Day 1: 2021. I’ve scooped and mopped the dogshit in the study, cleared the kitchen, watered the orchid and fed the goldfish; whose avid mouths remind me of my favourite emoji, Munch’s Scream, bilious green and noxious yellow. Munch’s cry, more than Hopper’s lonesome angst, summed up the year that won’t go away. The saccharine gif I receive – ‘Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one!’ – is promptly deleted. So is the group chat, titled ‘Friends’, which appeared on New Year’s Eve. If resolutions are tawdrily desperate, especially exclamatory ones, they’re especially so today. That being said, one resolution stands out, arriving from Kendell Geers later this morn and reading: ‘Fuck last year – now we LIVE and LOVE’. Accompanied by a red heart. A year ago this would have been confounding to me, even felt cynical, acerbic. Not so this year.
Back in November, I chatted with Geers for four hours, he in Antwerp, me in Cape Town, the convener in London, producer in Dublin. Hosted by the Goodman Gallery, the talk accompanies a forthcoming retrospective spanning thirty years. When first invited to speak with Geers, I was daunted. He is a mirthless bastard, I thought, unwaveringly twisted and dark. Was I equipped to handle it?
Allowing Geers into one’s home via zoom amounts to burglary. The eponymous image of a jagged Heineken bottle neck sums up this unease, as does the vision of a brick thrown through a gallery window. Agit-prop is one reading of what Geers has been doing for three decades. His snarling objects have always questioned the consensus regarding art. An African sculpture smothered in danger tape, a centrefold splattered with the artist’s semen, police batons converted into crucifixes, stockpiles of razor wire, a single matchstick on the cover of Art South Africa – the magazine’s most popular image to date – affirm the artist’s canny capacity to capture the zeitgeist. More than any other South African artist, Geers knows how to unsettle received perception.
There is nothing comforting or comfortable about Geers’s content and attitude, or so I thought, until we started toing-and-froing via email and WhatsApp. When the emojis of red hearts and roses started their trickle, I was flummoxed. What had happened to the blunt packed punch I’d always associated with Geers? Had he thawed, was he no longer hoary? Or was he always more sensitive than I’d imagined him to be?
In the Goodman talk, Geers provides a full disclosure of the reasoning for his actions – because of course, his artworks are verbs, assaults, deft parries which, at their best, amount to a technical knockout. Geers hurts you where you need to hurt. The intention, however, is never hurtful. Rather, after Fredric Jameson, Geers tells us that history hurts. It was never the thing that mattered. What mattered then, matters now, is the morality of things, their perverse hold upon us, our servile relation to them. Never one to venerate, Geers sets up the object for a fall. Razor wire – a South African export – is a graphic expression of our morbidly paranoid need for division and isolation, security and control. Sharp edges are everywhere in his work. Geers grimaces at us with filed teeth.
Provoked in the 1980s by the brutality and inhumanity of the Apartheid regime, Geers, who quit South Africa for Belgium 20 years ago, has never lost sight of the monstrousness of fascism. That his vision remains current underscores the fact that racism was never a peculiarly South African problem. Europe now finds itself confronting its own demons. In 1988, Susan Sontag predicted that Europe would become ‘nasty’ again. Geers agrees. His art is not only ‘a biography of South Africa, a white male self-construction’, but a damning record of Western Imperial history, in which South Africa has proved no mere outpost. In fact, it is Geers’s schooling under Apartheid which sharpened his grasp of this latent obscenity in Europe. Centrism is failing everywhere in the West, extremism rife. Democracy, it seems, was always a fallible smokescreen.
Geers’s memorable equation – the perversity of his birth = the birth of his perversity – summarises the urgencies of a deficient being. It is the absence of love and compassion, its socially engineered denial under Apartheid, which accounts for the nature of his work. Designed to be alarming – to shock – it cannot ignore the psychic disorder that feeds it. As Nietzsche attests, exaggeration is necessary when dealing with emergencies. Geers knows this all too well. Obscenity cannot be outed without a stark confrontation.
Geers, however, is no ideologue. ‘Announcing your politics makes you no better than a priest’, he says. Suspicious of punditry and virtue signalling – a plague on the houses of both the Left and Right today – Geers, through art, always aims to overturn and undo righteous certainty. In his well-known response in 1990 to Albie Sachs’s essay ‘Preparing Ourselves for Freedom’, he reminded us that ‘art as propaganda inevitably self-destructs’. Now that we find ourselves trapped once again in a gulag of absolutes – the rabid fervour of identity politics – his wariness has proved critical.
Against a mirthless and convicted moralism – which now threatens to diminish art’s complexity – Geers looks within and without for an ‘international language of art’, one that ‘puts a fever into those languages and makes them more visceral’. He speaks of ‘taking language off the shelf and rooting it in experience’, making art mortal, raw, inescapable. For him, art is not a weapon of struggle, it is struggle that is a weapon of art. Only by placing one’s besieged body at the centre of what one does, can we override a divisive and sickeningly moral consciousness that places the individual body in the service of an abstracted and dissociated Idea.
If Geers is deeply troubled by absolutism, he is also aware of the pitfalls of ambiguity. Therein lies the rub, therein the conundrum that drives all that he makes and is. Like the rest of us, he cannot escape politics, it ‘permeates everything’ he does – the ‘material, image, object’. The triangulation is striking. All three aspects work together in the electrified political moment of an artwork. The materials he works with – razor wire, bricks, broken glass, guns, manacles, police batons, to name a few – speak of the illegitimacy of state control. Common fare in Apartheid South Africa, their re-emergence in Europe today is disconcerting. In ‘The Idea of Europe’, Sontag noted that ‘The new idea of Europe is not of extension but of retrenchment … the Europeanisation not of the rest of the world but of Europe’. This new provincialism, and the bigotry it supports, is evident everywhere. For Geers, who has fought against fascism for thirty years, it is alarming. I could feel his heart break when he spoke of the beheading of a schoolteacher in France.
Geers’s objects stick in our heads because they compel us to re-evaluate the morality of things – what they mean, why they matter. A rusted nail plunged into an effigy is a reckoning, as is a circle of police batons transformed into a mandala. The signs we take for wonders are also the locus of horror. Nothing is ever wholly benign. Impurity is our fate. As the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, notes, ‘A concept is a brick, it can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window’ … or, better, both.
Art transcends matter, Geers says, it will not succumb to craven need. Art hurts, confounds, and ruins, every narrow aspiration. Doubt and circumspection play their part. But to suppose the artist a cynic, as I have done, is to miss the point. If Geers’s art hurts, it is also profoundly consoling. If it is edgy, it is also, weirdly, edgeless. In his world the ground falls away, words stutter, things – the objects he makes – vault their constraints. Life shivers, nothing quite holds. If Geers compels us, it is because his works contain a depth charge that alters the human condition. He places us inside a dilemma – how do we free ourselves from the enslavement we will? In and through his art a sudden shocking cleansing occurs. His art is precisely what we need, perched as we are on a precipice.
It’s day 1 of 2021. I step onto my sunny front stoep for a smoke-break and see another turd on the pavement. Human? Animal? A noxious gift? I’ll have to scoop it up if I’m to start the new year that is not new at all. Newspaper in hand I step onto the street. Bending down I recall a remark by Michel de Montaigne: ‘Life is in itself neither good nor evil; it is the place of good or evil as you make them’. Either way, it’s shit.