Born in South Africa into a staunch Jehovah's Witness, white, working-class Afrikaans family at the height of apartheid, Geers understood the power of faith, politics, and ideology at a very young age. He ran away from home when he was 15 to join the ranks of the militant anti-apartheid movement. From those seminal experiences as a front-line activist Geers developed a body of work that fuses the personal with the political, the poetic with the abject, violence and eroticism. In the works of this period in the late 1980s through the mid 1990s he explored the moral and ethical contradictions of the apartheid system and aimed to challenge all forms of power.
Throughout his artistic practice Geers has continuously explored and developed a visual vocabulary characterized by provocation, humor, and violence. The use of industrially produced materials and objects such as barbed and razor wire, neon lights, and glass shards indicates the crucial role the readymade plays in his work. According to Geers, every object is more than the sum of its physical parts and is instead the embodiment of an ideology, and a portrait both of its maker and its consumer.
Proceeding chronologicaly, the first half of the exhibition covers the early years of Geers's work with a selection of seminal works that explore the relationship between language and meaning. In these early works the influence of minimalism and conceptualism are leavened by an interest in the affective power of the disruptive gesture, which interrupts the silence of the object and recodifies its meaning. Be it a broken beer bottle neck; a brick smashed through an empty glass vitrine; a stack of two tires inscribed with the curling lettering of a racist rhyme; a dog tag inscribed with the artist's name, or a perspex box containing a series of identity cards of all South African political parties, Geers's work is deeply invested in examining the codes of and languange of materials and the forms they give rise to.
Placing the vivid detail of his personal experiences, memories, and desires, subsumed within an avalanche of mythological ideas at the heart of his practice, Geers depicts himself as a "EuroAnimist," bringing together the ancient animistic traditions from the African continent with the languages of the European avant-garde movements. In 2000, at the personally symbolic age of 33, Geers decided to stop making art for the entire year and instead undertake a spiritual quest in search of a vision of art that would redefine his personal beliefs and his artistic practice. That year marks a significant shift in the ways the artist conceived of his work: He moved toward a poetical and animistic approach, suggesting more universal themes such as spirituality and mortality. The installation Postpunkpaganpop (2008) that marks the center of the exhibition invites the visitor to walk upon a mirror floor through a labyrinth made out of razor mesh. What is usually used to mark a military border is transformed into a personal search for a "mystic truth": As the mirrors reflect whatever is above as below, the spiritual sphere is connected to the earthly, the outer external material world to the inner metaphysical.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Nicolas Bourriaud, Laurent Devèze, Kendell Geers, Katerina Gregos, Clive Kellner, Anitra Nettleton, and a conversation between Okwui Enwezor, Kendell Geers and William Kentridge. Published by Prestel Verlag, English, 240 pages, ISBN 978-3-7913-5300-5.
The exhibition is curated by Clive Kellner, curator-at-large at the Gordon Schachat Collection and former director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Kendell Geers 1988-2012 is generously supported by Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.
The exhibition runs from 1 February to 12 May 2013.