New Monuments by Katerina Gregos
Monuments are there to commemorate the past; more-often-than not they are testimony to what is perceived as a shared or collective history as well as a ‘national’ identity. But with the historical events or personages commemorated long gone, and sometimes even totally forgotten, what may be the meaning of these monuments in the present, and what might our relationship to them be? Perhaps a redefinition of the role of a monument might entail some consideration of the present moment, as opposed to something rooted in the near or far past. Perhaps that kind of monument might transcend the local – always a key aspiration of most traditional monuments – and might aim for a more ecumenical significance. What kind of monument might be appropriate not for the past, but for the present day? A paradoxical question inevitably because the meaning of monuments cannot remain static or relevant in perpetuity. How might a monument carry and transmit meaning which is not lost in translation or rendered irrelevant, the fate of almost all monuments sooner or later? How can a monument have lasting power? How can we rethink the form, function, meaning but also symbolism of monuments? Can a monument make claims for universality? Or maybe the fate of all monuments is doomed at the outset? These are some of the questions that are addressed in Kendell Geers’ contribution to “New Monuments”.
Geers’ monument – which is at the same time, paradoxically, an anti-monument due to its irreverent, provocative nature (something monuments tend to avoid) and its rather modest scale – could also be considered as an epilogue to a series of iconic sculptural works the artist has made over the years such as a Vespa motorbike, a mirrored disco ball, and a human skull: all of them adorned or stencilled with the word "fuck" in characteristic black, Gothic font. These works reflect the artist’s ongoing preoccupation with four-letter words – as well as the sacred and the profane associations that these words often conjure. “Fuck” is a word that recurs often in these text-based works, and this in a bizarre way seems very appropriate since it is one of the most highly charged as well as most utilised words in the English language, possessing a host of meanings and usages that go beyond its banal or dirty ‘word-identity’. One rarely stops to think about the widespread prolific use of the word, from verb, adverb, adjective, noun and pronoun to command, exclamation, conjunction, infix and more. Geers’ insistence on revisiting this word, on repeating it almost obsessively, is precisely in order to reveal or expose the multiple meanings - cultural, sexual, social etc. - underlying one of the most ubiquitous words in the English vocabulary.
Upon first sight Geers’ monument, cast – appropriately - in bronze, appears as a phallic, post-modern version of Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column” (1938), an abstract totem or a sculptural Rorschach pattern; but upon careful observation one notices that the negative space that exists at the margins of the sculpture spells out each of the letters of the word fuck, one on top of the other, in reverse. This is decidedly a cynical, dystopian ‘Endless Column’, one for our post-ideological, post-political, post-pop, post-utopian, fucked-up-times. An icon of modernism, an artistic ‘father’, is killed and defaced with modern blasphemy. The use of Gothic font – with all its dark associations of Nazism, for example, among other things – renders the column more sinister and unsettling.
The artist, in effect, fashioned two columns that look different as well as very much the same. In one column, the word ‘fuck’ is positive as one would expect it to be, and in the other the letters are negative, cut out from the first one, so to speak. The words form at all angles, because the columns are round. The two forms perfectly match each other. They are like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fitting into one another. Particularly noteworthy is the fact is that the “k” in ‘fuck’ in the three dimensional version can only be seen in its “outside form”, meaning that the part of it, which is formed by the triangle in the lower part of the letter cannot be sculpted out. Like in Brancusi’s “Endless Column”, Geers plays with the figure-ground or positive-negative principle. The two sides of the column would fit into each other like hand-in-glove were they to be conjoined, because the outside form is exactly the same in the positive shape (the silhouette form of the column) as in the negative shape (the form of the sky as cut out by the column). The “inside” equals or mirrors the “outside”. Somewhat more ambiguous and less immediately confrontational than many of the artist’s other text based works, this one operates on many different levels, apart from the semiotic. Here text becomes form, is transformed into an optical pattern, a game of optical disorientation, and an abstract form all at once.
A monument is almost always a Requiem – since it invariably refers to persons dead or long-forgotten, or commemorates an event mostly long-past . In that sense, one might metaphorically say that it is almost like the physical equivalent of a photograph, where the moment captured already belongs to the past immediately after the minute the camera has captured it on film. I see Geers’ monument as also symbolising death of many sorts (Brancusi’s column, incidentally was inspired by the funerary pillars in Southern Romania and was made as a tribute to Romanians who died in the first world war), as a monument which also mourns the death of ‘objective’ or truthful representation, the demise of monuments, their collapse of meaning, and their general disconnect from their surroundings, conceptually speaking. Usually monuments constitute an artificial entity, transplanted onto a specific location, without any in-depth consideration of the surroundings, context, and public appreciation or reception (except – usually - in the most banal, simplistic or populistic terms). Geers’ monument, quite tongue-in-cheek, could be put up anywhere, and somehow laughs not only at the face of authority, but also at the notion of faux site-specificity, which often underlies such ventures. Its erect form also playfully reflects Geers’ preoccupation with sexuality, male virility, and the act of fucking itself.
The word “fuck” can be associated with life as well as with death. This is for example reflected in Freud’s paradoxical theory of the life drive and the death drive; Eros or libido on the one hand, and Thanatos or the death wish on the other hand, as described in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It is reflected as well in the French expression “la petite mort” (the little death), a term coined by George Bataille in his erotic novel “Madame Edwarda”, to refer to orgasm. ‘Fuck’ might also symbolise the clash between these two opposing instincts: Eros representing creativity, harmony, sexual connection, reproduction and self-preservation and Thanatos leading to destruction, repetition, aggression, compulsion, and self-destruction.
Perhaps more than any other ‘common’ words however, ‘fuck’ possesses a host of contradictory and paradoxical meanings. Though used without much thought – like so many words – on the one hand the word is still as profane and offensive as it ever was, but on the other hand it also has even sympathetic or amicable applications. In turning the word into an image Geers, in effect, abstracts its essence and makes us reconsider these multiple meanings, beyond the obvious references to copulation or swearing. Further beyond the sexual connotations or the latent violence the utterance of the word expresses, ‘fuck’ at the same time also has a primitive quality, which transcends its many interpretations and uses. It is this pre- or post-linguistic level – or the psychology of primeval instincts, if you will - that Geers’ monument evokes. Or, in his own words: “the word fuck is a key, a mantra, a way of tricking the mind through constant repetition. The visual repetition and decorative appeal creates a retinal mantra that tricks and seduces the eye. The word made flesh. It’s important that one can still somehow read the words but also that they become so much more, a magical charge that sets off something in the sub-conscious speaking to something deep within our psyche.”
New Monuments is an exhibition held at Middelheimmuseum from 23.05.2010- 19.09.2010. Katerina Gregos curated this exhibition.