"Waiting for the Barbarians" – Kendell Geers

Jan Winkelmann

He hates the art establishment. In the Palazzo Grassi, he pissed into Duchamp's urinal. For the exhibition "Crap Shoot," he had Rudi Fuchs shadowed by a private detective for a week. In Glasgow, he blew a hole through the wall of the museum. He jerked off over a "Hustler" centerfold and hung it, framed, in an exhibition. The metal identity tag around his neck is going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder after his death, and he holds many of his works' titles back from the public, referring to them as "Title Withheld." We're talking about a sensitive, articulate, widely read and often seemingly shy South African by the name of Kendell Geers.

The contradiction suggested here between personality and work is less discrepant than might at first appear. Geers' artistic strategy is based on precisely constructed moments of shock which throw the viewer off balance in his natural habits of perception by using immediate, disturbing images which produce a lasting alienation. As a form of resistance within the art context, Geers' interventions at the same time acquire meaning for the reality outside this context, as well. Here, media codes, pop cultural and historical references play as large a role as his own cultural background and the political context he comes from, without which his work cannot be understood in its complex and highly political implications.

Geers' works always reflect the specific context in terms of the space, location and time for which or in which a project is developed. Not infrequently, these factors comprise different subtexts which are inscribed into his works, rendering them interpretable as site-specific placements, but also, at the same time, allowing for a legibility independent of the respective context. The project "Waiting for the Barbarians" unites some of these specifications in a paradigmatic manner.

Conceived for a site nearby the former Cistercian nuns' monastery Gravenhorst is a square garden in the form of a labyrinth with a side length of 30 meters, encompassing 900 square meters in all. The walls of the garden are planned to resemble border fences whose top edge at a height of three meters is to be crowned with a spiral of so-called "razorwire", as is commonly used for the protection of national borders and military bases. The center of the grounds is marked by a border tower from the former boundary between East and West Germany which rises above the fences and from which one can view the labyrinthine paths and "decode" them. After the completion of the grounds, ivy is to be planted along the fences.

The location Geers has chosen for this project is relevant in a multiple sense to the shape, form, and the complex thematic implications and references of the work. History, the present and the future are connected to it in a real as well as metaphorical way. As the site of the Varus Battle, the Teutoburger Forest became the symbol of the victory of the "barbaric" Germanic tribes over the Roman legions, as a result of which the border of the Roman Empire and thereby its sphere of influence was shifted to below the Rhine. A further historical occurrence in this region which was rich in consequences for the territorial reordering of Europe was the Peace of Westphalia which ended the 30 Year War in 1648, resulting in the subdivision of Europe into single sovereign states. The military conflicts listed here as well as the far-reaching territorial and hegemonial changes brought about through them converge symbolically in the form of the barbed-wire fence, which transports its function as an instrument both of enclosure and exclosure through its martial appearance, as well. The purported aesthetic includes potential fields as well as possible mechanisms of action and, as a piercing and emotionally provocative image, opens up various, for the most part negatively charged fields of association and reference. In its form, the labyrinth fence also refers not least to the installation and production process at its foundation – it is meant to be erected and installed by the army, a fact comprising a fundamental component of the work – in which Geers, in a subtle way, integrates the organizers and their political and administrative connections into the realization of the work.

Simultaneously, the barbed wire itself as well as the title of the work hint at the socio-historical context Geers comes from. The novel "Waiting for the Barbarians," written by the south African author J.M. Coetzee and published in 1980, tells the story of a provoked border conflict between two smaller South African states and the human suffering caused by it. Through the fate of his protagonist, Coetzee poses questions as to the dignity and responsibility of each individual in a regime that places itself above justice and decency. In a similar way, the special form of barbed wire implies the specific mechanisms of function inherent to it. As an invention of the Apartheid regime, it served the security forces there as an easily manageable, proven tool which could be installed quickly in order to cordon off larger areas within the shortest span of time, thus making them controllable in a simple way. In this sense, the razorwire represents an institutionalized politics of regulating and controlling possibilities of access. The presentation in another political structure leads to a shift in meaning from the concrete, functional, representative sign to a more generally valid image which, in the specific form of the labyrinth, implies further fields of association and ascription.

Beyond these fields of reference and interpretation inherent to the "material", further planes of interpretation are revealed by virtue of the history and present of the concrete location. On the one hand, the location favored by Geers lies near the so-called "Nonnenpättchen" (Little Nuns' Way), which in those days served the monastery's inhabitants as an escape route from approaching attackers to a nearby village. In this context, the meaning of the region for the Christian pilgrims on their journeys to Santiago de Compostela is significant, whose difficult path to redemption very often finds symbolic usage in the form of a labyrinth in paintings or on the slabs of cathedral floors. On the other hand, the former cloister is going to be turned into a "play-along museum" for children over the next several years, with which the building complex, which has been empty for years, will acquire a new function, becoming reanimated as a location for communication and the impartment of knowledge. Thus, Geers' labyrinth is to be understood both as a kind of extension of the usage in any case intended for it – as a museum for adventure and play – as well as, on the other hand, the symbolic designation of a location which possessed a religious meaning over the course of its history and experienced various war conflicts.

Geers' "Waiting for the Barbarians" is a kind of antimonument to the innumerable borders of this world which separate and have separated countries and people and have drawn and continue to draw them into countless conflicts and wars; at the same time, it's a location of playful appropriation, of the search for the right path and, in a wider sense, an image of the search for meaning with its countless detours and one-way streets. The technoid labyrinthine garden will retain its martial form for as long as it takes until the green anarchy in the guise of ivy has overpowered this structure and the natural flora have covered the grounds with a biological cloak of silence – without ever really making them entirely disappear, however, or allowing them to become forgotten.

Translated by Andrea Scrima

Published in: Skulptur-Biennale Münsterland, Cat. Kreis Steinfurt (Vice Versa Verlag, Berlin), 2001.

© 2001 Jan Winkelmann

German Version