Songs of Innocence and Experience
Kendell Geers at Goodman GalleryBy Michael Smith
19 July - 18 August. 1 Comment(s)
This morning I conducted an experiment. It’s a simple experiment, of the ilk that I have been practicing for a while. I looked at Yahoo!’s homepage, and used its system of numerical sequencing (you know, 1, 2, 3 and 4: that sort of thing) to determine the ‘most important’ news story of the day.
It turns out that Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, or more accurately the, erm, dissemination of Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, is more important than these three stories: a US hedge-fund operator is alleged to have donated millions to prop up Robert Mugabe’s ailing regime when it lost the Zimbabwean elections in 2008 to the Movement for Democratic Change; two people, including a three-year-old child, died in the rain and snow in South Africa’s southeast regions this week; and Santaco, a taxi association in South Africa, used the occasion of National Women’s Day to apologise to a female commuter who was attacked and sexually assaulted three years ago at the Noord Street taxi rank in Johannesburg for wearing a miniskirt.
News aggregation in the internet age is a strangely revealing phenomenon. First arranged in the shadowy world of content organisation, the stratified news stories also respond to the numbers of hits they get. So, first decisions are made by the pimply gatekeepers as to which stories get front page, or homepage, space; then, in a
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show of sham democracy, the readership’s responses to those stories further filters them, influencing their positions in front of our much-coveted eyeballs. There is little else, besides maybe pornography, which taps into the id-driven attention span of its audience with as much alacrity as contemporary news does.
Kendell Geers’ new show at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, titled ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’, in its press release and publicity at least, seems keen to play a similar game to the masters of the news universe. Never one to shy from the publicity-garnering gesture, Geers is famous for baiting the local scene at the 2005 opening of a Marina Abramovic show at the JAG with allegations of provincialism and retrogradism. He has also used various platforms, as a journalist and writer, to inject some vitriol into what can be a fairly sleepy local scene. Sometimes he’s on the money, as with the 2005 speech. Other times, one senses that his from-the-hip style is sensational for sensation’s sake.
This year brings an example of the latter: Geers sets the tone for debate around this 2012 show with a barrage of whinge, calculated to upset, insult and alienate a local audience. Like Kardashian, one suspects Geers’ worst nightmare is to be ignored.
The press release for the show starts, ‘For too long now, my work has been considered “suspect” by the South African audience and I have been haunted by the “enfant terrible” reputation I earned myself two decades ago. I wonder when will South Africa allow me the freedom to grow up with elegance?’
This looks, feels and tastes like the lament of the outsider artist, the proverbial ‘voice in the wilderness’, the prophet not recognised in his own country. This order of shtick is a more comfortable fit for young artists. Fighting for their bite at the cherry, youthful firebrands legitimately invoke their right to be heard and demand their work be taken seriously.
But Geers is hardly a NKOTB. And how much of an outsider could he reasonably claim to be? One has to ask, in what way is he ‘haunted’? In what sense is he not being allowed ‘to grow up with elegance’? Even a cursory glance at the facts of Geers’ career gives the lie to this adolescent whine.
Geers is represented in South Africa by the Goodman Gallery; arguably the premier gallery in the country, it has spaces in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and is a regular presence at international art fairs. The Goodman Gallery even has a graphic of Geers’ fingerprint on the door to its Johannesburg space. Geers is also represented in major collections in the country of his birth, including those of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the newly-opened Wits Art Museum and the SABC.
And this acceptance of his contribution is not recent. In the 90s, Geers was selected to curate the ground-breaking Gencor Collection for the Johannesburg-based mining house’s head offices. Gencor (now owned by multinational BHP Billiton) seemed eager to embrace Geers’ vision, and funded his ideal of a corporate collection that was subtle, cutting-edge and intelligently curated. Around the same time, Geers often contributed art criticism to the then-largest daily paper in the country, The Star. In the process, he strongly guided the agenda of South African contemporary art’s debates.
More recently, in 2010 and 2011 Geers contributed a column to Art South Africa for four issues. That equates to around 4000 words and practically a year’s worth of platform, the sort not enjoyed by many within the country’s rather thin arts media. But despite this profile, Geers keeps banging away about our general misunderstanding of him: the title ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ was, he says, chosen ‘in protest against misguided misinterpretations of my working and my thinking processes’.
This is all rather lamentable, as Geers has actually turned a cracking show. Arguably the Goodman Gallery’s top exhibition of the year so far (and, yes, I’m including Brett Murray’s ‘Hail to the Thief II’ in that), ‘Songs…’ is a focused yet varied, energetic yet contemplative show that delivers in spades on ideas of great topicality to South Africans.
Cardiac Arrest, a wall-mounted installation of cast glass riot batons that recall oversized dildos, makes probably the best point about the very particularly South African eroticisation of violence I’ve ever seen in a gallery (the work makes me think of the term ‘poesklap’ from Afrikaans, and its English approximation, ‘fuck-slap’). As I stood transfixed at the opening, an aging libertine was moved to sidle up to me and deliver her vague come-on of ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’
Waiting Wanting Wasting Working, a bed on extended legs with a mattress of crisscrossed strands of razor mesh, updates Mick Goldberg’s seminal Hostel Monument to the Migrant Worker from 1985 to include a very contemporary security paranoia.
Elsewhere, Geers considers ideas around heritage. Past, Imperfect, Tense VII uses a cast of Mrs Pless’ skull fossil, seemingly critiquing the idea that a paleontological heritage, surely part of a global story, could be ‘owned’ as an element of national pride.
Blade Runner XIV, XVII and XXX, square formats of dense razor mesh into which various incarnations of the cross shape (the elegantly-looped ankh, the diagonally-armed saltire, the Greek cross) are cut, hint at the dangers of blind faith.
In fact, the ‘elegance’ for which Geers so longs in his statement is evident virtually everywhere in this exhibition. Like David Lynch, whose plumbing of violence is all the more compelling for its intense visual beauty, Geers manages an understanding of the subject seldom achieved in this country. Pornographic horror and suffering, staples of much art here, are thankfully absent in Geers’ work. Rather, a nuanced traversing from innocence to experience, and even back again is, like the razor mesh, this body of work’s leitmotif. It’s just a pity it all has to come with such a hefty persecution complex.