”I am a stranger in the country of my birth by virtue of being too European in my appearance and culture. But at the same time I am unwelcome in Europe on account of my being too African. I embrace Africa, a violent and volatile space where nothing can be taken for granted, where the very best of both the First and the Third Worlds blend and clash. A place where you can die for what you believe in or for the small change in your pocket. I am the abandoned product of a failed experiment, a hybrid of cultures and identities, a contradiction in terms.” Kendell Geers
A shattered front gallery window, remains of a car crash in ‘Le Poète assassiné’ (1993 – 2022), invites the viewer to use the rear entrance to the exhibition, only to be greeted by ‘Handgrenades from my Heart 15’ (2010), a huge bronze cast of a double-sided (artist’s own) penis, and a large silkscreen print of the word FUCK, ‘After Love (Anarchist)’ (2004). Kendell Geers, after having thrown a brick through a gallery window in ‘Title Withheld (Brick)’ (1993) and exploded a bomb in a museum in Title Withheld (Blow) (1993), does not spare violence and provocation in his new Parisian retrospective exploring Détournement, plagiarism and the role of language in the artist’s large and diverse body of work.
“Any sign or word is susceptible to being converted into something else, even into its opposite.” Guy Debord
Kendell Geers is an arterrorist with a polymorphic oeuvre comprising Lost Objects, installation, video work, text, and performance (Situations) exploring the history of apartheid and his position as a white South African. One of his first actions consisted of changing his date of birth to ‘May 68’. The date was selected because of his deep respect for the ideas of the Situationist International and their influence on the protests in Paris (in 1968 Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle had just been published and Marcel Duchamp died).
“I was born into a Crime Against Humanity on the wrong side of the tracks and so had no other option than to run away from my family, my culture, my education and give birth to myself as a work of art.” Kendell Geers
The key to his birth as an artist he found in Guy Debord’s strategy of Détournement which holds until today as a centrepiece of his artmaking process. He sees himself as the terrorist of the art world, constantly exploring the limits of social norms and experimenting with various forms of violence – his art is not there to preach or impose the artist’s views but to put the viewer in a situation where he is forced to make a choice. He constantly questions the value of aesthetics and tests the concept of originality.
Having a retrospective in a gallery and not a museum is unusual, but as Geers puts it himself, he got cancelled in France after his last retrospective in MOCA Lyon in 2008. The exhibition presents 70 smaller works spanning from the oldest dated to MAY 1968 (Geers’ dog tags entitled Title Withheld (Kendell Geers) to the freshly broken gallery front window done just a few days before the show opened. The works are presented in various media, from Lost Objects to Situations, some artist books, a few installations, one painting, and a few prints.
Lost Object is Geers’ reply to the ready-made or Found Object. Duchamp is an artist Geers “loves to hate” and in this hate-love, he interacts with him on many occasions. At Venice Biennale 1993, he pissed into Duchamp’s Fountain to “transform it from a cold curiosity into a fully patinated work of art.” According to Columbia University Professor Z.S. Strother “Geers rightfully rejects the use of the term Found Object since it grants megalomaniac power to the last person in a chain of hands contributing to a work’s biography: ‘I prefer the concept of the Lost Object because it suggests that there is a history and a context to the object, image or thing before it is reduced to a work of art.” Geers compares the Modernist concept of the Found Object with the Colonial act of discovering a country, or a continent, that effectively erases centuries of history by disregarding the indigenous people who live there. By the very same logic, Duchamp’s act of finding erases the history, ownership, provenance, use, value, and context of an object, whereas the designation Lost Object implies all former histories and context in the spirit of Guy Debord’s concept of Détournement.
The most famous of the Lost Objects is definitely ‘Self Portrait’ (1995), a broken neck of a Heineken beer bottle with an inscription ‘IMPORTED from Holland, the original quality’. As understood by Geers, the broken bottle is a perfect description of himself concerning apartheid and postcolonialism. As the work of a white male South African descendant of Dutch colonisers, this simple object encapsulates two of the major and returning themes of Geers’s art: violence and identity. The work is an edition of 12 (two six-packs) created after the original was destroyed in the cargo hold of TWA Flight 800 which exploded after taking off from New York City on 17 July 1996.
“Many people think that I chose Heineken because I actually like beer and more than that, drink Heineken and I have to correct them. Identity is very complex, especially if you are a White African and self-loathing is part of your cultural inheritance. In 1990, when Mandela was released and Apartheid de-legislated, our identity as South Africans was up for grabs. Our history, culture, morality, faith, values and everything that one might normally take for granted, as “identity” was in my case illegitimate. As an African I consider myself an animist and respect my ancestors, but those ancestors are Dutch. The broken bottle of beer speaks of identity as violence, the self as broken, the spirit the bottle once contained has been drunk and all that remains is the garbage of history” Kendell Geers
Other Lost Objects in the exhibition include ‘T.W.(Contraband)’ (1994), a Handmade gun confiscated by police from Pretoria maximum-security prison, South Africa, ‘Pro Aris et Focis’ (2008), a couple of gold-plated decommissioned Uzi guns, ‘Plato’s Cave’ (1999), a Heineken beer bottle cap, and a few paper-based pieces; posters, magazines, books, i.a. ‘Counting Out Song’ (1988), Rudyard Kipling First Edition ‘Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides’ (1923).
The situationist theory sees the situation as a tool for the liberation of everyday life, a method of negating the pervasive alienation that accompanied the spectacle. Internationale Situationniste No. 1 defined the constructed situation as “a moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organisation of a unitary ambiance and a game of events”. Artists have been using the term Situation to describe their work in different manners, while all doing it in homage to the Situationist International. Geers’ Situations come as close as possible to Debord’s original definition. They are textbook cases of Détournement. ‘White Lies’ (26 February 1885), a can very similar to Manzoni’s ‘Merda d’artista’ (1961), refers to the Berlin conference of 1885-86, where the colonial superpowers agreed on the borders and divisions of land in Africa. Title Withheld (Vitrine) (1993) consists of a broken glass museum vitrine with a brick laying inside after being thrown in it. The work hijacks the classic form of a museum vitrine where African ritual masks were exhibited (imprisoned), freeing the mask and violently breaking the colonialist tradition. It also references Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966), one of the most famous works of minimalism that Jonathan Jones of The Guardian describes as “the very opposite of conceptual art.” The Andre brick is a repetitive reference in Geers’ work, also present in another work shown in the exhibition: Monument (Brick) (1988 – 2012), a news clipping from 1988 describing the death of a family of six in a fire in Mmabatho.
“It was in the Interzone and borderlands between Europe and Africa that I met the ghost of William Burroughs who gave me direction. In 1971 he wrote a book called ‘The Electronic Revolution’ in which he said ‘language is a virus’ so I decided to hijack the entire book and the virus spread into the plague. A year short of 33 years later I plagiarised the entire book and called it ‘The Plague is Me’, a playful title that might translate into ‘Je suis le fléau’ or simply alliterates as ‘plagiarism.” Kendell Geers
Geers’ research of language through Détournement culminates in his eponymous artist book ‘The Plague is Me’ (2003) and in ‘After Love (Anarchist)’ (2004). The word FUCK is written in the form of the famous Robert Indiana pop-art piece Love (1964), with the background colours detouring from green and blue to anarchist black and red. Geers is convinced that ‘fuck’ ”is one of the last words that still has power and is still magical. Nowadays even perfumes are called ‘revolution’ or ‘manifesto’. Words have become obsolete and provoke nothing – except ‘fuck’. It etches, it is alive, it has survived.” But later in our tour of the exhibition he explained that the word is now dead because Tom Ford now sells a luxury brand perfume called ‘Fucking Fabulous. Geers adds that it is no coincidence that it was launched in 2017, the same year that Trump was inaugurated as President. Geers laughs about the fact that Supreme also plagiarised his PostPopFuck works to make sweaters, so somehow he contributed to destroying the power of the word by making it fashionable.
The Plague is Me presents Geers’ broad oeuvre clearly and understandably and again proves that Kendell Geers is one of the champions of his time. The only problem I see is that his work does not belong in a dusty old gallery in 6th arrondissement. The art market is one of the strongest remains of colonial society – a stronghold of capitalism that Geers so violently fights. The only logical next step is to take Geers’ art to where it emerged from – into the streets, the public space – the only decentralised and democratic museum of art.