Installation view of “OrnAmenTum’EtKriMen,” M77, Milan, 2021. Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri

A Heart Trying To Break Free: A Conversation with Kendell Geers

What was it like for a working-class, Afrikaner rebel with idealistic dreams of a new South Africa to come of age under apartheid, a system he abhorred and fought? Kendell Geers has spent years examining his personal experience, crisscrossing between life and art in order to create provocative and confrontational forms that challenge us to look closely and think deeply. In his work, mechanisms of power, art historical discourse, and ideological codes are all opened up to interrogation and transformation. Intense conflict always lies just beneath the cool, minimal veneer. After merging art and activism in South Africa, Geers went “into exile” in New York. He then returned to his home country, but left again a decade later, disillusioned that the promise of a new South Africa was not materializing. Explaining his motivation for this second self-imposed exile, he refers to Nietzsche’s warning, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Robert Preece: Pro Deo et Patria (2020) was stunningly installed at the Barletta Castle in Puglia, Italy. How did this come about?
Kendell Geers:
When I was invited to present a work in the medieval fortress, I began thinking about the form and function of its architecture. The drawbridge over the deep moat, the thick walls with thin arrow slits, and the large domed room where weapons were manufactured all made me think about how we translate our fears into symbols of protection. The space reminded me of my childhood in the industrial outskirts of Johannesburg during apartheid, where broken glass bottles were placed on top of the concrete walls to create the illusion of safety and security. As time and politics shifted, that began to feel rather archaic, and those walls were replaced by taller walls topped with coils of razor wire. A few years later, the wire was again replaced by 6,000-volt electric fences, alarms that triggered high-pitched sirens, and armed security patrols.

The medieval fortress in Puglia seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a monumental marble version of Pro Deo et Patria (For God and Country). The two police batons embody state power, and their cruciform arrangement symbolizes the church—mirroring the idea of faith in authority. I decided to present this work because nothing has changed since the medieval period in terms of how we create architecture from symbols of fear and protection.

Pro Deo et Patria, 2020. Installation view of “INHUMAN (DISUMANO),” Barletta Castle, Puglia, Italy. Photo: © Kendell Geers, Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

RP: You’ve used the baton form before—made with moss in AroseAriseArrest (2019) and with crystal in AguestAghostAghast (2011). What drew you to this form, and what has kept you going back to it?
KG: I first began working with police batons in the early 1990s after returning to South Africa from exile. Nelson Mandela had just been released, and I was thinking a lot about Theodor W. Adorno’s statement that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” At the time, I firmly believed that this also applied to apartheid.

I left South Africa in 1988 and spent 1989 in New York working for Richard Prince. I was struck by the difference between the brutal political reality that I had lived through, and the luxury of what art had become. I understood that Prince was translating American popular culture into high art and wondered if I might not be able to translate the language of protest into works of art.

The memory of being chased and beaten by the police with rubber batons was still fresh on my skin, so I began using the same batons to create minimalist mandalas. These works, called “Signs Taken For Wonders,” represent the exorcism of my painful experiences and their transformation into art. A moss or glass police baton is intrinsically useless as a weapon, but as a work of art that fragility multiplies meanings, referencing climate change and activism.

RP: How are we to understand the different meanings of the baton in your work, particularly in terms of the various materials? 
KG: In 2007, I covered two rubber police batons in gold leaf and called the work A Rose by Any Other Name with reference to the line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This title crystallizes the complex relationship between what we say and what we are. The sweet smell of the rose should not obscure the fact that it also has sharp thorns, and a gold police baton in a gallery remains a police baton. I followed this logic by creating titles that played on words and on the different materials. Rose shifted into Eros, Errors, Arise, Prose, and Any Other Name twisted into Game, Tame, and Lame. A Rose by Any Other Name eventually became Purple Prose Buys Another Name and AroseAriseArrest.

AroseAriseArrest, 2019. Moss on lost object, 67.5 x 34.5 x 10.5 cm. Photo: © Kendell Geers, Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

RP: You participated in anti-apartheid efforts before leaving the first time, and in 1993, you officially changed your date of birth to May 1968 as a political act—a way of refusing the confining script of your inherited identity and opening the way to a new one. So, why did you leave again in 1999? What happened to your initial enthusiasm for the new ideals? 
KG: The first work that I created after returning to South Africa in 1990 was a performance in which I bathed myself with my own blood. It begged the question of whether we can ever wash away the sins of our forefathers, or if we are forever accountable. I lived the next decade as an activist helping to rebuild the new democracy, but I eventually gave up because of xenophobia, racism, violence, and corruption. Heeding Nietzsche’s warning, I realized that I was becoming a monster by living in Johannesburg, so I decided to flee into exile once again.

RP: How have people reacted to Self Portrait (1995), the broken Heineken bottle, over the years? Could you explain the symbolism? 
KG: The great misconception about the Heineken Self Portrait is that I love the beer. Nothing could be further from the truth, because the sculpture embodies a spirit of cultural cynicism and personal shame. My great grandfather was a garbage collector, so I have always been attracted to the idea of refuse. The biggest red capital letters on the label read “IMPORTED,” and below smaller letters read “from Holland”—expressing my shame as a Dutch descendant of a white South African man. The words “Heineken” and “The Original Quality” speak to a history of colonialism, capitalism, and the Dutch East India Company, which was the of the 17th century. The work embodies how the history of art cannot be separated from economic, political, and cultural history.

Self Portrait, 1995. Object, approx. 4 x 7.5 x 3.7 cm.Photo: © Kendell Geers, Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

RP: You’ve used broken green glass many times in your work over the years. How are we to understand the Duchampian Rack (2009), which seems playful and dangerous?
KG: The title suggests that art admits its privilege only under interrogation on the torture rack. By placing my Self Portrait broken beer bottles on the pins of Duchamp’s found object, I suggest that in the act of manufacturing artistic value, we are all unavoidably complicit.

I feel trapped in the interzone between Europe and Africa, so I see both sides of the coin and use one to interrogate the other. My point of departure from Duchamp was to shift the term “found object” into “lost object,” because the former expresses the Eurocentric value system and ethics that gave rise to colonialism. Christopher Columbus was said to have “discovered” the Americas, but he and other explorers enslaved Indigenous peoples and disregarded their faith, culture, and traditions. Similarly, the found object concept, through the notion of finding, disregards the design, manufacture, use, and abuse of an object. The term “lost object” makes the history of the object implicit and invites interrogation.

RP: Monument to the Unknown Anarchist (2007), with its burning car and “plinth” of broken glass embedded in concrete, is fascinating in an alternative pop culture aesthetic kind of way, but when it is contextualized, it becomes horrific.
KG: The base of Monument to the Unknown Anarchist is covered with glass shards and concrete like the perimeter wall of my childhood home. On top, a flame rises from the engine of an inverted, burned-out car like an eternal flame. In some ways, the work pays homage to a poster from the May ’68 uprising in Paris that reads “La Beauté est dans la Rue” (“Beauty is in the Street”); it shows a long-haired protester hurling a brick in protest. What is the difference between that brick and the very same brick placed in a Carl Andre sculpture on the floor of the Tate Gallery?

Monument to the Unknown Anarchist, 2007. Burning car, 170 x 247 x 376 cm. overall. Photo: Colin Davidson, © Kendell Geers, Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

RP: Could you discuss Flesh of the Spirit 8667 (2019), Flesh of the Spirit 3228 (2019), and Flesh of the Spirit 4163 (2019)? 
KG: The title is a spin on an important book by Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit (1983). This white American art historian follows the slave routes and shows the influence of African culture on Black people in the United States and the New World. The traditions survived the Atlantic crossing but also shifted and adapted to the social, political, and cultural realities of the New World. The “Flesh of the Spirit” series pays homage to the fluidity of culture and asks who has the right to speak, especially about Africa. It also explores what we mean by Africa—a continent with 54 countries and more than 2,000 living languages, with diasporas dating back to the origin of the human species.

Colonialism was built on the assumption that the African continent was inhabited by noble savages who needed to be protected and educated by Europeans. It was convenient to erase the fact that one of the wealthiest and most highly educated people who ever lived was Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali (c. 1280–1337). Where do we draw the line that divides the European side of the Mediterranean from the African? TheFlesh of the Spirit” sculptures embody European ideas about Africa to make that point. I often blind the sculptures or use my hands as a mask to suffocate the mouths into silence.

RP: Could you explain the concept behind your “OrnAmenTum’EtKriMen” exhibition (2021)?
KG: In 2012, I fell into a crisis and felt deeply disillusioned. I asked myself how the origins of my visual language—the abstraction of Mondrian, the psycho-social utopianism of the Bauhaus, the political abstraction of the Constructivists, and spiritualism of Dada—had all been reduced to decoration. The very same language that had been scandalous in the 1990s had become the new academy. As time passed and more and more artists filled galleries with razor wire and emergency tape, I realized that my survival depended on reinventing my wheel.

During the first lockdown, I understood that the poetry I was so determined to avoid in 1990 had saved my life in 2012 and matured into “OrnAmenTum’EtKriMen” in 2020. I chose to translate the title of Adolf Loos’s landmark essay “Ornament and Crime” into Latin because this enabled the words “amen” and “tum” to be hidden in clear sight, challenging the statement that painting was dead after Duchamp’s 1918 canvas Tu m’.

Installation view of “OrnAmenTum’EtKriMen,” M77, Milan, 2021. Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri

RP: What was the thinking behind Stripped Bare (2009) and the earlier T.W. (Vitrine) (1993)? How did you reach the concept of these works and then settle on their visualization?
KG: For the first Johannesburg Biennial, I exhibited an empty room in the colonial Johannesburg Art Museum and called it Title Withheld (Boycott). In a local gallery, I exhibited Title Withheld (Stolen), a generic, empty sculpture base. These invisible sculptures embodied the spirit of ideological alienation more than anything physical. The international language of minimal or conceptual aesthetics did not make sense to me, but at the same time, that was my training and art historical starting point. I made T.W. (Vitrine) between Mandela’s release and the first election—a time of political chaos and violence. The work expressed the same principle, except I threw a brick into an empty vitrine. The work of art became the scene of a crime that both attracted and repulsed the viewer—a moral ambiguity inviting investigation.

Stripped Bare is a one-to-one-scale copy of Duchamp’s The Large Glass in the Tate Museum, made of bulletproof glass shot at a number of times. The lead bullets hit with such velocity that they literally melted into the glass, creating strange spider web fractures that made me think of flowers. The beauty of that violence continued to haunt my imagination for years. I often thought about the sculpture as a still-life of flowers, “Les Fleurs du Mal.” That series inspired the paintings in “OrnAmenTum’EtKriMen.” 

RP: Rietveld Waiting for the Barbarians (2012) includes a reference to a classic Gerrit Rietveld chair. But it also includes razor mesh. What did you intend by combining an iconic Modernist design and allusions to violence and war? 
KG: Razor mesh and razor wire were used as military weapons in South Africa during the apartheid era. Barbed wire was used for the first time against humans during the Anglo-Boer war, when the British incarcerated Boers in the world’s first concentrations camps. That is why I’ve created so many sculptures using this awful security fencing—it is part of my Boer heritage. I used the fencing to interrogate history as if it were a spider web tearing our skin from our bones to expose implicit power relations dictated by London or Amsterdam.

Rietveld Waiting for the Barbarians, 2012. Mild steel, razor mesh, and concrete, 150 x 54 x 45 cm.Photo: © Kendell Geers, Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

RP: What has living in Brussels, away from South Africa, given you mentally and spiritually? And what has it contributed to your work?
KG: I return to South Africa every year to nurture my roots. I need the feeling of standing barefoot in the Bushveld—in danger from any number of species—to remind myself that human beings are guests on the planet, and not hosts. Being in Brussels is inspiring in another way—when I visit the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck or the poppy fields of Ieper, and I am humbled by the layers of history.

RP: Is yours a heart still trying to break free?
KG: All ways.

“Flesh of the spirit,” an exhibition of Kendell Geers’s recent sculptures and paintings, is on view at Carpenters Workshop Gallery in Paris through March 31, 2022.