Kendell Geers and being summoned by art

Deeply suspicious of authoritarian power from an early age, renowned South African conceptual artist Kendell Geers found his way to art through a series of private rebellions undertaken to avoid conscription and subvert family expectations and histories. The story goes that Geers enrolled for university to avoid being called up for military service, and filled in ‘Art’ as a joke on his application form because he resented having to provide two choices of study (at that time he was dead set on becoming a quantum physicist). Now, with an art career that spans over two decades, Geers refigure this memory as art having ‘found’ him. “At this point in my life” he says, “I don’t know if art summoned me or the other way around. I have certainly come to the understanding that art is transformative and that without art we all die a slow painful death.”

Early on in his career, Geers became fascinated with the politics of language and its relationship to meaning, history, identity and power. Ironically, it’s the point where language fails that Geers is most interested in, as it’s in this space that he believes the true language of art begins to be revealed. “Art can speak the unspeakable and express the ineffable. I have always sought that moment when the unimaginable becomes real, but at that moment just before it manifests,” he explains. Over the course of his career, Geers has explored this through an ongoing development of a personal vocabulary of text-based symbols and symbolic motifs that recur in his work. Wordplays, razor wire, broken green glass, and the word ‘fuck’ are examples of this aesthetic language, which resides in ambiguity.

In more recent years, Geers’ interests and influences in his art-making have expanded to include the somewhat mystical possibilities laid out in pataphysics, the field of study dedicated to studying what lies beyond the realm of metaphysics. The French writer Alfred Jarry is credited with coining the term, and describes pataphysics as “the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.” Geers translates this into his art as follows: “I use painting and drawing to embody my thoughts and sculpture to express my ideas. As soon as you think that you understand anything it’s time to try harder to penetrate the mysteries of being. Every medium can express unique subtleties that others cannot, so it’s important to match the message with the media.”

Geers’ work Ritual Resist will be performed during the buyers’ preview at the opening of the FNB JoburgArtFair on Thursday 21st August 2014. In this work, a man and a woman engaged in the martial art of vanity. Both are naked but neither can see the other. They struggle against their own reflection in a square mirror which they must keep suspended in time and space between the opposing forces of their moving bodies. Geers describes this as a work of “pure transformation”, as stasis is not an option. As the effort required to keep the mirror suspended continues the bodies begin to sweat and in turn more effort is required to prevent the mirror dropping and shattering. At the same time, the viewer is presented with glimpses of their own reflection as the mirror moves, implicating them in the drama of the performance.

“The greatest reward of art,” Geers says, “is knowing that art changes the world, one perception at a time. The challenge is getting people to take the time to open their hearts.”

[This article was adapted from an interview with the artist on Between 10and5 in August 2014.]

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