Kendell Geers 1988-2012
The artistic practice of Kendell Geers spans a variety of media and genres including installation, sculpture, drawing, video, performance, and photography. This exhibition traces the shift and the development of the artist’s aesthetic language, grouped together from 1988 to 2000 and from 2000 until the present, each being a twelve-year cycle. The show provides the first overview in Europe of Geers’s political phase from 1988 to 2000.
Born into a staunch Jehovah’s Witness, white, working-class Afrikaans family in the height of apartheid, Geers understood the power of faith, politics, and ideology at a very young age. He ran away from home when he was 15 to join the ranks of the militant anti-apartheid movement. From those seminal experiences as a front-line activist Geers developed a body of work that fuses the personal with the political, the poetic with the abject, and the violent with an erotic tension. In his works of this period he explored the moral and ethical contradictions of the apartheid system and aimed to challenge all forms of power. For example, in 1993–94, during the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic election, Geers joined every major political party, from the extremist right wing to the Communist party. This was a period in South Africa’s socio-political transition to a democracy with constant flare-ups and violent clashes. On July 19, 1993, the day that the artist joined the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), seven IFP members were executed by ANC gunmen. By supporting the whole political spectrum, Geers expressed his doubts about the fetishization of party politics. The resulting performance artwork “Untitled [ANC, AVF, AWB, CP, DP, IFP, NP, PAC, SACP]” was so controversial at the time that the artist was forced into hiding.
Throughout his artistic practice Geers developed a visual vocabulary characterized by provocation, humor, and violence. The use of found objects such as barbed wire, neon lights, or glass shards indicates the crucial role the readymade plays in his work. Geers selects the quotidian object for its symbolic value rather than for aesthetic reasons. According to Geers, every object is more than the sum of its physical parts and is instead the embodiment of an ideology, and a portrait both of its maker and its consumer. For this reason the only work of art he ever made with the title “Self Portrait” is a bottle of Heineken beer with a broken bottleneck. Like his ancestors the Boers, Heineken beer was imported into South Africa. For Geers, this beer represents the values, and morality of the Boers, convinced that apartheid was a legitimate political system. In rejecting his own ancestors and their totalitarian ideologies, Geers symbolically breaks open the beer bottle in order to set himself free. His “Self Portrait” (1995) now stands as a symbol to the liberation of the self from colonial rule.
The readymade also plays an important role in the form of the artist’s personal archive that serves as a source of inspiration and represents a continuum in his oeuvre. Encompassing newspaper articles, Hollywood films, political posters, photographs, and letters, this archive illuminates the artist’s literary and linguistic sources. Publications such as “Country of My Skull” (1988) by Antjie Krog, who writes about the findings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, indirectly manifest in the work “Country of My Skull” (2010). It is a cannibal trophy from New Caledonia that suggests an effigy of the artist’s identity, his country and mixed heritage. Political sources are also included in the archive. The infamous photograph by Sam Nzima from 1976 showing Hector Pieterson, the first student killed during the Soweto uprising, links to “Untitled(1976)” where the artist found the discarded autopsy register that shows Hecter Pietersen’s name. As a personal document, the death certificate dated 1988 of the artist’s grandfather was transferred in the work “Asphyxia – suicide”, which evokes the end of patriarchal power.
Placing his own life with all its vivid detail and personal experiences, his memories, fears, and desires as well as mythological ideas at the heart of his practice, Geers depicts himself as a “EuroAnimist”, bringing together the ancient animistic traditions from the African continent with the languages of the European avant-garde movements. In 2000, at the personally
symbolic age of 33, Geers decided to stop making art for the entire year and instead undertake a spiritual quest in search of a vision of art that would redefine his personal beliefs and his
artistic practice. That year marks a significant shift in the ways the artist conceived of his work: He moved toward a poetical and animistic approach, suggesting more universal themes such as terrorism, spirituality, and mortality. The installation “Postpunkpaganpop” (2008) that marks the center of the exhibition invites the visitor to walk upon a mirror floor through a labyrinth made out of razor mesh. What is usually used to mark a military border is transformed into a personal search for a “mystic truth”: As the mirrors reflect whatever is above as below, the spiritual sphere is connected to the earthly, the outer external material world to the inner metaphysical.
These mystical and mythological principles are not only central in Geers’s art but also in his self-perception. He models himself on the archetypal “trickster” spirit, constantly changing and transforming himself and his work to resist being pinned down. In 1993 at the Venice Biennial, he changed his date of birth to “May 1968”, which marks the start of the student and civil revolution (“Title Withheld [Kendell Geers]”). His Curriculum Vitae (“T.W. [C.V.]”) begins on April 6, 1652, the date when Jan Van Riebeeck disembarked from his ship at the Cape of Good Hope to declare it a Dutch colony. Other events included are the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, scientific developments such as the discovery of the Theory of Relativity in 1905, and political activities including Idi Amin’s military coup in Uganda in 1971 and George W. Bush being elected President of the United States in 2000. The dates listed in Geers’s CV are not fixed but continuously changed as the artist adds and subtracts events over time, corresponding to his changing perception of himself and his identity. As an archive in itself, the CV reflects on history as a subjective process: Geers understands his identity, like his readymades, as a composite of events and perceptions, some of which he experienced personally and some that he “remembers” through the perceptions of others.
The exhibition is curated by Clive Kellner, curator-at-large at Gordon Schachat Collection and former director of Johannesburg Art Gallery.
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