RRESPEKTIV, Kendell Geers’ travelling survey exhibition, creates a space to confront and unpack emotional responses to fear and trauma. The exhibition is made up of a number of installation pieces addressing terror and mortality in a global context but with specific reference to the high levels of violence in South Africa. Geers constructs a space that lays out the basic hues of human existence: life, death and sex. The artist casts the viewer “into a complex semantic labyrinth through which they must find their own way back to safety alone”. Adds the artist, “I always see art as a bridge, I build the one half and its up to the viewer to build the other half and we meet halfway.”
The longer one sits with Geers’ work the further one can reach into the layers of meaning and intertextual reference that draw on politics, art history, the occult and linguistic codes. The Devil You Know, made up of ten sets of police car lights arranged as a pentagram, speaks about the role of the police force. As a South African, I interpret this piece to address the corrupt and sometimes threatening reputation of the police in South Africa. There have been numerous news reports that suggest that on coming to crime scenes the police have either botched or exploited the situation. In British society, however, one could interpret this piece as examining the fine line between community protection and a culture of surveillance, which becomes invasive and oppressive.On entering the exhibition space the viewer is handed a disclaimer warning that the burning vehicle situated in the corner of the exhibition may be hot and that barbed wire and broken glass are sharp. I would argue that this speaks volumes about a society obsessed with the minutiae of risk and responsibility, whereas in South Africa high levels of risk are an everyday reality.Geers’ work is anarchic and seeks to destabilise reigning power structures and in claiming the agency to do this, comes responsibility. Responsibility, I might add, that Geers is more than willing to grab with both hands. My sense is that in British society there is a move away from claiming agency and responsibility, be it on the level of industry or the individual. The time is ripe for such an exhibition in Britain’s current “nanny-state”. Geers’ work aims to “reverse the polarity from passive consumer to active participant” forcing the viewer to actively engage with and take account of their own reactions to the work. The tendency to call Geers’ work “shock art” is a cop out for confronting his challenging themes, and indicative more of the society naming it such than of the character of the art.