January 2008, Kendell Geers Interview

 Kendell Geers, The Passion Considered, installation view courtesy BALTIC

Kendell Geers makes art ‘where language and value systems become physical.’ From his beginnings as an artist-activist in South Africa he has worked to question and disrupt accepted moral codes, using the high-impact devices of violence, sexuality and fear, and he is alert to the ambiguities of language. Known for such gestures as pissing in Duchamp’s urinal and changing his date of birth to May 1968 (a nod to the French Situationists, and also the date of Marcel Duchamp’s death), Geers uses the context of art history for a much wider mission. His work features in this year’s Venice Biennale and IRRESPEKTIV, Geers’ first UK solo exhibition, is currently at BALTIC.

Your Baltic exhibition text talked about the absence of any belief system in contemporary art. Is there a firm belief structure behind your own work? What motivates you to keep going?

I am much more influenced by the ideas and theories of the ancient alchemists than anything in the past 250 years. Many of the seemingly superstitious notions of the alchemists are now being “discovered” to be in fact closer to the “truth” by quantum physicists than we ever imagined. I have always said that my art is the by-product of my life and is conceived of as some kind an embodiment of a thought or expression rather than in terms of metaphor or even representation. I continue working in the art structures because I have the most freedom there to work without compromise and outside of any predetermined structure. It is a viral system that tolerates dissent as long as it is able to turn a profit but that precisely is its strength - selling subversive entities and talismanic structures to the world’s most powerful people. A small shift in the consciousness of such a person can create a ripple effect that in turn changes the lives of a thousand others.

Your work has a forceful physical presence - the material and physical seem to be important to you, though perhaps only as starting points...

The material nature of my work is of course precise and considered. I choose to work with materials that engage with the body of the viewer as much as the content does with their imagination. There is something unavoidable about the physical mass and presence of a loaded object that inhabits the same space as you but changes the way you negotiate that same space, making you aware not only of your body but also the way you understand the space you would otherwise take for granted.

Is the process very different when preparing object based gallery exhibitions, as opposed to site specific or action based works? Or do the two run into each other?

My work is always site specific because a commercial gallery is no less a site nor any less specific than a museum. I put as much research and attention into an object based show as I do my performances or videos. Of course I have control only over the work in the studio and my ideal viewer and public space. Once the work exists and is then exhibited in sites other than that which I intended, then of course the meaning changes but I hope that as it goes along it keeps the memory and charge of all the places where its been shown. The effect is accumulative, almost like a static charge, building up and growing with each subsequent viewing and site. I am also not afraid to admit that some works get stronger with time whilst others discharge very quickly.

 Kendell Geers, The Devil you know, installation view courtesy BALTIC

In 1993-4 you joined every South African political party - parties which considered each other enemies. Is the element of personal risk, personal involvement in politics, something that has always been significant for you?

Risk has a very basic element of my work from the very beginning. I have always been fascinated by the fact that sacred and scared are really the same word and wonder which generated which. As soon as I presented all the political party cards I was placed on the official hot list of both the extreme right wing and extreme left wing and had to go underground. My work is not political in the sense that I proclaim who I voted for or what I believe in - that would make me no better than a politician or a priest. The kinds of political work that I try to make are morally ambiguous and leave it up to the viewer to decide what they believe in, what they make of the ambiguity.

Why work as an activist in the art field when you could perhaps work more directly outside of the art system? Do you see yourself as educator of the art community? Or does art provide a specifically useful way of dealing with the issues that concern you?

I am most certainly not interested in educating the art community - that would be like throwing pearls before swine. The art system is so open and so lost and so out of touch with anything except itself that its possible to just about get away with murder. In art and through the art system I have a freedom not possible in any other structure and most important I have a captive audience that is the most influential on the planet. Where better to be an activist than in the playground of the world’s most powerful, elite movers and shakers ?

 Kendell Geers, Eurovision 2007, installation view courtesy BALTIC

Do you know how people outside of the art worlds respond to your work? The project ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ works in a historically significant location near to a planned ‘play-along museum for children’. Do you see your work as being accessible to non-art-initiates?

Curiously the people who do not understand my work are those that only know a little about art. The audience that responds best to my proposals are either those that know absolutely nothing about art or else those that are extremely well educated. Its important for me that my work functions almost in a kind of initiatory manner, that the more you search, the more you find. However the first experience should also be a raw and evocative one in which the first door opens to anybody who knocks.

JM Coetzee, through his 1980 novel ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, questions the responsibility of individuals in a regime that ‘places itself above justice and decency.’ Your work also brings the viewer (or brought me, as one viewer) abruptly into the present reality, to question my own responsibility within my culture and the power that I have or do not have. There was no chance for escapism. I felt challenged to look over the boundaries of art, to what is actually going on in the world. Is this kind of realism something you are deliberately trying to effect in your viewers?

Absolutely. I work from a basic premise that art should be socially responsible but never socially responsible. Only when we walk along the border do we see that there are two sides to the divide. Its not about sitting on the fence because the border is constructed with landmines and razormesh so you inevitably get hurt there. Escapism is not an option and the only language that makes sense in the perversity of global capitalism is that of art providing the artist not forget where they come from and that they really do not belong at this dinner party.

Do you have time for art or literature that does not directly approach political or moral questions?

Without risk, both life and art degenerate into the world of “Empty V,” a world of apathy and ritual banality.

Do you think of yourself as has having roots in any particular strand of art - conceptual or appropriation art for example? Are there other artists that you compare yourself with or find kinship with?

Nothing in the twentieth century or after. I love the fact that 500 years after Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa the work of art is still able to inspire novels, films, conspiracy theories and even make the Vatican shudder.

The religious imagery you use brings to mind the state violence of crucifixion, but, refreshingly, does not appear mocking or flippant. Are you pushing the audience to critically appraise their own religious belief or lack of it?

We are living in an age of “soul doubt” better known as “sold out” ! ! Perhaps the question may be posed “What do you Believe in ?” or even written “Whatdoyoube LIE VEIN ???” I am not pushing audiences at all for I have no interest in being a priest, politician, guru and when I think about it probably not even interested in being an artist. The objects, images, situations and installations that I deposit in the art site are more like keys and clues to other ways of conceiving on reality. How are we to make sense of our reality in a world in which politics, religion, democracy and art have all failed us ? Even the planet itself is about to give up on the human race.

House of Spirits is ‘inspired by Plato’s Timaeus and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Atlantic Codex’ - can you talk about how the mystical and philosophical informs your work?

The Gods and Goddesses of old are still all very much alive and well in my life and art. We have changed their names and perhaps today we give the ancient demons psychological names like schizophrenia and sometimes they take on human forms like George W Bush but their influence remains the same. I am fascinated that 1 May was already a holiday in ancient Egypt. Similarly is it really a coincidence that the 25 December was the birthday of Osiris, Bacchus, Dionysus, Jesus, Mithras and so forth and that today, during Christmas, we still celebrate the day in exactly the same drunken decadent euphoric manner as they did 3000 years ago ?

As an artist who has achieved success, do you ever find it difficult to stay engaged with what originally spurred you on?

Not at all because I am not at all interested in the kind of success that you speak of. I am trying to transform lead into gold and it’s still going to take me a very long time before I will even see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Kendell Geers’ solo exhibition IRRESPEKTIV at BALTIC, Gateshead, ran until 6 January 2008.

Becky Hunter

Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.

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