Jef Geys (b. 1934, Leopoldsburg) breaks decisively with the notion of art as an autonomous phenomenon.
He radically embraces art as being intertwined with everyday life. Geys reverses or undermines hierarchies by switching identities, infiltrating his work into unusual settings and introducing the ordinary things of life into his art. Since 1958 he has been saving traces of his personal life and his immediate surroundings: the village of Balen. On the Belgian periphery, it is Geys’s Archimedean point, as the archive is his medium. As an accumulation of the ordinary, his oeuvre has expanded into a many-branched tangle of associations that will continue to grow in parallel with the real-time activity of the artist. For Geys, exhibitions are occasions to distil new syntheses from his archive, thereby questioning clearly delineated patterns of thought concerning art and life.
Jef Geys, Passeport de vache, 1965-2014
Cow Passports (les passeports de vaches) was developed in 1965 and 1966 when Jef Geys, who was helping his cattle merchant father-in-law, drew and registered the physical characteristics of the latter’s cows, thus providing them with an identity.
Jef Geys’s œuvre, which he began in 1947 at the age of 13, has always tended to hug the shadows, to camouflage itself and approach the categories of contemporary art from the rear. His work is firmly anchored in autobiography; it resides in the margins of aesthetic contemplation and creates a constant dynamic somewhere between popular culture and drawing attention to the banal.
In favouring ‘the world as support’ and in his attempt at a synthesis of art and life, Jeff Geys (though he makes no claim to it) belongs in the tradition of Fluxus. Since 1958 he has been making a meticulous inventory of all his works, which he orders according to subject, genre, year and number. Out of this archive, Jef Geys extracts the themes for his new exhibitions, which are really just one way of inspecting and reactivating autobiographical events and old works in a new context that will re-energise the meaning.
Jef Geys, Quadra Medicinale, 2009
The project is an interdisciplinary research documented with plans, inventories, descriptions, photos and drawings. As a point of departure, Jef Geys adopts the term terroir, a term that relates more to the notion of biotope than with the idea of territory. With regards to motifs and structures, Geys develops elements that have featured in his work since the last four decades and which are documented in the accompanying newspaper.
Quadra Medicinale begins with a basic research the artist asked four acquaintances who live or work in a large city Villeurbanne, New York, Moscow and Brussels to carry out. Each of them delineated one square kilometre and, within that surface, searched for twelve wild plants that grow in the streets, in order to explore the basic components of their immediate surroundings.
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 to join the flying circus of ‘would be curators’ who hop from one carcass to another, so be it, travel on from one colloquium to another and be a member of what seems to me more than ever the ‘Club Med art of the years 2000…’ 1
These two baleful paragraphs function not only as a warning of sorts, but also, more importantly, as a righteous condemnation of certain modes of operating in the art world and — to put it mildly — as a statement of intent, a work ethic or even an ethic tout court, in negative. I am strongly tempted to believe that significant clues as to how Geys operates and has operated in the world and the art world, however remotely, for the past nearly fifty years are woven deeply within the very fabric of these two paragraphs. For all their awkward phrasing, reckless, would-be profusion of sics (more on that later) and general vitriol, they are instrumental to understanding what motivates Geys as an artist and, possibly, a human being.
I should start by perhaps stating the obvious: implicit in Geys’s brief but potent text is a fundamental belief in art’s essential capacity to make a positive social impact, to register as something much more than a cosmetic enhancement of the lifestyle of a privileged few. Rather, it sees art as that which promotes an actively ethical engagement with the world. This is done by appealing to the critical agency of a given subject so as to help him or her learn to take as little for granted as possible (what more could be asked of art? Of an exhibition, a poem, a novel, a movie? What more basic service could art possibly offer than helping one become more present in one’s own life? In others’? In the world? Perhaps this is what Robert Filliou meant when he said: ‘Art is that which makes life more interesting than art.’). In case the text cited above did not make it clear, Geys is not, by any stretch of the imagination, some kind of utopia-addled hippy; a deeply Foucauldian and occasionally obstreperous distrust of power structures and how they manage our lives may be found in the negative penumbra of his positive aesthetics. It is how he chooses to identify, negotiate and challenge those structures through the development of ethical methodologies that accounts for his positive contribution as an artist.
Woodward Avenue, 2009 (film by Ina Vandebroek)
The images from this movie are selected from workshops about intercultural healthcare that took place in the Tropics of Bolivia in 2009. The workshops brought Bolivian physicians and medical students together with traditional healers and community members from Yurakare and Trinitario indigenous groups in the Bolivian lowland rainforest. These communities do not have access to Western medicine and depend almost entirely on their own traditional medicine for healthcare.
During the workshops, similarities and differences were discussed between indigenous and Western views on recognition and treatment of illness. Healers also talked about the plant remedies they use for ailments of the liver and gall bladder, fever and pain, intestinal parasites and lice. Some of the illnesses they mentioned are also known in Western medicine, but many other illnesses are not, such as desombro (being grabbed by Mother Earth) ormocheó (caused by the smell of a dead human being or animal). The latter illnesses have a strong cultural component for which there does not exist a direct “translation” in Western medicine.
The continuation of a dialogue between physicians, medical students and traditional healers from indigenous communities by means of workshops is important to develop healthcare that is both effective and culturally acceptable.