– Summer 2011

The Really Ignorant Schoolmaster: Jef Geys, Amongst Many Others

Dieter Roelstraete

Jef Geys, Brieven aan Roger — Kempens Informatieblad (Letter to Roger — Kempens Informatieblad), n.d., newspaper. Collection of the Flemish Community on loan to SMAK, Ghent. Courtesy the artist and SMAK

Jef Geys, Brieven aan Roger — Kempens Informatieblad (Letter to Roger — Kempens Informatieblad), n.d., newspaper. Collection of the Flemish Community on loan to SMAK, Ghent. Courtesy the artist and SMAK

Of all my works I must show

— Everyman1

In the spring of 2008, Okwui Enwezor organised ‘Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art’ at the International Center for Photography in New York, an exhibition that included the same work by Jef Geys that had been on view in Enwezor’s Documenta11 six years earlier — one of only a handful of occasions in the last decade that allowed a broader art audience to acquaint itself with the oeuvre of the notoriously elusive and wayward Belgian artist. The work, a 36-hour-long film-cum-slide show made up of tens of thousands of black-and-white photographs taken by the artist from the late 1950s to the early 2000s, is titled Day and Night and Day… and in Enwezor’s eloquent words,

it belongs to this temporal category in which the archive is used to elicit the boundless procession of discrete levels of time, as a juncture between past and present. […] It is both a personal and cultural meditation on time and the archive. […] The film is not only structurally about the flow of images from a time past into the present; by virtue of its languorous movement, unfolding one panel at a time, the form of its delivery is also intended to confound the ability to distil the film into an index of a life’s work. Working with the basic format of an inventory, in an almost chronological register, the photographs are activated as moving pictures by slow dissolves. Nothing much happens in the film apart from shifts in tone, gradations of muted gray

  1. Anonymous, ‘The Summoning of Everyman’ (c.15th century), available at http://www.onlineliterature.com/anonymous/everyman/1/ (last accessed on 15 March 2011).

  2. Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, Göttingen and New York: Steidl and International Center of Photography, 2008, pp.25—26.

  3. Holland Cotter, ‘Well, It Looks Like Truth’, The New York Times, 18 January 2008. Also available at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/18/arts/design/18arch.html (last accessed on 8 February 2011).

  4. Geys was never formally (or even informally) involved with Fluxus, an association he resists for the same reason he steers clear of the labels of Concept art or Nouveau Réalisme — because they are essentially disciplinarian art world nomenclatures. It is perhaps the work of an artist such as Robert Filliou that offers the most congenial comparative model: even if Filliou, in his oft-repeated claim that one should cultivate ‘genius without talent’, still clings (if only ironically) to the dodgy, classificatory notion of genius, he does so under the aegis of what he himself called the ‘equivalency principle’, a jokey faux-theory first propounded in 1968, according to which all artworks are fundamentally equal, whether they be ‘well-done’, ‘badly done’ or ‘not done’ at all. Another artistic practice rooted in a comparable set of principles that Geys’s could be linked to in the context of egalitarianism is that of Hans-Peter Feldmann, who also shares Geys’s interest in the diaristic (see, for instance, Die Toten 1967—1993, published in 1997), and whose own occasional forays into autobiography approximate the resolutely proletarian aesthetic of Al de foto’s tot 1998 as well as Geys’s long-running Kempens Informatieblad.

  5. In Jan Hoet’s landmark 1986 exhibition ‘Chambres d’Amis’, Geys’s characteristically unobtrusive contribution consisted of printing the three ideals of the French Revolution in three languages on a number of doors that were then installed in the private quarters of those inhabitants of Ghent who had agreed to open their homes to the exhibition’s scattered art trajectory. However, while most of the art in ‘Chambres d’Amis’ was shown inside the lavish houses of well-to-do art lovers (mostly nineteenth-century bourgeois interiors), Geys consciously chose to exhibit his work inside the working-class houses that had been left out of the exhibition circuit.

  6. Kempens Informatieblad is a freely distributed ‘regional’ newspaper which Geys took over in 1971; Geys has published a new edition of the decidedly lowbrow-looking Kempens Informatieblad for pretty much every exhibition he has done since.

  7. Marie-Ange Brayer, ‘De Kleine Identiteiten’, in Jef Geys and Roland Patteuw (ed.), Jef Geys (exh. cat), Brussels: Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, 1992, p.4. A more engaging comparison can perhaps be made with the various early Soviet experiments in anti-hierarchical, communal art making, with regards to which Geys himself, in a rare moment of autobiographical candour, has noted the following: ‘One of the characters from the heroic Russian period who attracted me the most was Nikolai Ladovsky. At the Moscow Vkhutemas Vkhtein Insitute in the 1920s he propagated the synthesis between painting, sculpture and architecture and the use of psychoanalysis to create architectural space. He was deeply convinced that good innovative architecture is possible only as the result of close cooperation between the producer (architect) and the consumer (the masses).’ J. Geys, ‘Story’, in Piet Coessens and J. Geys (ed.), Jef Geys: Bienal São Paulo 1991 (exh. cat), Ghent: Imschoot Uitgevers, 1991, unpaginated.

  8. See the following characterisation by Joris Note, one of Geys’s longtime literary travelling companions (that’s really what he is, quite literally), from 1990, when the last thing any self-respecting artist wanted was to be called ‘didactic’: ‘in a paradoxical, chuckling way, the slightly lawless art of Jef Geys is didactic’. J. Geys and R. Patteuw (ed.), Jef Geys: ABC École de Paris, Zedelgem: Stichting Kunst and Projecten, 1990, unpaginated.

  9. If Women’s Questions is one of Geys’s better-known works, this is partly because the questions continue to be translated in a steadily expanding number of languages, from French and Japanese to Arab and Chinese — a different language each time the work is exhibited in a different linguistic context (the questions themselves remain the same, not in the least because of many of the problems addressed in this list remain the same).

  10. M.-A. Brayer, ‘De Kleine Identiteiten’, op. cit., p.11. Translation the author’s.

  11. In the 1966—67 period, Geys had also encouraged his students to compose a picture of ‘their’ world that could not differ more from that delivered to us by the institution of geography, however politically enlightened, inviting them to bring self-made photographs to their art class for extensive group discussion.

  12. In Brayer’s words, Geys ‘presents as “work” that which precedes work, i.e. an ABC’. M.-A. Brayer, ‘De Kleine Identiteiten’, op. cit., p.6.

  13. Jacques Rancière, The Philosopher and His Poor (trans. John Drury, Corinne Oster and Andrew Parker), Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, p.74.

  14. Rancière continues: ‘thus the learned editor of the Journal des économistes has no hesitation about the identity of the German communist expelled by the French government for his incendiary writings. Mr Karl Marx, he informs his readers, is a shoemaker.’ Ibid., p.60.

  15. Ibid., p.223

  16. J. Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987, trans. Kristin
    Ross), Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991, p.39. Elsewhere he suggests that ‘equality and
    intelligence are synonymous terms, exactly like reason and will. This synonymy on which each man’s
    intellectual capacity is based is also what makes society, in general, possible.’ Ibid., p.73.

  17. Ibid., p.55.

  18. Ibid., p.96.

  19. Along with that of Robert Filliou (see note 3), the work of Joseph Beuys offers another interesting set of analogies and comparisons, and much of their (admittedly low-lying) convergences concern the status of both writing and the artist’s name, and the writing of the artist’s name in particular: whereas Beuys’s signature still bears the mark of the ancient model of artistic authority and autocratic legitimacy (a whimsical, only half-legible scribble suffices to ensure the mysterious emergence of value), Geys’s instantly recognisable handwriting is much more machinic, consciously de-auratised — everyman’s signature, and all the more legible because of it.

  20. In the words of Marie-Ange Brayer, the exhibition that coupled Jef Geys with Gijs Van Doorn ‘eroded the polar opposition of art and non-art by way of a process of homonymy’. M.-A. Brayer, ‘De Kleine Identiteiten’, op. cit., p.10.

  21. Until quite recently, Geys catalogued every single artwork or artistic act in a chronological list, beginning in 1947 with the cryptic entry gnomic ‘Brothers of Love (School of the Christian brothers)’ and ending in 2009 with entry number 665, ‘The Armory Show New York, Erna Hecey Gallery’. I have used this list, not dissimilar to works such as Day and Night and Day… and Women’s Questions in its droning uniformity, as the primary source for my research into the use of various proper names throughout Geys’s career. It can be viewed at http://www.ernahecey.com/uk/jef_geys_biography.php (last accessed on 8 February 2011).

  22. Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities (trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike), London: Picador, 1995, p.296. Joris Note has referred to Musil’s novel in an unpublished text on Geys’s work that has been a valuable source of information for the present essay.