Chorus: From the Breath of Wings

Bernard Smith

This catalogue essay was published by the Museum of Modern Art, Heide as part of that gallery’s participation in the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial, Melbourne, 1993


The Mechanomorphs of Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tells that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed: And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!‘ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

Peter Kennedy has remained at the experimental edge of art in Australia for the past twenty years. As a founder-member of Inhibodress, the co—operative art gallery established in Woolloomooloo, Sydney during the early 1970s, he initiated, with Mike Parr, a series of ‘idea demonstrations’ known as Trans-art. Using video and sound tapes, he investigated aesthetic responses to seeing and hearing in technologically innovative situations.

In 1971, in one such experiment, never fully realised, he planned to place two small speakers face down on a gallery floor and feed a loud, heavy sound from a tape into them to make them vibrate loudly. A microphone placed close by would pick up the sounds and vibrations and feed them into two other speakers also face down on the floor. Their amplified sounds would be transmitted to yet another two speakers, and so on to others. When a speaker broke down because of the noise and vibration developed it was to be replaced. The process would be repeated until the floor was strewn with broken speakers.

In a demonstration that combined vision. and sound, a video microphone heavily bound with pieces of transparent tape was gradually unbound by a solitary performer, each piece of tape being then placed across the lens of a video camera. So, as the audio definition increased the video definition decreased-

What are we to make of these early 1970 projects? The one, all sound and fury in a confined space; the other, an apparently pointless muting of sound and vision. These early demonstrations were, in a sense, experiments in the sublime; where the sublime is understood as an attempt to define aesthetic responses at the limits of sensation; in this case sound and vision pressed to the limits of the equipment employed.

These early projects assumed the presence of ‘free’ aesthetic space. Inhibodress was one of several co—operatives that, during the early 1970s sought, by an increased conceptualising of art to define it as process and activity rather than as product. It was a strategy by which Inhibodressians sought to avoid the powerful constraints of the art market.

However, during the later 1970s, as the result of events beyond the realms of aesthetic experiment (such as the escalation of the war in Vietnam), Peter Kennedy, like many other artists of his generation began to take a more sophisticated interest in the nature of power and its relation to knowledge and artistic creation. They read Foucault. Shocked by the dismissal of the Whitlam Government by Sir John Kerr, on 11 November 1975, Kennedy painted November Eleven – An Australian History (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney) with an accompanying videotape by John Hughes. Kennedy then went on to parody official history painting and use landscape painting as a genre to represent the destruction of the natural environment by the rapacity of industry and commerce. This was more than a question of social protest; he was using landscape as a means of questioning the inevitably alienating role that ‘man’ played as a ‘producer’ as he acted upon and yet within nature.

In October 1992 Kennedy mounted an impressive exhibition entitled of Maps and Men; from the secret world of memory, at the Sutton Gallery, Brunswick. The magnificent maps pointed to the ultimate futility of imposing cartographic limits upon national, imperial and other all-too-human ambitions. The colossal, but smudged and faded, heads of Marx, Engels, Lenin Stalin and Mao reminded the viewer not only of the ultimate futility of Napoleonic ambition in the face of time but also, (and contrastingly) that the charismatic power of heroes is interiorised, burnt into the subconscious corporate memory of later generations; that nothing is completely forgotten; that the passions of Ozymandias survive in the sculptor‘s lifeless stones.

Now in this exhibition Kennedy returns to the experimental demonstrations of his Inhibodress days — but in a more sophisticated fashion. Working within an apparently free aesthetic space no longer interests him. Now he seeks to develop visual metaphors that conjure up some of the aesthetic and moral dilemmas of our postmodern world. His eccentric machines confront us like Shelley‘s Ozymandias or the monuments of Easter Island. They beg our questions, seeking answers we cannot give.

Kennedy has called his exhibition Chorus: How the Breath Wings In Attic tragedy the chorus in song, dance and recitative, comments upon those who act out their parts on history’s stage, their verdicts, usually pessimistic and melancholic, are the verdict of history; verdicts usually given in paradoxical, ambiguous, and delphic utterances.

The title also reveals Kennedy’s awareness of and response to, the power of words that create discourses for themselves and become paradigms: modernity, modernism; postmodernism; post colonialism, and above all “The West” as final arbiter of the so—called civilised values. Such verbal paradigms continue to dominate thought even in this present age of high visual technology. So one of the ways in which his exhibition may be read is to see it as signifying yet another phase in the ceaseless struggle between word and visual image.

The notion of an Imaginary Museum was first developed by Andre Malraux, in the 1950s, in his book, The Voices of Silence. Impressed by the capacity of the modern reproductive processes, Malraux proclaimed the emergence of a new field of art experience now present in the art book and the modern facilities for reproducing works of art; a new domain which made art for the first time the common heritage of all mankind. Malraux‘s book was a magnificent attempt to proclaim art as the inalienable and timeless heritage. Yet it celebrates art as an essentially European and male achievement. The great majority of the works he illustrates in The Voices of Silence are from European collections and from the traditional genres of painting or sculpture; none are by female artists.

Kennedy’s installations may be read as an interrogation of Malraux’s humanist, male, eurocentric position. Much has happened since the 1950s. The implosion of the Soviet Empire has created some say the possibility of a new world order, the end of history. Liberal democracy has emerged, it is said, as the only possible political future for ‘the brave new world that hath such people in it’.

But Kennedy’s strange instruments are coded to record the delphic utterances of prophets less optimistic than Malraux and Francis Fukuyama, champion of the idea of the end of history — by which he really means the end of ideology. Clearly for Kennedy such notions, in this time of ethnic cleansing and emergent neo-fascism are superficial and naive.

It is not the end of history but Walter Benjamin‘s desperate apocalyptic image of the angel of history that attracts him; that angel of history whose eyes are always fixed upon the ruins of the past as he is blown by a storm from Paradise into the future that he will never see. For Kennedy, Benjamin’s image is irresistible and the breath of its wings inhabits several of his most recent installations. Prophets older than Malraux and Fukuyama continue to haunt him with their delphic utterances. He is reminded of Marx’s famous verdict upon the infinitely corrosive potential of capitalism, ‘all that is solid melts into air’ as he gazes at a photograph of readers consulting books in the ruins of Holland House during the World War II blitz on London.

The storm, Walter Benjamin said, that wrecks the past and buffets his angels wings, is called progress. Kennedy’s installations are addressed to the paradox contained not only in the idea of progress but the idea of civilisation itself, that must destroy in order to keep its spirit up. In one installation he recalls Mayakovsky’s desire to create a symphony of factory sirens that would encourage the workers to produce the future — Mayakovsky, another kind of angel also blown by a storm from Paradise into the past. In another installation Kennedy contrasts, not West and East (a polarity no longer relevant since the recent implosion of the Soviet Union) but the enrichened North with the impoverished South wondering whether a daily dose of liberal democracy will heal that ancient wound. Yet other installations address Foucault’s melding of knowledge and power, of rhetoric and truth, of progress and its concomitant impoverishment of mind, body and spirit. In yet another he contrasts ironically the grid (the emblem of modernism according to the influential art critic, Rosalind Krauss) with the grid of the classic urban square wherein “The West” has developed the habit of staging its political revolutions.

Kennedy’s installations, elegantly constructed from bricolage of the high—tech communications industry, greet us here within the pale walls of an art museum like displaced persons from a foreign country. How shall we greet them? What tales have they to tell us? What languages must we learn in order to understand them?

Bernard Smith (1916 – 2011) is Australia’s foremost art historian. The author of many books – his range of interests cover many subjects including colonial, post-colonial, modern and post-modern thought and expression. His “European Vision and the South Pacific” remains perception changing and historically significant.