The South African-born artist Kendell Geers changed his date of birth to May 1968 in recognition of that revolutionary moment in which history shifted upon the axis of globalism. As an artist who inhabits the interzone between Europe and Africa, between the mainstream and the underground, Geers holds to the uncompromising vision that art can change the world. (He adds, with a bit of irony, “one perception at a time.”) He weaves a tapestry in which the counterculture of William Burroughs is merged with Frantz Fanon and the sacrilegious weft of Picabia.
I awoke from “the Sickness” at the age of forty-nine, calm and sane and in reasonably good health except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive. Until then I had followed the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, that sickness birthed by the inhumanity of a condition too brutal for words. The Dadaists, Surrealists, Fauves, Expressionists, Cubists, and the rest lashed out at the creeping industrialisation that found its most brutal expression in the two world wars. They smashed through every form of representation in order to open out the image and implode the structures of logic, exposing the horrors of trench warfare, mustard gas, fascism, dictators, atomic bombs, concentration camps, and genocide.
The rise of photography and the spread of mechanical reproduction inspired artists to cut through the image with a knife, to rip poetry out from its binding and cut up the text in order to expose the raw guts of the boundless horrors of what we used to call reality.
The Surrealist pope, André Breton, raised the stakes with increasingly macabre chains of fantasy in order to whip open the bourgeois imagination, bleeding it dry to cicatrise the wounds that represented the human condition. The second Manifesto of Surrealism, published between the wars on December 15th, 1929, began with an ultimatum: “We combat, in whatever form they may appear, poetic indifference, the distraction of art, scholarly research, pure speculation; we want nothing whatever to do with those, either large or small, who use their minds as they would a savings bank.”
In the same text he furthermore declared that “The purest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”
The world has since changed and today we are living in a permanent surreal condition in which violence has become our daily bread, our pain quotidien. This year alone, the death toll mounts, almost every week, as drones drop bombs on villages halfway around the world, displacing families who form into long lines of refugees, fleeing, drowning, dying for a better opportunity than the seventh level of Hell they once called home.
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Suicidal sadists rise up from every corner of the globe, frustrated and angry that their mouths have been sewn shut with the ligaments of political injustice, shooting randomly into crowds, stabbing strangers, committing suicide with homemade fertilizer bombs. Innocence hangs in the balance as every public square, airport, train station, subway, restaurant, and shopping mall is a potential site of shock and awe.
Exactly 227 years after the revolutionary Parisian mob stormed the Bastille to ignite the spirit of freedom, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove through a celebrating mob, randomly shooting into the crowd, killing 84 people and wounding 308. There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille: four forgers, two “lunatics,” and one “deviant” aristocrat, the Marquis de Sade, the artist who baptised the bastard called Sadism. The manuscript of his 120 Days of Sodom was penned on a single sheet, twelve metres long, that had been smuggled into prison and glued together with two centuries of panic.
The world has changed, spinning on its axis; the radical is now reactionary and the avant-garde has been emasculated by a brutal and raw reality. Art is eclipsed by life and Surrealism is kicked to the ground zero by Terrorealism. What was once Surrealism’s black mirror of the unimaginable and impossible extreme is now daily news, broadcast as predigested entertainment on social media. The pendulum swings and the reign of terror threatens to devour every last protest of sanity.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold — mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
The prophet Picabia warned, “One dies a hero’s death or an idiot’s death —which comes to the same thing. The only word that has more than a day-to-day value is the word Death. You love death — the death of others.”
Where is art in the crowd that has been run over, why are the artists silent in protest? I saw Picabia being beaten to his knees and with a bag over his head, whispering through the canvas, “Kill them! Let them die! Only money does not die… That is God! That is someone to respect: someone you can take seriously! Money is the prie-dieu of entire families. Money forever! Long live money! The man who has money is a man of honour.”
The work of art wallows in politically-correct sentiment, wearing zombie rags of undead Formalist tricks. The stage magician tells us to look over there at the gavel, close your eyes and listen to the sound of the auctioneer in a trance, pay attention to nothing in the blind man’s bluff. ProPaganDaDa alone does not smell: it is nothing, nothing, nothing. It is like your hopes: nothing, like your paradise: nothing, like your idols: nothing, like your heroes: nothing, like your artists: nothing, like your religions: nothing.
It is only acceptable as silence. It takes just four revolutionary minutes and a martyr’s thirty-three seconds of silence. But, for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. Grab what you can get for the sake of what is to be got, just robbery, with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blindly — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.
Ideas do not necessarily proceed in logical order. They may set one off in unexpected directions, but an idea must necessarily be completed in the mind before the next one is formed. Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.
Conceptual art is speechless, losing itself in economic defeat. The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this fact corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.
The prophet Picabia spoke of nothing and Adorno wrote about barbarism. Conrad looked deep within his heart of darkness because Yeats was unleashing anarchy upon the world, but theirs was a spiritual nothing.
Sol LeWitt said that Sigmund Freud understood nothing. The father of Oedipus was executed because he knew that when you become immersed in the world of the Bhagavad Gita, where nothing seems constant and where everything melts into everything else, then you are suddenly confronted by nothingness. Do you know what it means to be confronted by nothingness? Do you know what that means? And yet this very nothingness is simply a European misconception. The Hindu Nirvana is not nothingness, it is that which transcends all contradictions. It is not, as Europeans commonly take it to be, a sensual enjoyment, but the ultimate in superhuman understanding, an ice-cold, all-comprehending yet scarcely comprehensible insight. If misunderstood, it is madness. What do these European would-be mystics know about the profundity of the East? They rave on, but they know nothing. And then they are surprised when they lose their heads and are not infrequently driven mad by it — literally driven out of their minds.
With nothing as guide, no rudder to steer, and no holy grail, art has lost its way with nothing to say. What can we believe in when nothing is impossible to like?
The world has changed and the radical is now reactionary, and so the avant-garde rises once again in pagan resurrection. The ghosts of Dada rise, exactly a century later, to haunt us once again, like nothing before or since. The social-media propaganda machines cannot corrupt nature as seasons swing and storms rage, the planet correcting human error. The world of spirit, the demons of our flesh that mark the age of the Kali Yuga, the inside doubt of an unconscious in protest, nature is nothing.
Who can answer the question, “What is my nature?”
Riddle me this: γνῶθι σεαυτόν 1“Know thyself.” [Ed.], who am I? Nothing! My flesh, my bone, my sex, my death, I think therefore I do not!
I am sacred, I am scared, I am scarred, and I am no thing. My scars run through my white African flesh, down to the broken bones buried in the country of my skull. From my ancestors the Gauls I have pale blue eyes, a narrow brain, and awkwardness in competition. I think my clothes are as barbaric as theirs. But I don’t butter my hair. The Gauls were the most stupid hide-flayers and hay-burners of their time. From them I inherit idolatry, and love of sacrilege — oh! all sorts of vice, anger, lechery — terrific stuff, lechery — lying, above all, and laziness. I have a horror of all trades and crafts.
Oh, the horror, the horror. Criminals are as disgusting as men without balls: I’m intact, and I don’t care because Rimbaud is dead and Rambo will never die.
The future is reflected in the past, the eternal pendulum of human stupidity, barbarians every one of us. Will we ever learn that we are nature and that God is nothing? Will we ever understand that nature is nothing, without God.
But instead, nothing. I am well aware that I have always been of an inferior race. I cannot understand revolt. My race has never risen, except to plunder, to devour like wolves a beast they did not kill. My white African skin flays and bleeds in protest against my European ancestors, in rage I resist, in pain I become a child of my nature. Nothing, like everything else. Without spirit there is nothing. Without protest there is even less. In nature I find my pagan father, my cannibal ancestors, my superior mother. Now I am accursed; I detest my native land.
William Burroughs, you are out of your Third Mind. Cut, Copy,
Paste, Rewind. Now rub doub the swords. Rewind. Repeat.
De Profundis Domine, what an ass I am,
- 1“Know thyself.” [Ed.]