more real, but no less amusing, way hereųsuccessfully reversing an established control hierarchy, while slapping a psychic high-five with rejected artists everywhere.

Humour, black and all, is just about the most important uniting element in all my works. I am very influenced by the concept of Andre Breton‚s Anthology Of Black Humour and have always wanted to update it. There is a perversity in the everyday that I think of as humourous and it is that perversity that I try to weave into my work. When I use humour, it‚s usually a way to make the viewer self-conscious, so that their response reveals something of themselves...I am also very taken with the concept of the medieval court jesterųthe single and only citizen who can make fun of the king, make jokes of everybody around them, and still get away with it. He is the only person who can honestly and publicly say what others dream. This is something more than a freedom.11

The notion that our personal limits and tolerances can protect and betray us in the face of intensity characterizes the masochist. Pleasures, such as laughter and orgasm, can become painful if overly sustained; and in turn, pain or any other prolonged, deliberate and sharply focused sensual experience can become trance-like and meditative. In Deep Throat (2002), Geers attempts a spatial hypnosis of a similarly masochistic nature that brings to mind the dream machine experiments of Brion Gysin during the early 1960s.

Kendell Geers, Deep Throat, 2002, video projection, mirror ball, dimensions variable (photo courtesy Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Italy).

Using video, Deep Throat projects a film loop of a scene from the 1970s porno of the same name against a rotating mirror ball from close range. In a darkened room, hundreds of silent, strobing, fragmented images spin slowly across the walls, surrounding the viewer. Discerning the content of each image by following it around the room is a difficult and nauseous experience, made daftly ironic by the fact that the loop shows a woman reaching sexual climax. Like a muted version of the fabled Studio 54 drug haze, Deep Throat marries dizzy vertigo and eroticism in a flickering disco dream.

Nearly all of Geers‚s recent forays into video have explored the dichotomy between the brutal and the meditative, with Deep Throat likely ranking as his most sardonic effort to date. However, the artist often buries his wit so deeply that the experience feels almost a prioriųwith repetition invoking a simple mantra, transforming content (no matter how disturbing) into something almost like a force of nature, outside the bounds of language. T.W. (Scream) (1999) and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (2000) distill cinematic action into one potent momentųthe former projecting a tightly cropped woman‚s face repeatedly screaming in terror onto a double-sided screen, and the latter airing two disjointed scenes from Coppola‚s The Godfather in which a cigar-smoking fat man laughs knowingly in his easy chair. After the obvious pop culture references fade, the repetition of the edit effectively erases narrative in both instances, leaving the viewer with a painfully intimate overstatement of reality. What once seemed a distant fiction suddenly reads as real and claustrophobic. The artist‚s decision to leave the connecting cables of each work strewn across the footpaths of the viewer also underlines his intention of heightening a tangible risk alongside the palpable air of danger that has become his trademark.

Kendell Geers, T.W. (Scream), 1999, edition of 3 plus 2 artist‚s proofs, video installation, dimensions variable (photo courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery, London).

Geers lifts practically all of his source material from the public domainųsampling and recycling bits and pieces from high literature, bathroom humor, colloquial expressions, cult cinema and the bylines of art historyųwith the encyclopedic ease of a DJ. Nothing is out of bounds. Mondo Kane (2002), in addition to being the title of his latest exhibition, is also the name of an oddly self-referential work made of concrete and glass. Its title references two films. One is the 1962 Italian shockumentary Mondo Cane, which stunned the world when it was first released as it traveled back and forth from the „civilizedš world to the „primitiveš world, depicting bizarre religious rituals, sautéed insect entrees, and the human being lost and at nature‚s mercy. The other allusion is to Orson Welles‚s Citizen Kane, which opens with a tarnished sign on a forbidding black wire fence that appears eerily similar to Geers‚s electrified version. „Mondo Kaneš could also be mistranslated as „Mondo Ken,š or „Kendell‚s world.š The piece looks like a chest-high version of the classic Modernist cube, sacrilegiously cast in concrete and violated by hundreds of broken bottles jutting out from all sides. Several years ago, Geers displayed a similarly broken Heineken bottleųwith its „imported from Holland, original qualityš label still affixed and intactųas a self-portrait. In Mondo Kane, he expands that choice to represent an irreverent and almost virus-like domination of the flimsy sanctities and certainties of art history. In piercing Modernism‚s infamous „final objectš with green glass shards, Geers recalls his previous readymade and clones it into a conquering army. The Modernist cube exists no longer as a gravestone, but as a carcass being actively fed upon. Like everything else in Geers‚s universe, it is potential preyųa metaphor of the eternal triumph and revisionism of entropy.

NOTES 1. Text reprinted courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. 2. Interview with the artist by the author, July 2002.
3. Christine Macel, „The Art of the Phoenixš, ArtPress 257 (2000), 28ų33. 4. Interview with the artist by Peta Krost, Saturday Star, January 24, 1998. 5. Interview with the artist by the author, July 2002. 6. Ibid.
7. Stephen Laufer, The Weekly Mail and Guardian, February 25ųMarch 3, 1994. 8. Interview with the artist by the author, April 2002. 9. Ibid.
10. Interview with Silvia Pichini (Assistant Director, Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Italy) by the author, July 2002. 11. Interview with the artist by the author, July 2002.

The ART PAPERS staff would like to hear from you
Please share with us your thoughts on this FEATURE

Feature Articles | Retrospective | Special Events | Donate | Subscribe
Editorial | Contact | Advertising | About ART PAPERS | Site Credits

Site hosted by VIANETWORKS.NET
Site Developed and Maintained by Visualiti, Inc.

© 2007 ART PAPERS, Inc.