The curriculum vitae of the South African artist Kendell Geers—born in 1968 in Johannesburg, lives and works in Brussels, Belgium—begins in the year 1652. It suggests the artist’s approach to the world, which says everything is connected. The present is the present because of the past and future. In installations and pieces created with found materials, such as newspaper articles, photos, and objects, Geers addresses hidden stories of political suppression, violence, and crime, as well as the concept of security in South Africa. With great care and sensibility, the artist investigates and tells stories that lay bare brutality, politics, and their subtle effects. He provokes a confrontation with the self, based on concepts of identification, politics, culture, and rites. Since the 1990s, Kendell Geers has presented globally through institutions and shows, including documenta, Havana Biennial, Istanbul Biennial, and Palais de Tokyo in Paris. In 1993, Geers was among the first internationally welcomed South African artists, after antiapartheid boycotts. He has worked in various media, ranging from largescale installations to small objects, text to video and performance.
Geers is a perfect match for the issues we want to explore in this issue of THE FREE LUNCH, including deepfakes and the power of art. —Christian Smetana
CS Recently, people have been talking about the problems of deepfakes. In a way, your work deals with the foundations of deepfakes. Power, language, history, and our values are important topics for you as an artist. What do you think about deepfakes?
KG The question of deepfakes is certainly an interesting one. It opens new questions about our relations with machines and computers. But deepfakes, as such, are nothing new. There has always been manipulation of history. History, as such, is always written by the winner. Let me give you an example with Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo. As we moved to Belgium, and my kids went to school, they learned that Napoleon won Waterloo. Well, from the French point of view, Napoleon won Waterloo. From the British point of view, the British won this battle. So, why was I taught the British defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, while my children were taught Napoleon won at Waterloo? I did some research. Napoleon expressed in his diaries that rain defeated him at Waterloo, not the British. And important people like Victor Hugo said that Napoleon was not defeated by the British at this battle. Well, in fact, the Russians defeated him, but from a French point of view, only the rain was Napoleon’s problem. He never really lost against the British. A good example of how history is made, an example of fake news and how deepfakes took place way back in 1830. There has been manipulation forever. The difference today, in terms of the question of fake, is that we have much more sophisticated machines to enable that process. Manipulation happens more quickly.
CS Does that change your reflections on truth?
KG No, not at all. I do not believe that there is any difference between today or the past in terms of fake or truth. It is a great challenge, living in the age we are living in, to answer the question, “What is truth?” Think about the ancient Greek, the temple in Delphi. Written on the top is, “gnôthi seautón, γνῶθι σεαυτόν” or “know yourself.” This is the most difficult thing anybody can do in their life, know yourself, and the ancient Greeks were reflecting on that. We all live through language, are taught a value and a moral system, but all these things take us away from ourselves. We are taught from the beginning to lie to ourselves. If we want to speak about true or false, we have to say truth begins in your body. The only thing that is true for me is my experience. A strong experience is something that cannot be mediated. Let’s get back to Waterloo. People died at the battle of Waterloo. True. The experience of death was intense. It’s the fake that follows, which interprets who won and who lost. In my eyes, today, the only way to return to the concept of truth is to return to the body, to the experience of the body.
CS Talking about all this contrasts with the needs of being a successful international artist and curator, as you are. What do you think about that and the power of art in our society?
KG We need to understand that, in a sense, we got lost in reducing art to a financial question. Today, we see art as currency, as something that we can buy at the market. We reduce art to the idea of luxury goods. Art is not better or worse than a bottle of perfume or champagne. We want to buy the brand of an artist. For me, that is not art! This is part of the reality we experience in the mediation of that experience, of the raw experience. A work of art is more than an object. It is a dream. It is a vision. It is a connection to another prime zone, to another consciousness. It is a talisman. If it is a real work of art, it is transformative. It embodies more than three dimensions. In that process of being an embodiment, the artwork can transform reality. It can transform vision, perception. In that way, art changes the world.
CS So, the artist tries to present a truth, a vision that can’t be experienced in our daily life?
KG Yes, indeed, that’s connected to the idea of experience, and it’s useful to look at Arthur Rimbaud. He wrote this beautiful letter, which is now called “Rimbaud’s letter to the fear.” He explains the process of being an artist. And he speaks of being an artist as a complete dérangement of conventions, a complete destabilization of everything that makes him a normal person, to enter another state of consciousness. In this disruption of habits, he can access other forms of consciousness. In that way, the artist is a visionary. The artist channels other consciousnesses from other dimensions, another state of mind. You can call it the unconscious, the subconscious. You can call it collective consciousness. You can call it the world of spirits, or today, you can use scientific terms. We don’t simplify the world to the detail. No, it’s the other way around. We take the detail and put it into context, because every detail is connected to every other detail. Everything is interconnected in a holistic matrix.
CS Should artists become more involved in all the public discussions going on?
KG Indeed, in a time of fake news and deepfakes, artists need to be more engaged and to make their voices heard. Artists need to derange their senses more to become purer, to balance through their experience, through seeing the world of fake news. Great art will always rise. There will always be fashionable art, and markets will rise and fall. But great art will always be there because it speaks to all times. In all societies, in the sense of the three dimensions and the five senses, art will reach people.