Kendell Geers: A Proletarian Gnosis by Nicolas Bourriaud

 

 

I would say that one of the things that is the most ominously absent from contemporary art is

the lack of any spirituality or any belief system beyond the material and physical. I have resisted

speaking of this because it is very easy to misunderstand what I am saying. — Kendell Geers

 

Rare are those artists who lead us to reflect on the place that art takes in our lives. I mean neither its function in nor its value to society, which find themselves, on the contrary, addressed continuously in contemporary art; I am talking here about the symbolic site from which art issues its signs (and therefore about “site” in the anthropological sense of the term—others would likely use the adjective “metaphysical” here). Among the most widespread platitudes today, the idea that art has become a purely worldly object does not stand up to historical analysis: art has also always been a medium of sociability. But modes of sociability evolve. Admittedly, when the contemporary art lover wanders about the fairs or peruses the biennials, most of the time, he or she only retains information.

Nothing could be more normal, given that information has become the main raw material of the global economy: the channels through which the work of art passes in order to exhibit itself depend on this expanded configuration. In other words, the symbolic site or place of art depends on the circumstances. The sacred, by which art has long been accompanied, cannot exist outside certain socioeconomic conditions, any more than art is meaningful outside a context for which analysis would fall under the remit of comparative anthropology.

Twentieth-century art has ceaselessly posed itself the question of the place of the sacred, without always managing to hide the vague nostalgia it feels for its supposed “loss”: whether it searches for the trace of the sacred in geography (the “native” or “primitive” art summoned up by Dadaists and Cubists), or in history (structures such as the altar or the ritual), it always searches for them in the distance. It was Walter Benjamin who put the question in the most modern terms, by opposing the aura to technology. And, moreover, he defined the aura as “the unique apparition of a distance.” . . . How can one not see that the nostalgia for the sacred in modern art turns out to be inseparable from the deploring of the loss of “distance” in a world henceforth deprived of terrae incognitae? As Aby Warburg puts it, “Telegraph and telephone are destroying the cosmos. But myths and symbols, in attempting to establish spiritual bonds between man and the outside world, create space for devotion and scope for reason which are destroyed by the instantaneous electrical contact.”

2 In his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin talks of “shock” as a possible substitute experience. In the streets of great cities saturated with events and visual stimuli, this permanent “state of shock” would serve as the sacred. For this is the real question: what can replace the “sacred,” in terms of density of experience, in regard to the link to the cosmos? What remains of aesthetic experience when transcendence is reduced to a contract with the viewer, and when all mythology becomes personal, as Harald Szeemann first noted in the 1970s? To ask these questions—as Kendell Geers has done since his first works, and then more directly since the turn of the twenty-first century—amounts to attempting to unveil a still deeper mystery: in what respect is art a matter of any necessity? This problematization of the vital and the urgent is not part of any metaphysical quest in Geers, who obviously is neither looking to revive the pictorial problematics of Wassily Kandinsky or Kazimir Malevich, nor to develop a new grammar of the spiritual. On the contrary, his work is composed of everyday consumer items: tools, construction materials, printed matter. But the common point among the qua-si-totality of the artifacts that Geers manipulates resides in their political usage, in their capacity to point at the margins of the great global market and the murky zones of globalized society. Because, since the beginning, he has used essentially three types of items:

first, equipment associated with emergency situations (rotating lights from police cars or ambulances, barbed wire, security systems, weapons, police gear in general); then, objects that are emblematic of the proletariat (beer bottles, scaffolding, cheap pornography); finally, the signage typically used in red-light districts (aggressive red neon signs). Geers’ formal vocabulary has even gotten radicalized since the turn of the twenty-first century, by a more and more intensive use of the pornographic image—deliberately vulgar, “dirty,” and willingly shocking—which is not unconnected to his problematization of the spiritual, as we will see.

 

On Necessity

Born in South Africa under the apartheid regime, Geers has known the reality of an institutional civil war: the everyday struggle of the excluded against the oppressors; the violence of segregation, propaganda, shame, prison; the official status of traitor, exile. The state of war is the threshold at which all his work is deployed, and the basis for its urgency. It is is the atmosphere in which his work is revealed, as a chemical precipitate reveals the presence of an ion. Written in invisible ink, his message in fact becomes limpid when we confront it with the environment from which it emerged. How could work be understood outside of apartheid? This despicable political regime, which only came to a close in 1990 with the freeing of Nelson Mandela, of course shaped his artistic and political consciousness, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall had modified that of millions of Europeans a year earlier. But in what way? The second period of postmodernism, “global” in the sense that it means the synchronization of history on a world scale, was born out of the destruction of these two walls. With the beginning of the long process of ending apartheid, at the very moment of the official launch of the Internet and the first Gulf War, the movement of horizontalization can fully unfold: the end of history, as it was openly heralded at the time; the beginnings of the tout géographique and the mercantile dream of a finally “globalized”world—or, in the words of Bill Gates, of “frictionless capitalism.” Paradoxically, Geers thus finds himself in the worst possible position: an exiled citizen of a reviled country, a descendent of colonists but at odds with his familial and social environment, heir to an illegitimate history that he rejects, he is the outcast par excellence of postmodernism. Neither truly African nor entirely European, progeny of a minority within a minority, and moreover placed on the wrong side of history, Geers expresses himself from a place of impossible speech: that of a socio-political heresy, of a perpetually unresolved betweenness. And his work bears witness to this condition of heresy and banishment. This is what is expressed, anyhow, in his decision to rewrite his identity papers by falsifying his date of birth, or the process of Bloody Hell (1990), a work in which he covered himself in his own blood: neither black nor white, but red. It is not an accident if the only category of identity to which the artist claims to belong, the proletariat, is precisely that which postmodernism has erased.

It is, however, the accent of this class that we clearly hear in Geers’ formulations: “shit,” “fuck,” beer cans, trucking calendars, blockbusters. In a situation of civil war, of racial segregation, of political repression, it is non-circulation that prevails, the police control of flow. The obstacle becomes the norm. Under a civil war regime, the work of art (unless it is “official” art) is categorized by the fact that it precisely cannot circulate. It is born beneath the rubble and from the underground, and moves through furtive, clandestine channels. The art world’s current interest in the artistic production of former Communist Bloc countries results from this fascination with necessity. The reasons these artists felt the need to continue to produce works of art in a context where they remain invisible, at a time when visibility and profit constitute dominant values, represent a deep enigma for the art world of today. The artists who submitted to Stalinist or fascist dictatorship—censored, imprisoned, on probation—thereby fascinate a globalized civilization that no longer exists, save in the form of a vast network of channels of diffusion, of an absolute visibility. Everything circulates there, admittedly, but nothing is necessary any longer. In this world whose ideal is that of a “frictionless capitalism,” an economic system in which the exchange of goods has no theoretical or political limit, the very idea of an illegitimate or forbidden expression is transformed into a mere boosting of desire. Political masochism. In the current context of resurgent religious fundamentalism, the real issues are only dogma and pornography—that is, events capable of pulling society out of its lethargy toward images and forms. Who fully realized that the Buddhas of Afghanistan had been dynamited? In the global trade network, meaning gets saved by the creation of interstices, pockets of restrained circulation, through which the artists artificially re-create the anthropological conditions of necessity.

Economic globalization, in its space-smoothing logic, has generated a specific mode of circulation for the work of art. Torn as far as possible from its specific field, from now on it irrigates fashion, the media, or the market; spread out everywhere, it finds that its autonomy is negated in favor of the demands and the methods of communication. Conversely, subjects find themselves assigned to residence. The official regime of postmodern discourse focuses on identities, which is to say the constantly renewed assurance of conformity of individuals to their geographic, cultural, or social provenance. Where do you come from? The question means: stay there—for you should correspond to your so-called identity. If works of art are encouraged to connote the belonging of their author to a “culture” (a Western concept if ever there was one), individuals, in political space, should not cross the limits of this belonging. But the work of art can also refuse this state of affairs and arm itself against the postmodern mode of circulation: thus unsuitable, it becomes a resistance bloc, a virus, an object unfit for consumption. Geers’ Mondo Kane (2002) here appears as a precursor-manifesto: a minimalist white cube bristling with shards of glass from beer bottles; impossible to handle, it keeps the viewer at a distance, in a symbolic periphery. The formal icon (the white cube) is used here as a neutral transmitter, letting the universe that forms the substrate of Geers’ work appear all the more clearly—a universe of security deterrence, paranoia, and relational violence. This is apartheid. Formally speaking, his urban lexicon and brutal grammar could immediately connect him at first sight with other artists of the same generation: Maurizio Cattelan or Wim Delvoye employ similar methods, equally insistent on disturbing realities, paring their message down to the bone, in search of significant visual impact through willfully strippeddown compositions. With them, there are no reticular forms, no formal constellations, no archipelagos: Geers’ universe is composed of unitary forms, of isolated images, of blocks or accumulations. More recently, even, his work brings together repetitive canvases that seem to constitute visual transpositions of a mystical trance. But for Geers, this visual brutality has nothing to do with the search for some kind of efficacy in communication. Unlike Cattelan, who coils with delight in the widened circuits of commodities, or to Delvoye, who displays his desperate irony in a vain challenge to the history of the art of centuries past,

Kendell Geers bases his work on a resistance to all appropriation. With him, there is a productive bitterness, a tenacious rancor, a muffled violence that transforms each of his works into a demonstration of separatism. This man is visibly ill at ease in his own epoch, and it shows. And this is not some artistic posture. Noting the gap between the appearances lavished on us by globalized society and the latent state of war whose lines of force he clearly sees criss-crossing social space in its entirety under his eyes, Geers makes this gap the very subject of his work. The world is not what is seems: it is ontologically violent, pure. But under this thick layer of negativity lies a more nourishing ether: to glimpse it, one needs just to reach the status of the initiate. And art, for Geers, is close to initiation.

Evolving in a world of pretenses, a jungle, Geers understands his practice first of all as a cynegetics. He hunts for signs, and all his work from the 1990s is based on an incessant predation of pieces of evidence, looking to establish a general picture of social cynicism. A work like T.W. (Virus) (1994) shows vividly what power intends to go unseen: the medical tools of biopower, in this case the isolating material in which police forces operate. By patiently listing the symbols and devices of political force, Geers speaks to us of the contemporary subject and of its responsibility: the figure that appears implicitly in his work of the time is that of the disenfranchised, of the migrant, of the poor, of the irresponsible.

This interstitial, obsessive figure ends up resembling that of the persecuted Christ returned—as suggested in another work of this period, T.W. (I.N.R.I.) (1994) in which the crucifix is seen covered in those scratches that are the mark of the devil. . . . In the 2000s, his quest takes on another aspect: the pieces of evidence are transformed into initiatory signs, into operators of the shift from one world to another.

 

Heterology and Exclusion

For an artist, to look for the contemporary equivalent of the sacred is an approach that has become fairly banal—and one always doomed to failure when it amounts to illustration, or to the construction of a system of equivalencies. Geers has launched into the pursuit of something rather more complex. He attempts to retrieve the effects generated by the universe of the sacred, endeavors to track down the necessity that used to go hand-in-hand with the work of art. And he bases this arduous enterprise on the renewal of an ancient heresy: from the turn of the twenty-first century onward, he reorients his work starting from a Gnostic vision of the world. The search turns out to be fully anthropological in principle, since it is going to reveal the presence of metaphysics even in the refuse of civilization. Gnosis, in Geers’ work, comes to be connected, entirely naturally, with the mythology of exclusion and the lumpen-proletariat that has fed it since the beginning. All modern art is built on an undertaking to rehabilitate the déclassé: the choice of “vulgar” subjects, the insistence on the marks of the human hand (which then seems like an affront to a “well-made” work), the indifference to moral hierarchies. . . . Modern art is the end of marble women—enclosed (because life itself is terrifying) in a coating of stone, or in the glacial, frozen contours of which the period is so fond. This is Manet’s Olympia, painted in broad brushstrokes, not as a goddess but as a prostitute, or the Blessed Virgin as depicted by Francis Picabia in the guise of an ink blot. Modern art is perverse because it does not aim at the reproduction of reality (as Georges Bataille saw very well) but at its enjoyment (jouissance). The cafés and brothels of Toulouse-Lautrec or Degas, the countryside settings of Monet and Pissarro, the onions of Cézanne, or the suburbs of Seurat turn out to be scandalous because these artists painted what had no symbolic value in the eyes of their contemporaries. Why did Manet strive to represent A Bar at the Folies-Bergère or a bunch of asparagus? The Impressionists understood, following Gustave Courbet, that any pictorial revolution was contingent on a re-evaluation of refuse. Refuse, defined by the dictionary as “what remains after the production or use of a product,” has been the great subject of modern art, as a metaphor and then as material. Modern art has explored the state of the suburbs in the process of industrialization, crumpled newspapers, paint itself, before seizing on the objects and signs rejected by industrial society. In a way, the art of the twentieth century could well be revisited in terms of a garbology.  The science of garbology, focusing on “garbage” or “refuse” from the 1970s onward, begins from an approach to the study of economic activity and social practice, for which the organization of a system must be described through an inverted approach: from its marginal traces (the rejects) to its center of organization. In its usual sense, refuse is certainly a worthless thing, rejected by its producer or its owner. It is what remains of a process of production or consumption. At the lowest level, we reach the stench, the impurity, the filth. Unfit for consumption, refuse is useless. Deprived of access to social autonomy, yesterday’s proletarian and today’s illegal immigrant are its human counterpart. Giorgio Agamben’s exile or homo sacer, reduced to “bare life,” are none other than the refuse of the productive system. Pushed aside for being useless to production, reduced to an existence deprived of civil rights due to economic cynicism, these outcasts of the social machine also form a heady subject for contemporary art.

When Geers exhibited Dark Matter (1993), a wall of drawings on paper made with his own sperm, he emblematically carried out a Bataillean program: jouissance versus reproduction—the wasting of productive forces, the exaltation of refuse, of the almost nothing. A proletarian art. For gnostic sects, the world is in the grip of evil; it is the product of a gigantic error. Created by a divine enemy of man, it is the place of darkness, of gravity, of opacity, of heavy matter. It is fundamentally entropic, tending toward absolute inertia. Among the numerous Gnostic sects at the start of the first millennium, the Carpocratians thought it necessary to exhaust evil, and so to spread it everywhere; others wore rags (the Saccophores), or threw themselves into utter lust, like the Borborites; others worshiped snakes. All are characterized by an attitude of rebellion and refusal, and by an unbridled and systematic search for an alternative to Christian otherworldliness, making them the distant ancestors of avant-garde modernists. Furthermore, the avant-garde and the Gnostics share the same desire to valorize refuse and cast-offs. That which the majority rejects as impure, insignificant, or soiled constitutes the privileged spiritual material of Basilides’s or Valentinus’s philosophical research, the great theorists of the Gnostic reversal of values. But the idea remains in their thought that there is something in human existence that escapes the curse: a spark, a twinkling light. In this mental universe, Geers seizes a previously unseen potential: the reconciliation of the sacred and the modern through refuse, which he depicts as the absolute truth of the socioeconomic system. The insidious presence of the sacred in contemporary art has gone through a strategy of valorization of the precarious, of refuse. It is the contrast between the insignificance of the object and the aesthetic device deployed to emphasize it that founds the “ordinary sacred” of contemporary art. The socks that Robert Filliou takes as an example of his “principle of equivalence,” Joseph Beuys’s felt or his lemons, the human excrement carefully boxed up by Piero Manzoni, not to mention the natural materials used by Arte Povera, or the industrial products magnified by Pop Art—these are all so many variations on the great process of the sacralization of the ordinary which characterizes the art of the 1960s. The equivalent of sperm for the Gnostics. If the formal universe of the reject has always been Geers’ subject, Gnosis has injected not only an original perspective into his work, but above all an anthropological dimension permitting him to approach his problematic of necessity head on, as well as to reposition metaphysics within his profane, violent universe—the universe of invisible apartheid at whose heart he has struggled since 1990. The barbed wire, the rifle rounds, and the police equipment take on another dimension if we see them through Gnostic thought. Geers thus reinvents himself as an artist who not only depicts evil but who also intends to traverse it, eyes wide open. Without effect. A work like Corner Piece(1994) shows the invisibility and the omnipresence of evil: a space delimited abstractly by a black line, two security announcements. We are there in the space-time of pure violence.

His visual rhetoric from the 1990s is made of barbed wire, of police cordons, of tubular metallic scaffolding, of borders, and of administrative documents. His initial subject is that of the impossibility of movement at the heart of the secured and armed zone, in which, in his work, capitalist economy is epitomized. Geers is thus revealed as a great landscapist. Among the classical forms of the contemporary repertoire, the series of urban photographs is doubtless the most widespread. From the wanderings of Gabriel Orozco or Francis Alÿs in a pale Mexico City, to the impressive collection performed worldwide by Zoe Leonard (Analogue, the series of shop fronts exhibited at the 2007 Documenta) or John Miller (the series Middle of the Day, which systematically documents wherever the artist is at the moment of his lunch break, over the last ten years), this kind of thematic compilation has become a formal classic, following Bernd and Hilla Becher’s methodical photographic documentation, or Dan Graham’s series Home for America (1966 — 67). But Geers’ series Suburbia (1999) represents for me, due to its precursory dimension and the power of its subject, a veritable masterpiece of the genre: documenting the ubiquitous commercial notices posted on the residences of South Africa’s privileged few, signaling the existence of surveillance devices or an electronic alarm. Suburbia draws up an apocalyptic tableau of a contemporary city and its paranoia. The wall, the barricade, the border are all major contemporary themes, and Geers’ work coldly lists their many variations. The border, a contemporary obsession if anything is, represents the metaphorical place around which contemporary art finds again its historical foundations: it brings to mind the underground, transgression, the clearing of the barriers erected by the established authority. Put otherwise, the lost paradise of vital necessity.

Or, do we find limits to transgress elsewhere? The illegal immigrant has become the ultimate symbol of the contemporary artist, because s/he embodies the state of transgression that art no longer finds in globalized culture, which has become the smooth space of “frictionless capitalism.” To live in South Africa in the 1980s, as Geers did, is to confirm the institutionalization of exclusion each and every day, of the Other as human refuse, as proletarian squared. Through all these years, he has known how to sharpen the instinct he shows today for locating the subtle mechanisms and changing forms of exclusion. A visual proletarian, today he eulogizes theft and misappropriation, vulgarity, emancipatory violence. He could be likened to François Villon, or to Guy Debord, who admired the latter so much—two major figures with whom he shares a ceaselessly renewed attraction to the various modes of urban marginality. Geers has always conducted himself like a stray, a vagabond developing in the sublime slums that are the wellspring of his poetry. It is in these slums that, in every case, he comes to find, imperturbable what he presents as the real of contemporary societies: securitism, prostitution, violence. Geers is a realist. In 1931, Bataille invented the concept of heterology, the “science of that which is wholly other.” At the time, he hesitated between this term and that of agiology, or even of scatology. For he intended to found a “science of filth” capable of exploring the excremental dimensions of man and the universe. Bataille’s heterology presents itself as “that which is opposed to any homogeneous representation of the world, that is to say, to any philosophicalsystem.” This is the domain of the inappropriable, of that which escapes from “any possible common measure” and eludes all transcendence: in other words, a war machine launched in assault on all forms of idealism, and notably of the “marvelous” Surrealists in vogue at the time. The same gap between Bataillean heterology and Surrealism exists as that between the nudes of classical painting and Gustave Courbet’s tableau-manifesto L’Origine du monde, which depicts a half-open vagina in close-up: what Courbet shows us is the real of all origin—that is, the unthought of the idealist notion of origina. “Courbet was my first love,” explains Geers, “and probably my most important role model in the way that he was able to bring together the disparate worlds of the personal, the political and the sexual. If you look carefully you will see the influence of L’Origine du monde in many of my pieces.”

Nothing could be more logical: Geers is a realist in precisely the sense intended by Courbet, which is to say, an artist who means to represent material forces at work, through systematically stripping away the layers of the ideal (or of ideology) that obliterate our comprehension of the real. To get to this result, we must use violence and be armed with lucidity. Under the map of urbanism, Geers thus locates the invisible apartheid; under the apparent harmony of human relations, he detects the desire to rape, and fascist fantasies; in the smiling and continuously renewed forms of the market, he comes to see the segregation and exclusion that define a universal apartheid. Democracy, like God, stands merely for tragic illusions in his work: if the idea of an evil divinity is the point of departure for Gnostic thought, Kendell Geers’ universe starts from an evil population blinded by hate and profit. There remains the possibility of the spark. . . .

Moreover, it is the establishment of this original border regime between the signs that turns out to be characteristic of Geers’ formal universe: put otherwise, the passage from one state to another in a flash. Indeed, in his work, it is a mere detail, for example the elision of a letter in a neon sign, that makes the viewer pass from the sacred to filth, and from refuse to the sublime. Geers is the artist of the double reading, of the spark born in a collision between two realities.

Translated by B. Hutchins and C. T. Wolfe

 

 

Title Withheld (Refuse), 1993

 

 

 

 


[1] See Benjamin quote in “The Work

of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility,”

in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings,

vol. 3, 1935—1938, trans. Edmund

Jephcott; ed. Howard Eiland and

Michael W. Jennings, 101 — 133

(Cambridge, MA; London: Belknap

Press of Harvard University Press,

2002), 104—105.

[2] Aby Warburg, “A Lecture on

Serpent Ritual,” Journal of the Warburg

Institute 2, no. 4 (April 1939), 292.

[3] Translator’s note: in the original,

the author used the word rudologie,

which he suggests as a coinage based

on the Latin word rudus, for refuse or

garbage.

[4] Georges Bataille, OEuvres

Compl.tes, vol. 2, Écrits posthumes

1922 —1940 (Paris: Gallimard), 61.

[5] Ibid., 62

[6] Kendell Geers, Fingered, exhibition

catalog, ed. Kurt van Belleghem

(Brussels Tikiriki Publications, 2005),

81.