– Summer 2011

Jef Geys’s Art-Making Ethics

Chris Sharp

Jef Geys, Al de foto’s tot 1998 (All the photos up to 1998), 1998. Installation view, M HKA, Antwerp. Courtesy the artist and M HKA collection

Jef Geys, Al de foto’s tot 1998 (All the photos up to 1998), 1998. Installation view, M HKA, Antwerp. Courtesy the artist and M HKA collection

Of the difficulty of not heroising Jef Geys. Of not launching into a shameless panegyric about the legendary and exemplary integrity of his practice. These are the ways I had initially wanted to begin this article. But when I tried, I found myself struggling to organise his potentially heroic qualities according to a system and within a language of which they are both critical and ultimately foreign. Or to put in another way, my measuring stick seemed suddenly rotten and inadequate. I threw it away. And I decided to start from a different, albeit not entirely unrelated angle, one more comparable to Geys’s measuring stick. But where to find it exactly? In the artist’s practice itself. Behold, on the second page of the Kempens Informatieblad publication that accompa­nied his exhibition Woodward Avenue (2010) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, the following text, authored by Geys himself:

Like on every dead body good and bad insects appear on the remainder; here on Detroit. Carcass opportunists. Some (let’s say about 10%) are relief workers with good intentions. In the Detroit situation like for example in Madagascar, Senegal, Leningrad, etc. [...] ‘art hoppers’ come along to this ruinous community which is for them a temporary playground. Before you know widescreen pictures of abandoned supermarket carts and buildings in decay are published in the glossy magazines. If there’s no support of the government or surrounding communities the praiseworthy intentions of good meaning people are bound to fail. If you can’t set up a whole new program with a clear view on the specific situation of art; what it is, was, could be, should be: STOP! If you want

  1. See Jef Geys, ‘Woodward Avenue’, Kempens Informatieblad, Speciale Editie Detroit, 2010, p.3.

  2. More specifically, the drawings, which were executed with the skill of an accomplished draughtsman on brown paper, sometimes juxtaposed plants with images of human reproductive organs, soldiers or tanks. Going back to one of the artist’s earliest projects, ABC École de Paris (ABC School of Paris, 1959—61), in which Geys ironically applied himself to acquiring the rules of good drawing through a correspondence course, it should be noted that drawing as a technique has always played a fundamental role in his practice. Interpretable as ironic studies after nature, the combination in the pavilion of these three motifs brings to mind a provocative and highly ambiguous series of equivalences, as if reminding the viewer that the human organ capable of encoding botanical information into a cultural and medical archive is no less responsible for the codes of pornography and the sophisticated machinery of warfare.

  3. Although what I have just described may account for the visual contents of the exhibition, it does not necessarily account for its personal historical parameters, and the fact is that it could be seen perhaps not so much as a compact retrospective of Geys’s entire career, but rather as the end of a broad arc of interests and preoccupations that have informed it — a subject which admittedly merits another, much longer essay altogether.

  4. Ina Vandebroek, ‘The Art in Ethnobotany’, 2009, available at www.nybg.org/plant-talk/2009/06/people/the-art-in-ethnobotany/ (last accessed on 7 January 2010).

  5. While working on this text, I received a link from Geys to a project by ethnobotanist Dr Peter Giovannini, which applies Geys’s method and Vandebroek’s research to the cities of Berlin and Rome: http://petergiovannini.com/ethnobotany-photo-pictures/Urban-wild-food-plants-weeds.html (last accessed on 18 February 2011).

  6. The Kempens Informatiebladen (the name denotes a newspaper for the larger region around Geys’s hometown of Balen) are exhibition publications that take the form of a newspaper, and which hav accompanied most of Geys’s projects and exhibitions since the late 1960s. In accordance with the democratic nature of his work, the Kempens Informatiebladen are always made available for free or at a low price, and are Geys’s personal solution to the dissemination of information about his work. As Roland Patteeuw wrote about the Kempens Informatiebladen in Geys’s only, to date, traditional catalogue, published on the occasion of his exhibition at the BAWAG Foundation in Vienna in 2009: ‘Saving and archiving information. For Jef Geys this activity belongs to the area where the proper rules of the game are made and where the contents of each project is situated against a large social background. But informing doesn’t mean explaining. Indeed, the artist never gives any details about his activities. Loads of information can be found in the Kempens Informatieblad […which] covers the background information about the concerning [sic] projects. At the same time it functions as a register of observations and activities in the broadest sense of the word.’ In other words, even if Geys is unwilling to explain or have his projects explained, he is nevertheless dedicated to rendering his thinking process partially clear and accessible. This democratic principle extends to the formal quality of the work itself. Cited in Christine Kintisch (ed.), Jef Geys, Wien, Vienna, Wenen (exh. cat.), Vienna: BAWAG Foundation, 2009, p.13. Two more aspects of the Venice Kempens Informatieblad merit mentioning. Firstly, Geys had originally hoped to make the newspaper edible, but was unsuccessful; secondly, the publication was available for a donation of one euro, the proceeds of which were donated to the Catholic association Caritas that helps homeless people and refugees (a donation of about €9,000—€10,000 was generated during the biennial).

  7. Rosalind Krauss, ‘Grids’, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1986, p.60.

  8. See J. Geys, ‘Middelheim — quadrant plants’, Kempens Informatieblad, Speciale Editie Biennale Venetië, 2009, p.23. Geys has worked with or tried to work with Middelheim, an open-air sculpture park in Antwerp, on several projects. In Digging Middelheim (1969), Geys proposed to transform part of the space into a garden, a proposal that was met with silence. A more abstruse project, The Dream of the Caddie, involved a golf player, a compass and the division of a c.30-metre diameter circle into fundamental geometric parts, and was rejected outright for the 1984 Middelheim Biennial. In Middelheim — quadrant plants, Geys divided Middelheim into 110 quadrants, and asked a collaborator to harvest and frame, as in Quadra Medicinale, one plant per quadrant. He then made one drawing per quadrant, combining an erotic motif and a corporate logo, such as that belonging to Philips or IKEA. (‘The border’, Geys wrote in the Kempens Informatieblad, ‘between what one calls pornography and the cunning tricks of the “business world” is for me close to one another [sic]’.) J. Geys, ‘Quadra Medicinale’, Kempens Informatieblad, Speciale Editie Biennale Venetië,
    op. cit., p.23.

  9. This is not necessarily due to the fact that English is his second language. A good source tells me that he demonstrates similar characteristics in his native language, Flemish.

  10. During a research trip in Belgium, I had the good fortune to meet with Geys. However, within five minutes of meeting him, he explained to me, when I rashly posed a question, that there would be — I quote from memory — ‘no questions. I will speak, and you will listen. People have to do their homework. You can’t just show up here and expect to have everything explained to you’. Never mind that later, in his studio, when I ventured another question with the preface ‘This might be a stupid question,’ he, true to his nearly thirty years of teaching experience, responded, ‘There are no stupid questions.’ Conversation with the artist, 4 December 2010.

  11. Geys’s CV merely consists of an undated, chronological inventory of projects — which is to say that the projects are numbered, or were numbered until recently (he stopped doing even that), but undated.

  12. See J. Geys, ‘Quadra Medicinale’, Kempens Informatieblad, Speciale Editie Biennale Venetië, op. cit., p.6.

  13. J. Geys, ‘Woodward Avenue’, Kempens Informatieblad, Specialie Editie Detroit, op. cit., p.20.

  14. See Herbert Marcuse, ‘Art as Form of Reality’, New Left Review, no.74, 1972, pp.51—58.

  15. Disclaimer: this text of course comes nowhere near describing the complexity of Geys’s work. If I have neglected to discuss such key points and factors as his interdisciplinary approach toward art making, I have done so in the hope of unpacking some of the formal and conceptual anomalies which attend his practice, and ideally rendering it a bit more accessible. For a more traditional appraisal of the stakes of Geys’s work, I urge the diligent reader to consult Dirk Snauwaert’s concise and incisive ‘Handbook/Instruction manual/Guidebook’ (2009) that accompanied Quadra Medicinale; the full version can be downloaded here in English: http://www.wiels.org/site2/event.php?event_
    id=182&lng=en (last accessed on 24 January 2011).