PETER KENNEDY

PIONEER OF POLITICAL ART

“Nothing is more precious than the struggle for national independence and freedom.”1

This statement prefaces Peter Kennedy’s collaborative video November Eleven (1979) which portrays media coverage of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975 and the political and social upheavals that ensued. The November Eleven video was included in the exhibition Resistance: Peter Kennedy at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF), a survey of key examples of Kennedy’s video work from 1971 to 2016. The video’s introductory statement quoted above suggests the genesis of Kennedy’s approach—he addresses significant social and political issues and, in the process, pushes art beyond previously constraining boundaries.

The AEAF exhibition centrepiece was Kennedy’s most recent video work The Photographs Story (2004-16), which portrays Kennedy and his wife and son’s response to the media coverage of the death of a small boy caught in crossfire in Palestine in 2000. The Photographs Story is an immersive installation, comprising large-scale video projections on three walls and, mounted on the fourth wall, a newspaper clipping from 2000 that reported the story, and on which his young son had scrawled a few words. Told in chapters, The Photographs Story opens with Kennedy retrieving the clipping and other photographs from his files, and it includes text by Kennedy recording his memory of the event and readings by his wife. The newspaper article included stills sourced from the TV news video that showed the boy and his father trying to avoid gunfire. Kennedy incorporated that news imagery into The Photographs Story by showing it on a mobile phone, demonstrating the way images travel across time and technology. He also transcribed his son’s words from the newspaper and included footage of his son as a small boy, then as a teenager and now as the kind of adult the Palestinian boy never grew into. This multifaceted, aesthetically complex and powerful response to that haunting incident has evolved over many years from the seed of that newspaper clipping.

Like November Eleven, The Photographs Story exemplifies Kennedy’s experimental approach. As well as drawing our attention to serious political issues, it explores the nature and affective impact of media coverage of such events and how they structure our thinking. In a catalogue essay for a 2002 exhibition, Kennedy is quoted as saying,

I have an abiding belief that an artwork’s capacity to resonate in the minds of an audience is very much contingent on its ‘poetic’ presence.2

In his artist’s talk at the AEAF exhibition opening, Kennedy again emphasised the relationship between aesthetics and politics, a relationship on which political theorist Chantal Mouffe has also commented:

From the point of view of the theory of hegemony, artistic practices play a role in the constitution and maintenance of a given symbolic order or in its challenging and this is why they necessarily have a political dimension. The political, for its part, concerns the symbolic ordering of social relations, what Claude Lefort calls ‘the mise en scène’, ‘the mise en forme’ of human coexistence and this is where lies its aesthetic dimension.’3

This exhibition makes clear how Kennedy’s oeuvre has so challenged the dominant symbolic order artistically and politically. In 1981, Kennedy and John Hughes presented ‘November Eleven’, an Australian History, Installation no. 2–a work in progress at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) in Brisbane. Comprised of fragments of TV news, with some imagery re-coloured for effect, November Eleven also refers to the controversy over the US/Australian joint defence facilities at Pine Gap and Nurrungar, and over suspected US interference generally in Australian politics. Kennedy produced a banner for that exhibition, referencing trade union banners of the late 19th Century and thus invoking the power of trade unions as a democratic force. In his artist’s statement for the IMA exhibition, Kennedy said,

The project concerns the development of a form which synthesises past and present using the events of November, 1975, as a metaphor for the creative exploration of the current Australian situation and its cultural, social and political aspects. In some respects the project could be seen as an extension of the concept of history painting.4

Making a video that is a condensed mash-up of media footage not only conveyed the drama of the political situation but also demonstrated the impact of the media in shaping the public’s response to those events. Kennedy further stated that,

Newsreel material, reworked and given new sound contexts, begins to develop oppositional meanings. The meanings exist in opposition to meanings already established by the television industry through its influence as the dominant public media.5

It was at the Experimental Art Foundation, as the AEAF was then known, in 1976, that Kennedy showed some of his early experimental video work. One of the founders of the Inhibodress artists’ collective in Sydney in 1970, Kennedy was aware of the theories on post-object art of Sydney academic and critic Donald Brook, who subsequently moved to Adelaide and in 1974 co-founded the EAF as an experimental art laboratory. The current exhibition includes archival copies of interviews Kennedy has given about his work and a display of exhibition flyers, correspondence and artist’s statements of the 1970s and 1980s, including a 1974 statement about the formation and running of Inhibodress, in which Kennedy criticises US cultural dominance and promotes instead the idea of an Australian people’s culture, enriched by the cultural work of migrants, Indigenous people and women, that would challenge establishment values.6

From the same period is Kennedy’s video Other Than Art’s Sake (1973-74), a documentary record of his interviews with artists in the UK and US, including Hans Haacke and Adrian Piper, yielding ideas about new directions in art, including public performance art and what has since become popularly known as relational art. In it, Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven discuss the Woman’s Building, an arts centre in Los Angeles (1973-1991) central to feminist art and the feminist movement. Kennedy indicates at the beginning of Other Than Art’s Sake that his intention is to reconsider art’s boundaries and purpose, and these interviews clearly encouraged him.

Another seminal work of Kennedy’s was his video Introductions (1974-1976), which documents the activities of four social clubs—a hot rod club, a marching girls club, a bushwalking club and an embroiderers’ guild—and a related exhibition for which he arranged the space to resemble a lounge room and make it more approachable for club-members. The women embroiderers wanted their work to be classed as art and taken as seriously as painting or sculpture. The hot rod club members also saw their work as a kind of art form and they distanced themselves from hoon drivers. The marching girls felt that marching was one of the few cultural activities open to girls in a male-dominated club world, and marching was seen as a rare opportunity for travel within Australia. And the bushwalkers said that bushwalking provided a new perspective on life, away from the bustling city. Juxtaposing the clubs repositioned them as important elements in a diverse Australian culture. In working outside the conventional gallery format with communities engaged in cultural activities, Kennedy brought under-recognised forms of artistic activity to wider attention. And by connecting these groups, he helped break down cultural barriers and promoted greater community understanding.

Kennedy’s video On Sacred Ground (1983-84), also made collaboratively, is a compilation of fragments of historical and contemporary footage that opens with images of two artworks—a painting depicting an Indigenous ceremony and another depicting the landing of the First Fleet—that record opposing perceptions of colonisation. There is early black and white imagery from missions and schools, photographs of Aboriginal men chained to each other and images of a judge’s wig and a police uniform symbolising colonial authority. The video includes news footage of negotiations over the Noonkanbah mining site and the Aboriginal community’s demonstrations against it. Noonkanbah was central to a land-rights dispute in 1980 when the Western Australian Government provided police protection for an oil exploration project. As with November Eleven, Kennedy again departed from conventional documentary form by compiling fragments of pre-existing material and using superimposition and re-colouring for dramatic effect. Thirty-two years later, On Sacred Ground still retains great power and relevance.

The current exhibition features three new video works that draw upon Kennedy’s earlier work. Fugue (1971-2015) is a selection of early experimental videos shown together on a horizontal array of screens, each with its own loudspeaker mounted at head height, to which you press your ear to listen. One video shows two naked people (one of them Kennedy) embracing closely to hold a microphone between their bodies and generate muffled rubbing sounds as they move about. Another shows Kennedy applying packing tape to the mouth of composer David Ahern—we hear the sound of tape being torn. And another shows Kennedy’s bare chest with several bulldog clips clamped to his skin—as he stretches his skin, the clips fall off, making pinging noises. The idea of the artist as performer has been evident throughout his work. Kennedy’s introduction of sound to accompany video imagery was another significant step in art practice, and the subject matter of the videos, which was also revolutionary, questions societal values—the symbolic silencing of an avant garde composer, the sound-making activity of the lovers (whose performance might be categorised as erotica or pornography), and the masochistic clips (which, at a pinch, might also be seen as erotica).

In a separate room, Kennedy’s Body Concert Part 2: Extended (1971-2015) is a continuously looping excerpt from the video of the naked lovers with the mike between them. It is shown as five parallel wall-projections on a greatly enlarged scale to create a spectacular effect, and is heard through headphones. Viewers might contemplate the issues of privacy and image transmission which have renewed relevance in the era of the internet and social media. Small Tales and True: a Short Story in Four Parts (2005-11) comprises four video projections shown simultaneously, each with text telling the story of a thief who keeps getting caught in the act. The interest is in the social commentary and in the combination of text, sound and multi-channel imagery that disrupts the conventional narrative format.

Kennedy creates a mise en scène by reframing imagery, such as media reportage on topical issues and historical cultural material, and by presenting novel action in a manner that departs from traditional narrative form. His work invites reflection on the chosen issue, on the way it is depicted and its affective power, and on our subject position in relation to it. We become aware of ourselves as actors as well as observers in various theatres of society and politics. Simultaneously, Kennedy’s introduction into the gallery of cultural forms like the activist banner, embroidery and hot rodding, expands the field of art and recognises the makers of such art as legitimate cultural producers. This potentially heightens the self-reflexive awareness of people engaged in those and other art practices and creates a broader and richer community of cultural workers. The boundary between art and life is challenged and the dialogue between the art gallery and the community is broadened.

As well as video, Peter Kennedy works in photography, paint, neon light and other art forms. In focussing on his video work, this AEAF exhibition makes clear the significance of his legacy in that medium, which is evident in so much of contemporary art. 

 

The Photographs’ Story, 2004-ongoing. Video still, 3-channel digital video and sound installation, each part 6.20mins, total 38mins. Image courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

Fugue, 1971–2015. Video still, 8-channel digital video and sound installation. Image courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

Fugue, 1971–2015. Detail. Installation view, Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photograph Sam Cranstoun.

Body Concert Part 2: Extended, 1971–2015. Video still, single-channel video and sound installation, 6.28mins. Image courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

notes: 

Notes
1. Peter Kennedy, John Hughes and Andrew Scollo, November Eleven, video, Sydney, 1979.
2. Anne Marsh, Peter Kennedy, an Avant Garde Practice, catalogue essay for the exhibition Peter Kennedy, Selected Works 1970-2002, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2002, pp.3-8.
3. Chantal Mouffe, ‘Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces’, Art and Research, Vol 1, No. 2, Glasgow, Summer 2007, http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html
4. Peter Kennedy, John Hughes and Andrew Scollo, ‘November Eleven’, an Australian History, Installation No. 2–A Work in Progress, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 1981.
5. Ibid.
6. Peter Kennedy, Inhibodress, a Personal Account – Just for the Record, artist’s statement, 1974.

 

Christopher Reid is an Adelaide-based writer.