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Geczy, Adam (AU)

2008. crox 282,
Buried Alive. Video-presentation. Last project in the video room before TVF art
doc cinema was permanently installed there.

Toasting To The World
Food Crisis With A Bottle Of Dom Perignon, performance. 

 

2010. crox 335,
Remember To Forget The Congo. Performance. voyageaucongo.blogspot.com and
livestream video. Performance from Saturday 1 till Wednesday 5 May.
Presentation of the end result from 6 to 30 May. At first Geczy thought he
would put the complete text of André Gide’s Voyage au Congo on the wall. The
plan was: walls painted black up to 2m50. All walls in the room at the back; the
sliding door was to be kept out of the track. In order not to lose time - Geczy
arrives in Brussels on Friday, the performance starts on Saturday – we agreed
that we would take care of the wall. Geczy has prepared everything perfectly. Each
element of the performance is well considered, no nail too much, no nail too
little. The performance starts, naturally, during opening night. From then on,
Geczy continuously pounds away, from two till six, four days consecutively, without
a break. Only from time to time does he take a small pauze. After a single day
it becomes clear already that he will not be able to do the whole text unless
he stays a month. He can’t. He is expected in Sydney by the end of the week.
Some months after the performance The Monthly, a leading magazine down
under,(1) publishes an article about the project, a spread of two pages with
some images. The article’s author is Adam Geczy. Geczy also extensively writes
about the Toasting To The World Food Crisis performance from 2008, the other
project he created especially for Croxhapox.

 

REMEMBER TO FORGET THE CONGO Adam Geczy

For almost a decade I had cherIshed the idea of
doing a show about the Congo in Belgium. This was not out of some specific
personal interest or social calling, only the Belgian Congo seems to be the
quintessence of imperialist hell. I write in the present tense because although
Belgium has ceased its claim over its former colony, the effects of its rule
continue to ravage the country in the most imponderably violent fashion. This
is so for most formerly imperialised nations, but especially for those in
Africa. The site of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, since it became a personal
acquisition of Leopold II of Belgium in 1885, Congo’s fortunes have been but
differing degrees of horror.
Leopold never set foot in the country because he believed that the
impenetrability of the terrain was on par with the backwardness and brutality
of its people. Yet at brutality was what he excelled. He established a
particularly effective form of coercion of the local population to obtain the
rubber useful for machinery, and which increased in demand through the growing
popularity of motor vehicles (Karl Benz patented his Motorwagen also in 1885).
Grotesquely, under the false auspices of humanitarian objectives, men were
extracted from their families and warned that without committing a period of
service they would never see them again. Predictably not many did;
subordination was met with mutilation, hand amputation being a speciality.
Succumbing to the outcry of other European countries, in 1908 the colony was
ceded to the Belgian state. Meanwhile the Congolese population had almost
halved and Leopold had grown fabulously rich. Rubber plantations remain, but it
is in minerals where the economy excels. The Congo is the world’s largest
producer of cobalt ore, has copper and diamonds in plenty, and is a major
source of coltan, a metallic ore essential for electronic devices. The regions
producing these materials are regularly in dispute, effectively leaving the
Congo in a constant state of civil war.
It is surprising how few people know about Andre? Gide’s Voyage au Congo let
alone have read it. Surprising because at the time of its publication in 1927,
it ignited controversy about the conditions of French and Belgian imperialism
in Africa and lent major weight to the anti- colonialism movement. Having
studied French literature myself, I was intrigued by the hole in such
rudimentary knowledge when I stumbled upon it. This may have been a matter of
my own stupidity, but from the point of view of the germination of the artwork,
I took my own ignorance and that of others not as an oversight, but instead as
a symbol of a conservative repression, a kind of negative osmosis. There are
events and eras of such magnitude that, it is said, they ought never be
forgotten. Yet to keep them within the light of the present takes some effort.
To relinquish that effort also exposes the conservatism of lassitude, let alone
the negative will that resides in an amnesia that asks to remain unchecked.
My previous exhibition in late 2008 at the experimental art space in Ghent,
Croxhapox, was accompanied by the performance, Toasting the world food crisis
with a bottle of Dom Perignon. It was a piece whose idea came from those rare
occasions when, on savouring an expensive meal or wine, one momentarily feels a
pang of shame when the mind strays to consider the logical force of such
extravagance in terms of our normal weekly expenses. But if we then transplant
these scruples into the realm of demography, it is as if when eating a steak,
the suppressed shame of the routine terrors of the slaughterhouse must now also
extend to the plight of underprivileged humanity. When we indulge in an
expensive wine we could be feeding a village. Bon sante?.
Over several months I amassed mostly arbitrary statistics of the cost of food
and labour in various African countries relative to a sip of Dom Perignon, the
luxury drink par excellence. Based on an average price of US$200, one sip
equates to around $8, and its translation into the activities of the
'developing' (developing into what?) world is crushing. During the performance I
sat below a screen and slowly consumed the bottle, my face painted a pale blue
for defamiliarisation. A litany of statements divided into short phrases pulsed
away in an almost inexorable rhythm: ‘In Guinea-Bissau, the average annual
gross income is $200, which is the average price of a bottle of Dom Perignon’,
or ‘In Bangladesh well over half the population live on less than a dollar a
day. That is, about 12% of a single sip’. By the second draught of wine I felt
disgusted, which suggested that the performance was working its negative magic
over me, and possibly over those watching it. Unusually, the audience stood
largely rooted to the spot, entranced and appalled by the spectacle.
In proposing Remember to Forget the Congo the connection between the two works
was only, oddly enough, made in retrospect. And as I suggested previously,
there was nothing personal or ideological about this looming African obsession
except to see it as a case of international embarrassment. I was to inhabit a
room blackened to the height of two metres (a comfortable high arm’s reach) for
five hours over five days and write out Gide’s account (Voyage au Congo) until
the room became progressively whiter and almost returned to its former state.
By physically remembering the book I would simultaneously be consigning it back
into oblivion, making me the voice of revival while at the same time complicit
in its forgetting.
Blue drop-sheets were affixed to the floor around the painted parts of wall,
enframing the room via the floor. In the centre, a single sheet made an island
on which were the apparatus of the performance: a table and chair painted the
same black as the wall, a box of latex gloves, ten new black brushes, two for
each day, and of course the book. One of the items of black clothing, folded
diligently on the chair, and the old sneakers underneath had special
references. Both were Nike brands (think sweatshops) but fakes, the sneakers
bought in Bangkok twenty years ago, and the track pants in Beijing during the
live art festival there in 2006. As it turned out the work was cleaner than I
had expected and the gloves may not have been necessary. Once again, only later
did I consider them an appropriate allusion to the rubber for which millions of
Congolese perished.
By the end of the first day of the performance I had barely managed to cover
the top half of the room, and only a handful of pages. The second day was spent
largely bending up and down and see-sawing on my haunches, the writing
progressively gaining in size with the extent of my discomfort. By the middle
of the day, I began to feel like the prisoner of my own devising, doing
unsolicited, voluntary penance for the wickedness about which I had no
first-hand knowledge. I had begun to get accustomed to the tolling of the church
bell every half-hour. At the day’s close I only managed to cover the walls but
not pass onto the next layer, although my physical demolition was all but
complete. The floor was as cold as Gide’s Congo was hot.
There are only stray notes of triumph in Gide’s account. When he arrives in
Dakar at the start of his journey he finds it dull and coarse, the sounds from
street prevent him from sleeping. He is conscious of his status as the Western
intruder, cloyed by the colours, immobilised by the heat and buffeted by the
chaos. All of this is stitched together
with beautiful prose. He is enraptured by the wildlife, the terrain, the
sunsets. At times I just write mechanically taking little heed of what is being
said; at other times the meditative blankness is interrupted when I stop to
read a passage over again and muse briefly over it. These repetitive actions
make for slow reading. A recurrent motif appears to be the butterflies that
surprise him with their brilliant colours. Butterflies live for only a day. Perhaps
then they are the ultimate embodiments of the condition of beauty.
On the third day I gained pace. The writing became larger, thicker and freer. I
began to use more paint, make more mess, and cover more ground. Like a prisoner
grown habituated to a cell, even to associate it with relative comfort, I
became more sanguine and confident with the mechanical movements of
transcribing a foreign language about a man I never knew, transplanted to a
foreign place. Using the lines of the second layer he could make out, the
director of the gallery, Hans van Heirseele (‘van’), composed a poem of the
words around me as I wrote at one point:

where all the mixed sounds sleep
deeply
on the lower plains
beyond where some waves below waving
in their monotony
delighting to think that
a same colour
among the blacks
whose huts are scarcely distinguishable
are the same colour.

The last day was the least arduous. I clocked out at 2:20pm after completing a
third layer. Except for a few glimpses of black, which gave the walls a silvery
sheen, the wall was almost wholly white. It had transformed into a dense
palimpsest-residue of words, a beautiful skein, holding a certain menace. As I
did at the close of every day, I carefully folded and arranged the black
clothing, now dirty and specked with white, on the chair. With the table also a
bit spattered, the layout looked part museum piece, part remote remnant of a
Stasi interrogation bureau. The latex gloves now formed an amorphous pile.
Because I hadn’t performed in the second half of the day, one clean, untouched
paintbrush lay alone on the table, the rest in the empty paint pot, caked in
dried or drying paint. The book lay splayed face-down at the page at which I
ended: 54. I made sure all was in its proper place. Mournful like a prisoner
reluctant to leave his cell, my eye alighted upon the name that the paint
company called this shade of white. Like some complaisant voice, or maybe a
sign of silent revenge, it read: ‘Marrakesh white.’
Dr Adam Geczy teaches Sculpture, Performance and Installation at Sydney College
of the Arts. Remember to Forget the Congo was conducted at Croxhapox Gallery in
Ghent, Belgium, 1 to 5 May, remaining as an installation until 30 May. The
performance and installation are documented in detail at www.voyageaucongo.blogspot.com.
Of the performance’s live audience, Geczy comments that ‘it was interesting how
the performance created a ‘no-go’ zone in which people felt inhibited to step
in past a certain point while I was there. This for me was a salutary indication
of what was working well since most good performances generate a charged space
around the action.’ Australian Monthly, July 2010.

(1) The Monthly, Australian politics, society & culture,
'one of Australia's boldest voices, home to the finest writers, journalists and
critics'. Zo staat het op de site van The Monthly. www.themonthly.com.au