Sand in the Vaseline - Kendell Geers interviewed by Jérôme Sans

Sand in the Vaseline
Kendell Geers interviewed by Jerome Sans

Since 1992 you have been using chevron tape as a material in your work process. Do you use it to speak about territory or dangerous zones ? Were you in the beginning influenced by the daily danger you were witnessing in Johannesburg art the time ?

I began working with chevron tape precisely in that unique global moment between the release of Nelson Mandela from jail and the first democratic election in 1994. It was a time of extreme chaos in South Africa when everything was possible, for the better and the worst. The situation started becoming very dangerous as the dreams of creating a new democracy started turning sour and the extreme left and extreme right all began to fight for their little territories. I started using the chevron tape because it was for me a way of making sense of making art and my daily experiences in that moment. It was a time in South Africa when in the face of very difficult decisions and the unavoidable onslaught of guilt (for black militants as much as for whites) most artists found their refuge in the decorative, a strange rococo modernism of regurgitated abstract expressionism and neo-pop post modernism. I could not accept that position then any more than I can today and so I wanted to politicise form as much as to make the point that even colours are never neutral.  The chevron tape both embalmed the object I wrapped in the manner of preserving a cadaver, a mummy as well as strangling and suffocating the thing it contained.

Why did you choose to wrap a Crucifix ? Were you reflecting on the so called Christian National Education system in South Africa that taught Apartheid as a policy to young children including yourself ?

I made “T.W.(I.N.R.I.)” in 1993, long after I had left school but yes I was to some degree trying to understand my relation to European histories and traditions, to the moral codes I had inherited through 300 years of Christian colonialism and 12 years of Christian National Education. We should never forget that the Dutch Reformed Church and the Bible itself was at the heart of the moral ideological program known as Apartheid.

But that work does not stop there. It's an implicitly violent and yet erotic image.

What I like about that process is that as it hides what lies beneath it also accentuates the form. The red and white form a kind of danger grid that heightens your understanding of the concealed object. My work has often been accused of being too violent or too sexually explicit and yet for me the image of a dying, naked man bound to a cross is one of the most erotic and violent images I could ever imagine. Yet at the same time that image embodies so much of my own moral education.

In Cologne for your exhibition “Grenzgänger” you are showing 5 African sculptures wrapped using the same technique ? Is this a new development ? Are you returning to African imagery now that you are living in Europe ?

I made a few figures along these lines many years ago when I still lived in Johannesburg but I decided never to show them because they made me feel uncomfortable. The objects I wrapped at that time were functioning African artefacts with a very close connection to the communities that produced them. In African art the difference between a curio and an authentic work of art is whether the object has been used in a ritual or a performance or not. Two identical objects from the same village by the same person will have two entirely different cultural and thus economic values ascribed to them depending on the extent of their patina or proof of having been used. For many African people these objects are not decorative or even considered objects but really are the embodiment of a god or goddess, an object seeped in tradition and belief, not unlike our own crucifix. This decision and ascribing of value is however always from a western point of view which would be the same as trying to understand a crucifix image without any personal knowledge or experience of the Catholic church. Since I have been living in Brussels I have been drawn to the very old flea markets where you can find material culture ranging from human skulls to African art to Eames chairs and bric a brac. They are all cultural remnants that may or may not find their way out from the wasteland depending on who finds them through a process of chance. I decided to return to the question of Africa through a journey of re-discovering Magritte and Broodthaers, through a definitively Belgium experience. The African objects are all more or less authentic but acquired through a European process and the difference is now that these objects have long since lost their contact with the cultures that produced them. The series is called “Twilight of the Idols” and I am trying to destroy my own gods as much as I am still trying to find them.

Do you still believe in art ? Do you think art can be efficient ?

I am not sure I know what art is and I most certainly do not believe in the things I see being exhibited in art galleries and art museums. I have no faith whatsoever in the things we generally call art. It's become way too easy to be an artist and for that matter especially much to easy to be a curator. On the other hand I still believe in a strain of logic and a process of making meaning that could be understood as art. I don’t think about art or even think that what I do could be art – rather it’s a process of reflecting upon the world I live in and making that world more complicated and introducing questions into what we call reality. I also do think that it's very possible to be effective today and to even change the way things work but it's very difficult because there is so much noise out there. If an artist or a curator does create something that could be effective there is the danger that it could get lost in all the noise.

But you exist and work through the system of the art, You have galleries, you exhibit in institutions, participate in group shows with other artists with whose vision you radically disagree with.  How do you reconcile this ?

I have often thought about that contradiction and often considered giving it up entirely but then that would be too easy for the art system. My being around makes life very difficult for curators and museums and I like the fact that I am often seen as a thorn in the side or the sand in the Vaseline. I am not sure that it was ever any different – history cleans out the trash and we remember only a few artists from any moment. I know it's complicated the ways in which some are remembered but I do think that in the long term the ego of artist dissolves and we are left with only the work. I do think that at this moment in time there are a handful of artists and curators working whose processes and work gives me enough hope to continue working.

Do you mean that you chose the context in which you appear and the people you work with ?

Art remains a space that interests me because the institution attracts all sorts of people and it includes both the highest and lowest levels of society. I know that my work will potentially be seen by both the richest and some of the most powerful people in the world and also by the down and out and that is a perfect environment for me to test my ideas in. Having said that I must also admit that I am also extremely careful in choosing where I show and with whom I work. My decision is not based on developing my career but rather on which context will provide the most effective way to develop my strategies and languages and where my work will best be able to find a voice. As a young artist my worst fear was being assimilated, of being historicized and thus disinfected but I am happy to see that many of my works continue to resist that process of being disinfected.

Some people think that your “activism” is very easy in the art world. Would you agree with this ?

It's always easy to say such things from the point of spectator or voyeur and I understand it in the same way as I understand comments like “my child could have made it.”  My process of working is different from other artists as a result of my research and my life’s experience. I admit that I inhabit a very thin border line between art and the quotidian and sometimes slip too much in either direction but my process is always as a result of careful examination of both the languages of art and the quotidian. I use reality to provoke art and I use art to provoke reality.

Throwing a rock into a window of an institution in which you are invited does not have the same violence and meaning than it would in a real situation.

Of course not – If I had thrown a brick through my neighbours window, the glass would have been repaired in less than 24 hours and entirely forgotten in 25 hours. Ten years after I threw a brick through the window of the de Appel space in Amsterdam people are still discussing its merits as art. The point is that when my detractors engage in lengthy discussion about aesthetics and ethics and politics and art in relation to a work that cost me less than a dollar to make then you have to admit the work remains very much alive and relevant. It's strange that nobody seems to feel the absence of a discussion or debate on art after seeing an exhibition at MOMA or PS1 or the Pompidou. Yes my strategy is provocative and could easily be reduced to being too simple but then you are not seeing the huge white elephant in the room being the fact that I engage in these actions in the heart of the world’s elite art institutions. If there is a problem then it is in the way that these very institutions function and in the  fact that they consider what I do to be art. I have always said that I am a product of my time and nothing more.

But what kind of product are you really ?

I am a white African living in a moment when people armed with razor blades can crash into the worlds most powerful buildings, a time when 15 million people in South Africa have AIDS,  a time when the United States can declare war on Iraq for no reason than fulfilling its own desire, a time when the pollution from the United States cause floods in Europe and droughts in Australia. I am living in a time of contradiction where Contradiction, Truth, Desire, Passion and Anarchist are nothing more than the names of perfume. I live in an age of digital reproduction where truth no longer exists in an image, where every image can be altered and changed and anybody can be erased or inserted into history.

Would you say that you are a “Resistante” ?

There are so many people involved with the construction of meaning and value in a work of art that sometimes it's very difficult to even find an intention in the process. My method is to try and resist that process for as long as I can, to fight for the space of my own language. I know that my position is very idealistic and that I have also been accused of being too romantic. I am not really interested in the turns of fashion and whether decoration is in or expressionism is out or which curator I should charm for I still believe that I must accept responsibility for what I make and for what I believe in - if that makes me romantic I must concede. We are spoilt today because everything is possible and so art has no consequence for the world.

During your opening at the Palais de Tokyo somebody destroyed your piece “The Terrorist’s Apprentice” and then a few months later somebody else destroyed “Suitcase” from the permanent collection of Johannesburg Art Museum. How do you read these attacks on your work ?

As violent as they are I am sure that I probably deserve them for when you take a position you cannot make everybody happy and there are consequences. I certainly do not advocate such vandalism but I am extremely moved by the fact that on opposite sides of the planet people have been so moved by my work that they decided to risk being caught and even perhaps spending time in jail to make a point about works of art that they could not accept. The “Suitcase” was made in 1988 and the fact that 14 years later it's still able to elicit a very strong emotional response is the best compliment imaginable.

Do you think art is still a place to take risks, real ones ?

I have participated in exhibitions where the visitors included Nelson Mandela, The Queen of Holland, Prince Charles, David Bowie and so forth. Is there a better place to take risks and still have the attention of the most powerful people in the world ? As artists we have so much freedom and so much opportunity that it’s a tragedy that so many people use it as a platform to ingratiate the trustees or the sponsors.

Is the art system always the best place to make actions ?

Everyday is an action for me and every gesture has consequence. I have always said that the things that end up in an art gallery with my name on them are little more than the by-products of my life. For me being in the world, the revolution of everyday life, is my primary activity and art is the residue. Just because I am not advertising or trying to draw attention to these things does not mean that they do not exist. I insert things into art when they can be effective in that context and for the rest it's my private life. Take for example my recent wedding where you played as the DJ. Except for the fact that I did not call it a work of art it had all the qualities and embodied all the definitions of art all the way through to the little gift we gave each guest at the end. There are some experiences and emotions that are greater than anything a work of art can touch and more intense than the art system is able to accommodate. The best we can hope for is to distil a memory or extract a catalyst that then translates into art for those who were not present.