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Kendell Geers

Interview by Valentina Gioia Levy

VG: You started using painting only recently, and in an interview with Danilo Eccher, you said that you never particularly loved this medium, but then something changed. After a moment of profound disillusionment with the world of art, faced with episodes of appropriation of your work, you turned to paint, rediscovering the value of the uniqueness of this medium. Can you tell us about your relationship with painting before and after this cathartic moment?

KG: My roots as an artist are firmly in the fields of Conceptual and Performance Art and as a young artist I found both the subject and object of painting the ultimate taboo. The closest I ever came to making a painting was to stencil the text “Bête Comme un Peintre” across a red splash of paint, paying my homage to Marcel Duchamp who used the phrase to make a distinction between what he believed to be the intelligence at work in conceptual art and the stupidity of painting. At the end of Apartheid in the late 80’s and early 90’s I understood that the languages of art had been constructed to favour the prejudice and taste of a culture and class that I had no access to. Born into a working-class white South African family everything that I had been taught to believe in was a crime against humanity and my cultural heritage, morality, aesthetics, values, faith and identity were all illegitimate and so the only way I could justify my existence was to give birth to myself by forging a unique language based on the contradictions of what I called “The Perversity of my Birth - The Birth of my Perversity.” I did not have the luxury of a cultural or historical foundation, so built my own from the visceral experiences on the frontlines of the Anti- Apartheid struggle and the rubble and debris of the traumas of an abusive childhood. The strategy was to excavate memory and mine those extreme experiences in order to challenge the aesthetic codes of the white cube by dragging the charged expressions of a raw reality kicking and screaming into the gallery. I spent the next three decades exploring the codes, defining and exploring the language I called TerroRealism and then suddenly in 2012 I fell into a deep, suicidal depression as the carpet of my world was ripped out from beneath me. On the one side I was excluded from being involved in the preparations for my retrospective at the South African National Gallery and Haus Der Kunst in Munich with a contract literally stipulated that “the artist will be involved on a need to know basis only.” On the other side, I was confronted by artist “friends” who had shown with me on many group shows stealing the credit for my language and getting away with the blatant plagiarism. One of these artists even showed in the same gallery and the only difference between his work and mine was that his was 21 years too late. I felt totally disillusioned by the art system because nobody defended me, not even the curators who had shown our work together, nor the gallery who was all too happy to sell their soul to the highest bidder. I felt abandoned and lost hope to despair when I understood that my story would not be told and that my retrospective would amount to a curatorial fantasy. In the end, I was broken financially, morally and spiritually and literally gave up. Thanks to my children, wife and a few close friends, I found the strength to survive with the conclusion that if my work was that easy to copy, and if the art system will not only accept, but encourage such blatant opportunism, then the fault is my own to have given too much faith in a bankrupt system ! At first I struggled having to admit that perhaps the root of the problem might be the conceptual language of Duchamp because it had become way too easy to simply displace barbed wire into the gallery or smash museum vitrines and call it art. Conceptual Art with a social spin had become the new academic mainstream and so I concluded that the only way forward was to totally reset my understanding and definition of art. The world had changed and if I wanted to survive, I needed to accept to change myself. The curious thing about my transition into painting is that I never made that decision – its almost as if the pain had spilled out from my body and washed up onto the canvas and all I could do was try to keep up. Just as I had given birth to myself in 1990 with the language of those early conceptual works, I understood that I had to resurrect my broken self from the nightmare art system and learn to walk again as a conceptual artist who also makes paints.

VG: Some of your previous works, before your "conversion" to painting, reveal a pictorial approach. You employed techniques traditionally associated with ritualistic body-painting when you painted your face with the word "fuck", for example, or used different patterns to cover sculptures and fetiches. Do you ever consider these non-pictorial works as paintings? If it's so, in what way?

KG: Yes the word images are paintings inasmuch as my search has always been about wrestling with the image, or a martial arts of re-presentation. In the early work it was certainly more iconoclastic as I tried to use political or ethical violence to destroy the aesthetic image. From there my journey took me into a more meditative process of making the word flesh by folding letters into themselves and creating hieroglyphs that tricked the rational mind to reach directly into the sub-conscious. I guess these word-images were already asking the questions about the ways ornament disappears unnoticed into the background and yet is always present in the way it creating an atmosphere or mood. I looked at a lot of folk art, ritual signs and the ornament or material culture of indigenous peoples, trying to understand the complex relationship between the materialisation of spirit and spiritualisation of matter. I was looking for an overlap with the Bauhaus and Constructivist artists, asking myself the question, when is a line only a line and when does it embody a serpent or political force and what is the difference in terms of how that line finds physical form ? Given that my starting point was about how language functions and the relationship between image, text and writing, I was especially interested in Medieval concrete poems, Islamic calligraphy and of course Apollinaire’s Calligrams. I wanted to make a “Folk Art” of the contradictory experience of the materialist contemporary, a way to create powerful healing rituals for the factures of our broken and divided selves so I searched for powerful words that I could fold into visual mantras. I realised that the Anglo-Saxon four letter word was the raw (semantic clay) bricks of the language describing our basic fears, needs and desires – love, hate, feel, hurt, heal, hope, fear, fire, need, want, will, kill, seed and so forth. I was especially interested in curse words because as the term suggests, they are magical at the same time as being vulgar, weaving fear and desire into one perfect duality (like the Ying/Yang symbol). Since the rise of Social Media and texting, language has been falling apart and meaning has been dropping from the tree of knowledge like dead leaves in the Fall. Fuck fascinated me because it was the last magical word that still retained its power. It was still taboo and continued to invoke an emotional reaction. Fuck Me is an invitation to love whereas Fuck You is a declaration of war. Just as the “image” lost its magical power with the spectacular attack on the World Trade Centres on the 11 September 2001, the word finally lost its power in 2020 with the prolific rise of textspeak, Social Media, Hashtags and the ripening of Fake News. Now that the relationship between words and their meaning became entirely arbitrary the streams of Social Media are awash with Fuck Covid (amongst others) and I even heard the word freely spoken on mainstream radio. I raised the symbolic tombstone to the word FUCK when the fashion brand SUPREME used one of my once controversial PostPopFuck wall drawings as a design for their sweaters and T-Shirts. With the magic now sucked out of the word and truth becoming the ultimate casualty in the war against our human nature, the only thing left to trust is the battleground of our bodies. Our fragile broken bodies that love, hate, want, wish, spit, tear, piss, shit, need, fuck, fail and need to heal are the only reliable experience that we can still trust – that is providing we can exorcise the social and political coding from our cerebral programming. The “Les Fleurs du Mal” paintings are precisely about that, me throwing my naked body into the space of the i-mage by unlocking the doors of perception with the ecstatic key of raw experience.

VGL : In the aforementioned interview, you talked about your relationship with the tradition of Dutch painting, focusing mainly on flowers and "still lifes" ("nature morte" in French) which is the best- known genre in traditional Dutch painting. Nevertheless, your flowers could be defined as "living natures" ("nature vive" in French). In fact, about the series "Les Fleurs du Mal" you said that "in the mirror evil is alive" (the English word "evil" in the mirror becomes “live”, ndt.). But your flowers are also alive because they arise from an active, almost performative process. Can you tell us about your painting process?

KG: The mirror has always fascinated me because what we see is the opposite of what we are and yet we all believe the reflection is true. In 2002 I made a wall drawing writing the word “evil” backwards so it transforms into “live,” a reflection of how we negotiate the space of perception. The constructs of good and evil are not based on nature but the rainbow of experience divided by the moral prism of our fears and desires. To live is so much more than simply being alive and inevitably living freely will offend someone that then condemns that freedom by judging it evil. It is only once a system breaks down and our habits are no longer sustainable that the system finally exposes the foundations for what they are - fear (and sometimes desire). As a young artist I interrogated myself, my culture and my identity, trying to understand how an entire population of white South Africans could accept to live with Apartheid as if it were normal. In trying to decode this process of how good people can do evil things, I understood that language is an alibi and abettor in the process of normalising the abnormal. I realized that every one of us is the culmination and precipitation of social, political and economic forces that set in motion the fluid chain reactions that we perceive as a concrete reality called normal. The world we perceive is a mirror of our inner selves. An old expression says that “we are what we eat” but its even more true now than the way in which it is traditionally used. Today we need to ask whether our food has been genetically modified and if it was grown organically, sustainably or factory farmed, whether it has been transported deep frozen from the other side of the planet on ships polluting the oceans ? Everything we eat, drink and and consume is a reflection of what we are. My own personal history begins when the Dutch East India Company set up a Dutch colony in the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 because that set in motion the chain reaction that eventually makes my existence possible. The wealth that came from the colonies in East Indies, Asia and South Africa gave rise to the Golden Age of the Netherlands expressed in the Still Life tradition of paintings depicting the luxury lifestyles of exotic fruits, flowers, plants, food, gold, silver, silk and wine. I am personally as implicated in the history of the Dutch East India Company as any Seventeenth Century Still Life painting and that socio-political chain of events inspired the “Les Fleur du Mal” series of paintings I made during the first lockdown. A Still Life painting is a mirror of time, a portrait of what we eat and how we live and especially a reflection of our relationship with nature. The fact that the flowers are cut and placed in a vase for instance, is symptomatic of luxury lifestyles, because they have been severed from their roots and are therefore both alive and dead at the same time. The cut flowers are beautiful to look at, but no less symbols of decay - stark poetic reminders that death is inevitable. These paintings are conceptually my most accomplished to date, because they are the mature expression and culmination of my research into art, history, culture, language, identity, symbolism and poetry. The blossoms are as much about the ecological crisis as a representation of my own scars and wounds. The flowers were inspired by the bullet holes and shattered glass of the earlier sculptures transformed into “Les Fleurs du Mal” blossoms that can be compared with the Kintsugi technique in Japan that uses gold to repair something broken by finding beauty in the scars.

( The entire interview is published in "Ce que disent les peintres, faire peinture", L'Harmattan Publisher, Paris, 2022 )

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