Chorus: From the Breath of Wings

Anne Marsh

This catalogue essay was published in the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial ex. cat. vol. 2, Melbourne, 1993


His eyes are wide open. mouth agape, wings spread, The angel of history must look like that. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears to us, he sees one single catastrophe which relentlessly piles wreckage upon wreckage, and hurls them before his feet. […] The storm [from Paradise] drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. That which we call progress is this storm.1

Walter Benjamin’s allegorical critique of history, inspired by Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (i920), is a recurrent conceptual reference throughout Peter Kennedy’s exhibition Chorus: From the Breath of Wings at the Museum of Modern Art at Heide.

Kennedy’s chorus presents the downfall of major political and philosophical paradigms. He cites four important events in recent history which signal the failure of the Left project on the global scene: the Tiananmen Square massacre, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Ceaucescu government in Romania, the collapse of the Eastern European bloc and the disintegration of the USSR, all of which occurred within the span of three years 1989—1991. The failure of the Left is, in Kennedy’s assessment a direct result of its totalitarian enactment within history. Like its fascist brothers it used despicable means to mould its ideological ideals onto the social body. Kennedy addresses the totalitarian implications of socialism.

He juxtaposes the Left paradigm with totems of late- capitalist commodity culture (advertising), flashes of fascist militarism and the menacing presence of the mass media. In Village Voice the global village is reproduced via a closed-circuit security camera. A five-inch black-and-white TV monitor, set into a loudspeaker and mounted on a tall pole, reproduces the image of national time: an array of alarm clocks positioned at the base of the pole. The society of surveillance implicates us all in the emerging historical picture.

The loudspeaker is used as a metaphor for the authority of speech. The ‘speakers’ become characters under Kennedy’s manipulation. His giant assemblages are constructed as de-constructions of the ideas and ideologies that gave them authorship. The philosophical premises of modernity are questioned throughout. the Grave of the Enlighteners is laid out centre stage: a prostrate speaker, pale and deathly. The first line of force. which crosses the gallery as the spectator enters the space, presents strategic geographic locations which are interpreted as ideological positions. Siren; the North (after Mayakovsky) comprises a loudspeaker on a three-and- a-half metre steel pole, The speaker is connected by a clear plastic hose to an air cylinder which allows the speaker to amplify a whistle. A microphone has been positioned opposite the speaker to pick up the ‘siren’. The breath of the speaker blows in the direction of the South, passing through and over the top of three TV sets showing advertisements for Mercedes-Benz cars and Softline refrigerators. The siren sound is mixed and amplified again, intercepting the sound track of the video. The graceful and seductive image of a woman showing off the Softline refrigerator is cut with images of aeroplanes and cars, the announcer’s voice is alluring, tempting his potential market with fetishised commodity appliances. The sales pitch is undermined by the screeching siren mixed with clashing, metallic and militaristic sounds, creating a kind of sardonic chorus as the Mercedes-Benz insignia floats across the screens as if propelled by air. The siren is both a warning device and a seductive mechanism. The siren is also the mythological female figure who lures sailors to their death. Kennedy says:

“Socialism has failed because of its governmental and political formulation. There are many fine ideals to be retained but we need to look at these principles in another way. We need to reassess the situation, otherwise we are just left with laissez- faire capitalism.” 2

The chorus of sirens was originally proposed by Mayakovsky as a factory concert (Concert for Factory Sirens, c. 1920-22). His avant-garde soundwork embraced the utopian ideals of communism: a hymn of praise to productivity and industrialisation. Mayakovsky saw the worker as a participant in the grand scheme of progress. embracing the factory as a futuristic machine. The video monitors screening late— capitalist advertisements point to the continual march of progress but here the seduction is the fetishisation of the commodity rather than the mythological unity of the people. Alienation is apparent throughout the movement of history.

It is this construction of history — as a progressive phenomenon that reinscribes a kind of Darwinian philosophy – which concerns Peter Kennedy. His choice of Walter Benjamin as a mentor is thus not coincidental. Beniamin, likewise, critiqued the notion of progress. Beniamin argues that his Passagen-Werk aimed to dismantle ‘the ideology of progress … in all its aspects’.3 Benjamin sought to unmask the ‘mythic metaphors of progress that had permeated public discourse’.4 Kennedy takes up the challenge after the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the dissolution of the grand socialist narrative.

Siren: the North (after Mayakovsky) blows through the simulacra of the advertising industry. The factory, aestheticised by Mayakovsky, becomes a monstrous demon in Kennedy’s depiction: a military and oppressive force, invisible on the screen but permeating throughout the space. A horrible reminder of the loss of identity experienced as society marches to the beat of progress. The factory siren mounted high in the air blows toward The South, an inverted loudspeaker which is ready to catch the ‘wisdom’ of The North. Kennedy says The North is leaning forward, blowing towards the south and the east ‘where the northern Eurocentric identity finds itself redefined in relation to these other spheres of influence’. The speaking mechanism of The South is inverted, its loudspeaker a kind of ‘begging bowl’ stretched across the body of a rusty car door, complete with side mirror which reflects the advertising images from the north. Australia becomes a receptacle for ideas and ideologies constructed elsewhere. The breath of the north continues to blow across The Golden Light of the East and the Icarian Dreamer whose words fall from a charred book mounted high on a music stand, Dead words fall to the ground and resonate from fourteen tiny loudspeakers scattered on the base of the stand. These are ‘keywords’5 whispered to the audience: capitalism, communism, class, dialectic, violence, socialist, work, imperialism, nature, revolutionary, liberal, romantic, modern, equality, bourgeoisie — words that seem to be 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 another progressive stride.

Kennedy presents his audience with a ‘chorus’ of machine characters, each a totem of modernity, all of them speakers on the stage of recent history. The focus here is on the downfall of institutionalised socialism and totalitarian communism.

The breath from the north ends up in a small room where a set of white military drums have been layed out funerary-style. At one end a five-inch black-and- white TV monitor, encased in a speaker-shaped perspex box, replays the image of the goose-stepping German army, The marching sound resonates through the drums ending in another image, this one of Joseph Stalin’s hand waving incessantly. The marching/ waving sequence duplicates the movement of wings as the angel of history encounters the wreckage of progress.

Kennedy’s chorus is an opus of soundworks and silenced voices. The End of History is presented as a refrigerated electric fan mounted on a tripod, metaphorically blowing the storm of progress over the angel’s wings (a re-configured music stand) positioned opposite. Here the angel of history has been frozen in flight and Marx’s words ‘all that is solid melts into air’ shimmer beneath the icy surface of water below. Chorus: From the Breath of Wings is a meditation on recent history and the collapse of master narratives; all fourteen assemblages. mostly compiled from the debris of consumer culture, present the viewer with a poetic and witty analysis of our current postmodern dilemma.

1 Walter Benjamin, Thesis on History I, pp, 697-99, as quoted by Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Prefect, Cambridge. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1991, p. 95

2 Peter Kennedy interviewed by the author on 15 September 1993; all further quotations from the artist are from this interview.

3 Walter Benjamin as quoted by Susan Buck-Morss, p. 80

4 Susan Buck-Morss, p. 92

5 Taken from Raymond Williams’s book of the same title

Professor Anne Marsh is Professorial Fellow at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Her books include: The Culture of Photography in Public Space (ed. with Melissa Miles and Daniel Palmer), LOOK: Contemporary Australian Photography, since 1980, and Body and Self: Performance Art in Australia, 1969-1992. Anne’s writing is published widely in journals and magazines.