Requiem chorus

Sat, 22/06/2013 - 14:27 -- damien
Peter Kennedy's millenium opus

Figures of authority, master narratives, collective dreams and personal memories punctuate Peter Kennedy's installations of the 1990s, as the artist focuses on aspects of critical thought and the big issues of his own lifetime. I want to look in detail at two of Kennedy's installations: one from the beginning of the decade Chorus from the Breath of Wings (1993), and the Requiem for Ghosts (1998).1 Both are large scale works which take up the entire gallery space, and in each the multiple components resonate with each other so that the artist's way of thinking, his process of creating the work, becomes apparent to the viewer.

Chorus was a collection of vertical and horizontal 'totems' which used the debris of consumer and electronic culture to create meditations on ideology and history at the end of the millennium. Loud speakers, old television screens, radio parts and refrigerated domestic appliances were used, along with video and audio tape, to create individual sculptural assemblages. In each work Kennedy cleverly undermined the spectacle of the electronic media at the same time as using a multi-media phantasmagoria to deliver his messages.

In his installations Kennedy pursues a kind of dialectical thinking through which contradictions are made evident to the viewer. However, he is not content to let these things exist in a state of chaos, but elucidates oppositions and plays with a synthesis of ideas that are never quite closed off. Rather than presenting a kind of ' total ' work which leaves little room for perceptual manoeuvring, this process gives the viewer a conceptual entry into the artist's creative space.

This open-ended poetic meditation was important in Chorus from the Breath of Wings, because here Kennedy was dealing with fairly explicit concepts like Modernism, Communism and Socialism at a time when these once 'alternative ' and Utopian ideologies had failed in their institutionalized contexts. Stalin's corruption of Marx and the subsequent atrocities committed under the totalitarian arm of Communism had shattered both regimes and ideals in the East and the West. The failure of the Left is, in Kennedy's assessment, a direct result of its totalitarian enactment within history. Kennedy's project, as an artist still committed to a Leftist analyses of culture and history, was to present the downfall of these totalitarian models without foreclosing sing on the possibility of the ideas which initially informed these regimes. This was not an easy task in an art world that had embraced the apocalyptic rhetoric of critics, such as Jean Baudrillard, who espoused the end of history, the end of politics, and the end of the psychosocial, in a tone which seemed to celebrate the demise and simultaneously to conserve a well of tears for the lost ideals of the Left.

In Chorus from the Breath of Wings Kennedy turned to Waiter Benjamin as a kind of critical and poetic mentor. Benjamin's method of writing, as well as his interpretation of history and ideology, preserved a Marxist political position in relation to art and society. At the same time he developed a dialectics of seeing, an imagistic reading where groups of images and ideas intersect with one another in a poetic rather than a didactic way.2 Benjamin's philosophy of history, for example, used photography, the cinema and nineteenth century phantasmagoria as metaphors for history and the way in which memory and the psyche operate.3 In Benjamin's thinking, ideology was not simply the inverted view of the 'real' world which Marx figured when he adopted the camera obscura as a model to explain ideology.4 For Benjamin, like many Frankfurt School Marxists, the workings of ideology through commodity culture was more complex and involved the projection of individual desires through what he called the optical unconscious. For Benjamin photography's negative/positive technique was much like the workings of the conscious and unconscious mind.5 The latent image, like the repressed desire, could become manifest in a medium which promised a veracity that it could never 'really' deliver.

Benjamin is well known in cultural criticism for his essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' where he argues, amongst other things, that the aura of the work of art withers in the age of its mechanical reproducibility.6 Film critics, in particular, have taken this as an affirmation of Benjamin's Utopian hopes for the, then, new technology of cinema, since Benjamin concludes this section of his essay saying that, from that time on, art would be based on politics not ritual.7

But Benjamin was never a happy collaborator in the project of modernity. His works analysed capitalist commodity culture, and used old and new media as tropes to create meditations on history, architecture, poetry and representation. His great contribution was that he wanted to annex the powers of the phantasmagoria, the dream, the collective unconscious-all those houses and screens of/for ideology- and use them to stir the collective consciousness.8

Peter Kennedy picks up on Waiter Benjamin's meditations and creates an art that speaks politically at the same time as its formal and conceptual lucidity seduces. Often using the phantasmagoria of the electronic media, Kennedy creates ghosts that haunt the spectacle and induce a dialectical awakening.

Chorus from the Breath of Wings is Kennedy's most direct address to Waiter Benjamin. The 'breath of wings' comes from the 'angel of history' painted by Paul Klee in 1920 (Angelus Novous) and interpreted by Benjamin as a metaphor for history at a standstill. The frightened, panic-stricken angel is presented as a living entity by Kennedy, who hopes that it still has the breath to move itself along, to get past the terror of its petrification.

The End of History represents history at a impasse. The angel 's wings (a re-configured music stand) are frozen by the static wind of a refrigerated electric fan that cannot revolve nor oscillate. These two domestic icons are raised high above the heads of the viewer and positioned at either end of an icy trough in which Marx's words 'all that is solid melts into air' float to the surface on pieces of damp paper.

In lcarian Dreamer dead words fall to the ground from a charred book mounted above. They are ' keywords' 9 whispered to the audience: 'capitalism, communism, class, dialectic, violence, socialist, work, imperialism, nature, revolutionary, liberal, romantic, modem, equality, bourgeoisie'. These are words that are disappearing from our language: ideas, situations and constructs that are no longer applicable in a new world order which embraces the end of history in yet another progressive stride.

In Requiem for Ghosts (1998) Kennedy continues the theme of mourning, this time creating a meditation which includes his own private experiences of death. The recent work also opens up a dialogue on the uncanny and the circumstantial as Kennedy embarks on a conceptual journey highlighting the after-image, ghostly experiences and profane illuminations. Again his use of technology appears low key and the conceptual analysis is finely resolved in the form of the work.

One of the central elements in Requiem for Ghosts is a wall of 'keywords' written in neon light with the centre of each word forming a dark space. Words and ideals are again cast in a position in which they fade but the technique of 'light writing' creates its own philosophical ambiguities. The vivid blue neon produces a negative space around the body of each word so that the word becomes object. The neon also has the effect of creating words of light which cast ghostly shadows: they are, in my mind, a meditation on 'light writing' and death, the kind of ideas that inspired the early photographers as well as generations of critics and philosophers who have explored the oppositions light and dark, positive and negative.

In Requiem Kennedy uses light to explore death, coincidence and uncanny synchronisation. A wall of blue and sepia-toned photographs titled Seven people who died the same day I was born - April 18, 1945 (Part 1) presents a kind of living tomb for the dead, with each portrait accompanied by blue neon tubes and with text detailing the stories of the peoples 'lives. In this series, and the photo-triptych Passage - with a twist, Kennedy exploits the indexical nature of the photograph and its ghostly function. Writing about Waiter Benjamin's reading of photography as allegory, Eduardo Cadava argues that:

In order for a photograph to be a photograph, it must become the tomb that writes, that harbours its own death. If the photograph is the allegory of our modernity, it is because, like allegory, it is defined by its relation to the corpse ... the photograph dies in the photograph because only in this way can it be the uncanny tomb of our memory.10

Kennedy's exploration of the uncanny through photography is most literal in the biographical triptych Passage where he presents himself as a dark ghost hovering before a portrait of his elderly father who, having suffered memory loss after a series of strokes, has come to believe that his son is dead. The final image in the triptych is an enlarged snapshot of the artist as a boy in his father 's arms. The self-portrait of the artist as a ghost, achieved by re-photographing the negative of a photograph of his face painted black, operates as a frightening spectre. Here, Kennedy anticipates his own death whilst creating a homage to his father whose capacity to remember his life is fading.

Passage is juxtaposed with A brush with death - two true stories which documents death experiences that have aspects of horror, fascination and what the Surrealists might have called 'profane illumination'.11 On Sunday November 14, 1976 Peter Kennedy was in Adelaide preparing an exhibition. In the morning, on his way across town, he found a dead body in the River Torrens. The incident ran in the local newspaper under the title: 'Artist's brush with death'. In the exhibition it is represented by a colour photograph of the river and Kennedy's account of his experience notated like a police record of interview. In the afternoon of the same day, he got out of his car outside the gallery and received a sharp blow to the head. Initially thinking he had been shot or hit, he was relieved to find that a dead bird had landed at his feet after falling out of the sky, already dead. In the exhibition the event is represented by a photograph of a white dove in free fall flight. Two death experiences: one solemn and sinister, the other, though equally serious for the bird, has a fantastic element and a black humour. Kennedy's relief and the humour that came with it is much like the release of laughter triggered by jokes.

In another part of the gallery a frieze of one-line jokes about death runs close to the ceiling on timber panels, the last letter of the last word of the joke is missing, truncating the punch-line. The jokes are punctuated and joined together with the conjunctive 'and' written in red neon, giving the effect of a scrolling store-front sign. Kennedy calls them a Panic Mantra - A Breathless Performance, pointing to the way in which we use humour as a defensive strategy to ward off the inevitable. The light-hearted series of jokes hovers high above a glass shelf of anatomical x-rays, dead flowers and texts on death. The Illuminated Steps - A War Memorial for the Twentieth Century represents the body as frail and skeleton-like. Its bones are laid out in an illuminated, coffin-like box, scattered with quotations from T.S. Eliot, Wilfred Owen, Benjamin Britten, and the coral score of Missa pro Defunctis, and juxtaposed with a stretched picture of the Milky Way.

People who were born the day I was born - April 18, 1945 is an arrangement of black neon tubes with the birth notices from newspapers of the same day. Producing typeset text on the lights, Kennedy creates electric tombs which have the appearance of futuristic time capsules.

These occur again in People who died the day I was born - April 18, 1945 (Part 2) with the addition of blue neon script with words such as ' shot', ' suicided', 'died in hospital', 'executed', 'murdered', highlighting the final drama of each life. Kennedy calls the light capsules 'taxonomies of life and death ' and says that the text can be scanned 'like channel surfing, like the way we receive most of our ideas about the world…in bits and pieces'.12

Neon light is the prevailing material used by Kennedy in Requiem. It is an element that has intrigued the artist since the early 1970s when he exhibited light works in Sydney galleries. The formal concerns of the early light installations are still apparent in the artist's sharp clean lines, his acute attention to detail and the sheer pleasure that the visual materials evoke for the spectator. But through the recent ' light writing' the physical materials are made to expand the conceptual parameters that are being explored within the installation.

Light, captured in photography, is a means by which memory can be preserved. Physically, light is a means by which we can see, it illuminates the world. Philosophy has written about the illumination of knowledge, whilst theosophists have seen light in terms of divine intervention. Death has been associated with both the light and the dark. Some people are frightened of the void of death, the darkness and the silence. Kennedy says: 'What death may mean as an entrance to infinite silence is beyond comprehension' . To counter this fear of the unknown people often talk about the newly dead as those travelling into the light. Here light is evocative of a Godlike force, a universal illumination in the afterlife.

Requiem uses light and dark to speak about death and its after-image. It is a lucid constellation of ideas that sets up a series of conceptual trajectories. On one hand the big ideas of this century are written in neon, emblazoned in light. But they are also in a position of fading. Dark, negative spaces come into being at the same time that the light creates a ghosting effect throughout the gallery, leaving its after-image on the walls, ceiling and floor.

Kennedy plays with the light and the dark, big ideas and uncanny occurrences. He is interested in the uncanny as a destabilising force and he explores the ways in which it shatters the logic of the master narratives. Stories of love and loss, atrocities of war and violence. The dark and the light of our human experience - written in neon and captured in photographs, the fetishised materials of commodity culture.

notes: 

1. Peter Kennedy, Requiem for Ghosts, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, February 20-April 12, 1998. Chorus from the Breath of Wings, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, as part of the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial, 1993.

2. For the most lucid analysis see Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Waiter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1991 .

3. See Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Thesis on the Photography of History, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997 and Miriam Hansen, 'Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ''The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology'", New German Critique 40, Winter 1987, pp. 179-224.

4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology: Part One, With Selections from Parts Two and Three and Supplementary Texts, ed. C.J. Arthur. New York: International Publishers, 1976, p. 47.

5. Eduardo Cadava, op. cit, p. 97.

6. Waiter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, London: Fontana, 1992, pp. 211-243.

7. Waiter Benjamin, ibid, p. 218.

8. See Hal Foster, 'Auratic Traces', in Convulsive Beauty, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995, pp. 193-208.

9. Taken from Raymond Williams' book of the same title.

10. Eduardo Cadava, op. cit, pp. 10-11.

11. On Benjamin's relationship with surrealism see Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination: Waiter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

12. Peter Kennedy as quoted by Louise Bellamy, 'In the end was the word', The Age, Saturday 21 February, 1998, 'Arts Extra', p. 5.