Cut the Krap - Kendell interviewed by Jérôme Sans

September 2005

What do you think of the generation of artists from the 60s and 70s ? Is there anything from that generation that is being reactivated today by your generation ?

The main difference between  back then and now is that they were fighting for their ideas and fighting for what they believed in whereas today i think we spend most of the time fighting against things and against systems and that is totally counter productive. There was a sense in the past that one could change things, that revolution was not only possible but essential whereas today, with each new generation there is a pessimistic sense of the inevitable, that any form of change is impossible and thus we should simply accept the way things are.

Who are the artists from that era that you feel most close to ?

In the context of that time and place I am very drawn to the solutions and challenges of artists like Buren, Acconci, Manzoni, Klein, Domedicis, Nauman, Abramovic, Matta-Clark, Hammons, Export and so forth. Many of them have not managed to translate their works and ideas into the present and it's sad how quickly their past strengths are lost. The ones like Smithson, Matta-Clark, Blinky Palermo or Bas Jan Ader were lucky to have died young and therefor their work remains undiluted by the demands of the rampant contemporary art market.

You work is loaded with references to the past, to art history as well as popular culture. Are you trying to destroy or kill your "fathers" of art history?

It's always about killing the father and fucking the mother. But I am increasingly feeling very bored by the twentieth century concept and strategies of art and find myself drawn to the ideas that generated the Renaisance and the artists that came out of it. It's very easy to play games about the form and shape of art where the content is nothing more than the game. It's too easy to ask if it's a rabbit or a dog when in reality it's nothing more than a picture on a painted wall hung upside down. I am curious to know if it's possible today to activate the alchemical conception of art where the created was considered a living force that could effect change in the world.

How do you work with these alchemical references ?

In order for an alchemist to succesfully turn the base metal into gold they need to first create their "Philosopher's Stone" and this is a long and very complex process. The process of refining takes place similtaneously on the physical and the meta-physical level. The alchemists  intentions and their emotional state of being are as important as the lead in the process and without either the experiment is bound to fail. At the same time they also need to project sacred words and sounds into the process. In this way the alchemist is a very interesting model for me because they work with images, objects, sounds, words, emotions, intentions, physics and meta-physics all similtaneously. If succesful the end result is a living spiritual force that has been projected into an inanimate object that literally comes alive.

Is that why you work with text with the same force as you do with your sculptures ?

Yes it is about trying to make the word flesh. The word intrigues me because it can be as powerful or as vulnerable or as banal as the person who breaths it. I use words both for what they mean and for what they could mean if turned upside down or inside out. For me the word has the same material possibilities as steel or iron, if not more.

You use the FUCK word a lot. Is it to shock or provoke the audience ?

Perhaps in a way. I use it a great deal because it is one of the few words that is still able to elicit an emotional reaction. The old sacred words or mantras are now pop songs and we no longer fear them. Even the word God today is entirely empty of meaning whereas FUCK still stops people in their tracks. I find it an extremely beautiful word because it can be violent, funny, erotic, sacred, spiritual or bombastic depending on how it's used and by whom. Its meaning is not fixed by its sexual connotaitons because if you say FUCKING HELL you do not mean FUCK OFF or FUCK ME or even FUCK YOU.

Your work since the beginning deconstructs political, social and cultural issues in language. In your recent neon pieces for example – "Be/lie/ve , T/error, D/anger, S/laughter you show that words contain other hidden words and that meanings are hidden..

It's really an analysis of power and the many forms through which it manifests itself. I have a deep distrust of power and especially the abuse of power. It's easy to see how somebody like George W Bush abuses power but he is only a pathetic symptom really. The real issue is how power is embodied in the quotidian, in the way CNN creates news, in the way that MTV creates fashion or MacDonalds creates taste. Far more complex is the way in which language functions and how it is composed to serve to needs of particular people and their values. If you control a persons tongue you control their whole body because that which they cannot describe basically does not exist, even if they are dying of pain or hunger.

In Mondo Kane, you make a reference to Manzoni's "Socle du Monde" but it has been caste in a very much a more abrasive manner. What were you trying to say with this transformation ?

"Mondo Kane" was an extension of the 1995 "Self Portrait", an architectural matrix that embodied the changes in my life and work in the time between. The broken Heineken bottle was a "primitive" idea, an expression of something very fragile and quite timid in a way, the germ of an idea or its root in a way. In the end I decided to make it an edition of 12, following the logic how one measures beer and at the same time describe myself as a copy without an original. (The original Self Portrait was destroyed on Flight TWA800) With "Mondo Kane" the timid broken bottle has developed into the cube, being at the same time very heavy and extremely solid as well as extremely fragile. I was trying to weave together references to Manzoni’s "Socle du Monde", the film "Citizen Kane" and the italian shockumentary "Mondo Cane". I have always been curious about the fact that it was after seeing "Mondo Cane" in Cannes that Yves Klein had his heart attack and subsequently died. He could not deal with the juxtoposition of his performances with the image of hatd core reality.

The piece is dangerous , scary, almost impossible to touch or move without being cut. Are you insisting here, like in all your works using razor wire or security fencing, the necessity to stay at distance, to be on your guard ?

Since the 11 September the whole world has changed  into a security zone that is almost exactly the same as the South Africa I grew up in. As time goes by it gets worse and worse and we are trading our freedoms for paranoia and ignorance as we trust the politicians more and more. It is manifesting all around the world in security campments and invasions of our privacy every time we enter a public space. Contrary to my expectations I have not turned away from violence and terrorism as a strategy but rather embraced it. The violence that manifests in the works of art is now absolutely unapologetic and proudly so. Since the 11 September I think that we have witnessed the end of democracy, the failure of the world’s leaders to listen to their consituencies and worst of all the tyrannical abuse of power. More than ever I now embrace violence as a method and a means.

Is it a way for you to say that violence is the only way out or the way through in a world that is getting more ignorant everyday ?

Violence is the only strategy left that people can still be influenced by. There is no way around the violent and it still carries the same political and psychological weight as it had during the terror campaign of the French Revolution. Violence cuts through your logic, your language, culture and slices all the way down to your primal fears and desires. In the process it cleanses the emotions and opens the mind.

But not all violence has a positive impact ? Are you not being idealistic ?

I am an idealist. The use of violence is like any other weapon and its legitimacy is determined by the intentions and motives of the person that uses it. It's not guns that kill people but rather the people who use them.

Are you speaking metaphorically about violence expressed through language ?

No – I am speaking of violence in every form. Sometimes the threat of a bomb can be as effective in destabilising a city as an actual bomb. In 1993 I made the poster called "After Love" which was a quotation from Indiana's famous LOVE poster but with the words BOMB instead. We pasted it up all over Johannesburg in the places one would have expected a car bomb or a limpit mine. In the same year I also conceived of the idea of using actual explosives to implode part of a museum. The threat of physical violence can be as evocative as an actual bomb depending on the context. As an artist of course one has the kind of freedom to deal with such issues and work through such problems within a very rarified context without anybody being persecuted or even executed.

Like the way you use FUCK. Violence is a method that you use as a way to create your art processes as well as a subject. Is it a way to avoid the trap your work becoming banal ?

I used to get very worried when I was asked about the question of violence and whether my work was aestheticisng violence. The question was inevitably a knee jerk reaction in which the answer was already inscribed in the question, as if to say don’t you dare. But my position has definitely changed as the world gets more and more consumed by random violence and political extremism. When I speak of violence I am thinking of a precise kind of directed violence, a baptism by fire, a sacrifice to the gods. I do not have to make violence aesthetic because it already is. It is by definition aesthetic because there is an intrinsic extreme beauty that we are all attracted to but terrified of. My work certainly tries to work with the extreme as a way out of the trap of the banal but in the same way as the fire in the kiln that creates porcelain out of clay.

Do you expect any specific reaction from people when confronted by this violence ?

I am not a facist and the viewer always has the choice to engage or not to engage with the work. I am not interested in a passive viewer and my work does not allow such a relationship to it. Should you decide to enter the work, to continue through and engage with it  by your own free choice then the process of viewing transforms into an active one in which you accept responsibility for your part of the process of completing the work.

Is there a limit to the use of violence as a method and a means ?

In art there are no limits but that does not mean that we forget who and what we are. I have always said that art should be socially responsive but never socially responsible. But at the same time I draw the line at the abuse or disenfranchisement of other people in the name of art. It's very easy to take advantage of a homeless person or torture your audience and pretend it's ok just because the system tolerates the novelty of it.

There is a strange alliance between the political and the metaphysical in the way you speak of your work ? You speak of violence in an almost religious sense ?

The word SACRED and SCARED are only different through the displacement of 2 letters. I am only interested in the border, in the violent, in the taboo for its there in the interzone that we find our spirit.

Your approach seems to also be a violent reaction against the art system, to the market with its demand for formal easy going art

It's not secret that I have always been very suspicious of the art system but in the recent years I have become totally disillusioned with art as well as politics. At the root of the art rot are the artists who play up to the system and do everything they can for a quick buck and a page in ArtForum or Frieze. There is neither context nor content any longer and artists have become parasites feeding off each others bullshit. There is no longer any honour amongst the thieves as each tries to screw the next out of a good idea or a sale. Yes my approach and my attitude is very abrasive and violent but it's really not related. I dont have the time or the energy to waste on a rotten system. It is useful that my preoccupation with violence serves a double purpose. My search is for a function to art that lies beyond the market driven system, a search for a way past the end of democracy and post cold war politics. I constantly found myself reaching out beyond history to a space outside of language and economy. This is a space that is violent and extreme, a space of chaos and demons, a space of endless possibilities.

Are your pieces with razor wire and broken glass metaphors of these protected areas that are institutions of art have become ?

The art gallery or museum remains a very interesting space for me and the reason why I continue working in it is because it's a space of endless possibilities. The artist has infinite freedom and can do just about anything and still get away with it. This why I get so angry that artists use the freedom to express what they think collectors would like and reduce themselves to perveyors of bourgeois whims and tastes. More than ever I now believe that the work must be protected from the ignorant and that the keys to unlocking their secrets be given only to those that have proven themselves worthy. It's the only way to prevent important ideas being watered down and disinfected by a system driven by fashion and surface appeal. It's incredible how quickly artists steal from one another today in order to keep up with the demand to produce more and more and more.

How do you protect your ideas and works ?

Keys, codes, knowledge, violence, tricks, traps, sexuality, language, chaos, death, beauty and love.

Is there not a risk of a new elitism in this position ?

I hope so. In the middle ages when Europeans were rotting in their own sewage a so-called elite few took the time to educate themselves and thus give birth to a Renaisance. My dissillusionment with politics and more specifically what I think of as the failure of democracy is that the world is getting more and more stupid. We have all become so politically correct that everybody is afraid to admit that we are heading into another age of darkness and within a few generations may even forget how to read and write. It sounds crazy but when I look at the kids today and how they think that the abbreviated words they send on sms it's only inevitable that soon they cannot remember how to communicate any other way. If you feed your brain on MTV, beer, football, Big Brother, Star Academy and Grand Theft Auto then yes, a new elitism based on knowledge is not a risk as much as a much needed necessity.

But there is always a very physical, very visceral quality to your work.

It's important that my work functions on multiple levels simultaneously. It's important that the physical experience of the work should be democratic and function on a purely emotional level. Even if you know nothing about art, or about my work, the scale of it or the materials or the use of the FUCK word or pornography will encourage a very emotional reaction. If you take the time to research your emotional reaction will be conditioned by your knowledge. I do not make a qualitative distinction between the two different kinds of experience because I do believe they are one and the same thing and inform each other. If I am searching for that space beyond words, beyond language, the moment when you know what you feel and it's on the tip of your tongue but you never find it, then of course it has to be a physical visceral experience.

You work in so many different styles and materials. Is this a way to avoid your work becoming fetished by the market ?

I would say that it's rather naive of me but yes. Instead of defining my work in terms of a style or a trademark form I jump from pictures to images to objects to videos, installations, neons or even a simple text on the wall. There is no obvious visual link between these works apart from them all reflecting my personality somehow. The connection is a non-visual link where all the pieces are defined by a similar intention, a reflection upon how power is constructed in the image, the object, the sign, the signifier, history, culture and so forth.

Recently you started to make drawings based on the "La Sainte Vierge" sketch of Picabia. You also cast a champagne glass from your erection as a reference to Da Vinci. What are you saying about these artists ?

History is another manifestation of power and is perhaps the most corrupt of all. History is a whore that will basically fuck anybody but she is only loyal to those who can afford to pay her well. Art History is no exception and has served its masters very well. Artists like da Vinci, Picabia, Duchamp, van Eyck and Cranach fascinate me because their work speaks simultaneously on so many different levels. They were true alchemists that managed to create objects that seduced  the world and yet at the same time subverted and changed it too. Their work subverts power so completely that it becomes invisible.

What is the relationship between Art and Pornography ?

The best art is always pornographic because it can never be tamed, can never be caught, can never be reduced to bourgoise erotica.

Is this why you have done many works with porn pictures ?

Of course. Pornography is the last outpost of the underground. Everything else from graffiti to hiphop to terrorism has been co-opted into fashion. There is no underground any longer because as soon as something becomes dangerous or begins to challenge the status quo it gets assimilated as fashion. Che Guevara has been shaved and punk has been bathed by the likes of Marilyn Manson, all dressed up with nothing to say. Porn remains a tricky subject because it's hard to get around its basic rawness and brutality. It's in your face and speaks about the most basic of human urges – birth and death. It's very difficult to avoid its crudity and the fact that it cannot be reduced or purified or extracted beyond what it is. Some artists have tried to work with it but in a very banal kind of way that removes the pornographic out of pornography and makes it consumable but then it's not porn any longer. I don’t think that I succeed  any better but I try to celebrate its violence and extreme nature like the ancients who sacrificed virgins to the Gods.

Would you say that the "Underground" implies the possibility of counter cultures and if so do you consider pornography as a counter culture ?

It's hard to say that it's a counter culture but it certainly functions according to an underground logic, depending on your fetish. I am drawn to it precisely because it resists definition, defies assimilation and refuses polite company.

Would you say that sex and pornography are the effective counterparts to a political and cultural philosophy ?

In sex and through the pornographic all our cultural values and their ensuing personal desires play out. Its interesting that each country defines pornography in totally different ways and I don’t mean from a legal point of view. At its most basic the sounds, actions, hairstyles, narratives (if any) are totally different from one country to the next. The most basic sound of a woman having an orgasm is entirely different and yet how can that be possible biologically ? These differences reflect the culture that produces and consumes the sex.

The experience of Pornography has some parallels to the experience of art, art objects, like for instance the voyeuristic attitude the viewer or the celebration of fetishistic objects and images ?

Indeed there are so many parallels. Both speak to very deep very primary urges within the human animal and both are culturally specific and only make sense within a specific context. The big difference is that art can be enjoyed in public whereas the pornographic demands intimacy. On the other hand there are some fundamental differences because pornography is basically constructed around the taboo. It is about what you wish for but are afraid of. Pornography has to be visceral and dirty otherwise you would not be attracted and then it's just simple erotica.

Your process of making the drawings and murals is very physical, almost erotic in itself.

I have to use my entire body to make the drawings, to insert myself physically into the image. The process is one of control and error. The first part of the process is slow and mechanical, made on a computer and shall I say very clean. Once I have made something that I am happy with I try to destroy it. Just as soon as it's beautiful I try to make it ugly, to submit it to a process of violence and violation. The destruction of the image results in a sculpture articulated through its scars, rips and tears. I cannot control the process and chance can be a very competent adversary in the fight between the mechanical and the visceral.

It's both a creative and a destructive process. Is it connected to your thoughts about alchemy ?

Yes it is about trying to work with chaos and order, trying to create and destroy at the same time and that's a very gnostic notion. The physical is subjected to a process that I cannot control and yet if I do not then the work implodes completely and I lose. The working process is defined by risk and experiment and yes sometimes I have glorious failures but sometimes what remains is something like the scene of a crime, both attractive and repulsive and the viewer is the detective that must put all the pieces together and decode my intentions.

What is your relationship to the processes of chance and chaos ?

It’s a lot like the tarot cards or the iching. Within chance and chaos there is an order and our task is to find a way of reading it and knowing when to accept it and when to challenge it.

But why do you work in only black and white ?

Just like the floor of a cathedral or a free mason temple or at its most quotidian a game of chess

Like in your earlier performance piece "Withfield (vitrine)", the figures appear from a black splash as if they were thrown accross the wall, like in a protest action ?

And indeed they were, like the shadows on the walls in Hiroshima. It's an explosion. The process of creating that explosion is a private performance in which the work is "Turned On" and by the time the viewer arrives they can be nothing more than a guest. The image is broken, disrupted, destroyed by the process and transforms into sculpture. When I use the image it's only to destroy or, to break open the logic of how we read pictures.

Like the shadows of Plato’s Cave ?

I once made a work called "Plato's Cave" out of a folded beer bottle top. It looked like the "l'Origin du Monde" but with teeth. I have used the same vaginal form with a similar intention for the bodybags in "Song of the Pig" where they are hung with their zippers open, like mouths waiting to be fed.

In "Kocktail" you made champagne glasses from your erection and served champagne to the guests at the opening. This way you reversed the traditional opening drinks party of the Centre Pompidou exhibition into a subtile collective performance, an invisible orgy by the partcipants.

Normally when you see a performance by an artist the audience is entertained by the artist. With "Kocktail" I reverse that since I am the audience and I watch the art world sipping champagne from my erection.

Some people think that you are a macho artist ?

Perhaps I am if it means that I am in touch with my masculinity. I am a man and I do celebrate my sexuality and indulge my desires. I am also not afraid to celebrate my sexuality in my work and it is very male. I really don't understand why to be politically correct today we have to castrate ourselves ? Why should we lose our masculinity in order to be non-sexist ? I think that if more men celebrated their sexuality there would be a lot less sexism and wars because men would not feel the need to oppress anybody else as compensation.

Why do you "twin" your pictures in your new series, is it to create a kaleidoscope vision or an Rorsharch effect ?

Neither. The key lies in the semen drawings from 1993 called "Dark Matter"

Does the double image have a religious or a decorative function ?

Both really. The women are like sentinels guarding the entrance to the temple, protecting the sacred from the scared, speaking both to this world and the other.

By positioning your work in reaction to a world that’s getting screwed up in all possible ways, do you think you work is still about art ?

Art has allowed itself to become something nice to collect to match the sofa and artists today are basically making design. It's certainly not dangerous and is hardly worth a thought. The more art I see the less I think about art or that what I am making is art.

Is there any way out from this "fucking hell"?
Yes – cut the Krap.