Kendell Geers: Stripped Bare
Goodman Gallery presents Stripped Bare by South African conceptual artist Kendell Geers.
In a world of extremes, in which centres no long hold and reason doomed, how do artists assume their occupation? They either plead neutrality or take sides. The rare few enter the eye of the storm. Kendell Geers is that creature, alive to the complexity of a given moment and the precarity of art’s expression of that moment. A volcanic intensity runs through his snarling, shattered, bullet-strewn body of work.
First conceived against apartheid, now wracked by global emergency, Geers’ oeuvre has never lost sight of the death instinct built into Church and State. That we have willed our death, chosen slavery, is Geers’ blistering wager. It is not human perversity that horrifies him, but the dark desire that drives it. For over thirty years he has served as our radical conscience.
Stripped Bare is Geers’ obsessive-compulsive manifest – ‘Art as Weapon’. This wager – inspired by the illegality of his birthright, white male sovereignty, and immunity under apartheid – has segued into a global crisis; the injustice built into a specifically Western racist conceit of imperial sovereignty upon which apartheid gorged. The two were always linked – a South African colonial backwater the mirror of which is now another backwater: Western entitlement.
Based in Belgium, though stateless everywhere, Geers, after Desiderius Erasmus, occupies a non-position within and beyond the imperatives of State and Church, secular and religious arrogation and arrogance. That these belief systems find themselves compromised – as they manically strive to maintain power – sums up the wracked condition of our present moment. No one can anticipate the outcome. Will the universal Rights of Man prevail? Or will we succumb to the lie built into it – a fundamental need for a race-fixated cultural separatism?
If Geers’ art matters profoundly it is because he has always understood deceit. By weaponising art, he has ensured that its forked conscience is never suppressed. It is Geers’ aggravated and aggravating focus which makes his works achingly current. A brick languishes in a shattered vitrine. A crown of razor wire completes a self-portrait, while in another the artist’s name and character is summed up in a jagged bottleneck. Bullet holes through reinforced glass form aureoles, plant-like, viral – Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil. Police batons are turned into crucifixes. Razor wire mimics a mandala. ‘Hope’ turns into ‘Hype’, prayer into predation. Signs and symbols bend and twist. No meaning is finite, nothing absolute, not even the urgency that propels its making.
As the anarchist-philosopher Gilles Deleuze notes, ‘A concept is a brick. It can be used to build a courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window’. Or, in Geers’ case – both, at once. The double entendre, or split focus, is the defining condition of an indefinite non-positive practice. Geers’ ambivalence, however, is never only conceptual but felt. He ‘puts a fever into language and makes it more visceral’. If Geers concurs with Marcel Duchamp’s compulsion ‘to contradict’ himself, ‘avoid conforming to [his] own taste’, it is because absolutism – and absolution – is impermissible. Radical unsettlement is all that matters; without it neither thought nor compassion is possible. For what is woefully forgotten, when considering Geers’ work, is its depth of feeling. Treachery, Riaan Malan reminds us, requires immense heart.
After Friedrich Nietzsche, Geers’ art is an embodied ‘physiological thought’. ‘I trust my body’, he says, ‘my body doesn’t lie to me’ – but neither does it tell the whole truth. The word BELIEVE contains a LIE. All words and phrases contradict themselves, all states contrarian, more so now in a precipitous age hijacked by psychographics, compelled towards extremes. If Geers’ work has led us to this precipice, it is because the bankruptcy of this historical moment was always latent. Liberal democracy is a fever-dream, the Enlightenment project, a three-hundred-year-old blip. Throughout, the spectre of fascism – repressed, released, futilely repressed again – incubated. The haters are back with a vengeance. They are tearing the Bill of Rights to shreds, destroying our ever-fragile humanity.
This was Geers’ point all along, his flatline. Unerringly focussed on the blueprints of fascism – Church and State – he has, since the 1980s, kept these behemoths in his sightline. Born into a perversely divisive and immoral system, he has persisted in reminding us – despite apartheid’s putative death – that infrastructural inequality was never vanquished. Slavoj Žižek concurs. Violence is structural and systemic, ‘objective’ and ‘inherent’ in ‘this “normal” state of things’. This violence is not merely an ‘all-too-visible subjective violence’ which we see in uprisings everywhere, its far darker counterpart lies in a global systemic cruelty. This says Žižek, is why ‘We need to “learn, learn and learn” what causes this violence’.
Like a zoonotic virus, hate piggybacks the delusion of grace. If Geers is never deluded, neither is he clear-sighted – no one ever is. Instead, his principle and incitement, always, is to destabilise unchecked power. His art is an education and a warning shot. For him, a state of emergency is permanent. If razor wire is emblematic, it is because we are all trapped in internment camps. The free world is unfree. The good news, however, is that despite its seeming strength, power is weak.
This paradox applies to every realm which Geers targets, be it personal (his ageing white body, his sex), or their monstrous extension and framing condition (the Western imperial and theocratic project). If nothing is ahistorical, it does not follow that we are wholly subject to the history assigned to us. Geers speaks of the perversity of his birth and the birth of his perversity. This matrix is the paradoxical core of everything he is and makes.
A sheet of shattered reinforced glass blooms with bullet holes. Across it we read – POINT BLANK – but what is the point? What blank? If no sign or symbol is total, it is because everything is what it claims to be, and not. Everything, at any point in history, is always unstable. Confronted by the sickening spectre of fascism, we need artists who will not let go of radical uncertainty – and the human betterment it still affords – none more so than Kendell Geers.
Kendell Geers: Stripped Bare runs online at Goodman Gallery until 25 April 2021.
April 16, 2021
April 16, 2021