At long last, Jef Geys (b. 1934) can enjoy the deserved fruits of his labours: a presentation in the Belgian pavilion at the Venice Biennial, on the invitation of curator Dirk Snauwaert, director of Wiels in Brussels. Jef Geys’ artistic production now spans more than fifty years and moves cleverly (and lustfully) between the nooks and crannies of the art world and his ‘ordinary’ family life, which takes place in his home town of Balen in the province of Kempen.
Jef Geys keeps a meticulous, numbered archive of his works. If you peruse the various editions of the Kempens Informatieblad (Kempen Newsletter) – a freely distributed newspaper that Geys took over in 1971 and still publishes whenever an exhibition occasions it – you will note that each new project is comprised of a well-considered mosaic of earlier works. The Kempens Informatieblad serves as a means of illuminating the content of Geys’ work. It reveals the sources from which he distils his visions of the world– always from the perspective of his own ‘terroir’. It is as if he first needs the local experience in order to extrapolate it into works of art, which in turn takes a step up to ‘dreaming of a better world’.
Last year, Jef Geys took part in Archive Fever, an exhibition curated by Okwui Enwezor, held at the International Centre of Photography in New York. In the exhibition catalogue, Enwezor wrote about archives as monuments, as ‘meditations’ on time. He referred to Jef Geys’ Day and Night and Day and ... (2002), shown at Documenta 11 in Kassel, in terms of a ‘chronotope’, by which he meant the intersecting coordinates of time and space. That film – a magnum opus in Geys’ oeuvre – is a full 36 hours long, made up of a slow revue of photographs from Geys’ extensive photographic archives. In chronological order, they represent his journey through life in the form of a single, grand and unavoidable shuttling motion, back and forth between private and public life. The film quite simply cannot be seen in the time available, but it makes it very clear that in Geys’ vision, art and life cannot be separated.
Quadra Medicinale, the project that Geys has created for the Venice Biennial, can once again be seen as a synthesis of earlier projects. In the Venice edition of the free paper, the Kempens Informatieblad, Geys refers to more than fifty related works. His proposal is a radical variation on ‘the possibility of a street-sensitive survival strategy’, revolving around a primary, basic necessity of man: food. The artist asked four people, from New York, Lyon, Brussels and Moscow, to mark out a length of ground in their immediate surroundings from one to two kilometres long, and to look there for twelve plants or weeds that are either edible or have medicinal properties. The plants are dried, scientifically described, provided with additional information on their uses and are drawn by the artist. Geys had initially hoped to produce an edible, digestible version of the Kempens Informatieblad, but this proved not to be technically feasible.
In Venice, Geys will present an impressive, humane project, one with which he will rub the noses of the hip Biennial in-crowd in the harsh realities beyond the Giardini, where reside the homeless, the defenceless, the wretched of ‘our’ system. Geys has made his project for Venice a grand human gesture, while resolutely rejecting all allusion to purposes of charity. His investigation is on behalf of the self-sufficient self-esteem of every individual.
Luk Lambrecht is a free-lance art critic and curator for Cultuurcentrum Strombeek