Kempens Informatieboek SMAK

Posted in Kempens Informatieblad, SMAK by gijs van doorn on April 7, 2015

A cup of coffee in Balen


My first contact with Jef Geys was by post back in 2009. I had sent him a copy of the most recent book of the Flemish Community’s new acquisitions. A week later I found an envelope in my pigeonhole containing a short letter written in capitals: “Hello Iris, thank you for the book. Always welcome in Balen for a cup of coffee. Kind regards, Jef Geys.” I stowed the envelope away in the drawer of my desk where it lay for years, and every time I passed through Balen railway station (never alighting from the train) on my way to my home in the far east of the country, I thought of that still unconsumed cup of coffee with Jef Geys.

Five years later in the summer of 2014 and now Head of Collection at S.M.A.K., I contacted Jef Geys again, this time about Geel, rood, blauw enz… (Yellow, Red, Blue, etc…), a work we wanted to install in the museum. In one of the emails we exchanged on the subject, I found another invitation: “Don’t forget to come by for a cup of coffee if you happen to be near Balen”. There are those times when you think: Es muss sein – It has to be.

So I went and drank that cup of coffee in Balen and it was not long before the idea of mounting an exhibition in Ghent was mooted: something large-scale, for example an exhibition that would take up the whole of the ground floor of the museum. A few weeks later Jef Geys invited me back to show me his finished ‘plan’, which seemed to have come together very nicely.

On display at the centre of the museum is recent work by Geys, i.e. a selection of eighty coffee mats or coasters, which have come to occupy an important place in his oeuvre in recent years. While reading the newspaper and drinking coffee, he scribbles down salient headlines and quotes on the paper coaster on which the coffee is served in the local café, often illustrating the quotes with drawings. So for each coffee mat he creates subsets of recorded events, facts or ideas to which he gives a new order or stratification, thereby establishing or revealing more new meanings or links – quite often in a humorous way. It is this selection of eighty notations and drawings on coasters which was produced in the Kempens Informatieboek to tie in with the exhibition. They constitute a (small) part of the endless ‘archive trail’ which accounts for a large part of Geys’ oeuvre. The remarkable thing about this work is how two seemingly ordinary enough activities like ‘drinking a cup of coffee’ and ‘reading the newspaper’ result in a meaningful object; how a mundane cup of coffee is linked to ‘reading the world’, the maze-like complexity of major world problems and seeming trivialities which find their way into the daily newspaper.

Jef Geys’ work always centres around the critical discussion with society and the world of art and politics. The concept of the coasters, which are a literal and figurative reference to this, provided him with the perfect medium to continue that discussion day after day.

And so a cup of coffee in Balen turned out to be far more significant than I could ever have imagined.

Iris Paschalidis


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