Peter Kennedy

Interview by Anne Marsh, 1998

Postmodernism and Politics

AM: When we have spoken before about your installation practice in the 1990s, you have stressed the importance of a dialectical thinking in terms of what has happened to the Left in the last fifty years. The fall of the Left in the era of post modernism, perhaps: Can you elaborate?

PK: The lines of my thinking and the work that follows can be traced back to several seminal sources. Although, as sources, they were not as significant to me then as they now appear with hindsight.

First, there was Marshall Berman’s All that is solid melts into air1 which I read for the first time around 1986-87 whilst working with film director, John Hughes, on an Australian Bicentennial National Commissionings project. This luminous text on modernity, and what it meant to be living in the modern age, prompted me to think about Marx, Marxism, communism and socialism from the perspective of modernism rather than Marxism. Berman analyses socialism as one of the great utopian political and social projects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He considers it to be a fundamentally modernist project which was deeply embedded in the whole project of modernity. For me this was a particularly provocative and engaging proposition – one that I wanted to work with.

Furthermore, Berman sees the Communist Manifesto of 1848 as modernity’s prototypical text. At the time, this seemed to me to be an intellectually breathtaking proposition. In quoting a passage that includes the book’s title “…all that is solid melts into air…”, which was originally used in the manifesto as a description of the revolutionary pressures underlying bourgeois capitalism’s modernity (a condition which is in a constant state of flux), Berman argues that similar impulses arising from the pressures of modernity (in this instance, socialism’s modernisation project) could undermine socialist society. This was six or seven years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the downfall of the Soviet Union itself in December 1991.

Second, in the mid to late 1980s our society seemed to be re-defining itself in postmodern terms. In part this involved an expression of contempt for modernity, particularly the notion of social progress. Progress had been a fundamental constituent of our definition of ‘modern’, and the ideas of hope and the struggle to improve society seemed quaint by the intellectual standards of the day. Also, there was a disturbing hint of an evolving cynicism with whiffs of a capitulation to a totalitarian mediated capitalist influence over our lives.

By the late 1980s the influence of the Left seemed everywhere to be slipping and in retreat. In early 1989 I began a series of small charcoal and wash drawings that were an attempt to make visible much of what I have already described. The earliest efforts along these lines remained ill-defined until a new clarity was inserted by the events in Tianamen Square in Beijing, June 1989. This brought to the fore, yet again, questions regarding the political formation of socialism as it was practised governmentally. The nagging problem of governmental legitimacy seemed to have been always corrosively present, and the mono-organisational character of those same societies was now clearly indicating an inherent incapacity to steer a course other than the one that appeared to be predestined and one that was now ineffectual.

These were all crystallising moments in my thinking at the time and much of what was distilled has informed my work throughout the 1990s. As a result I believe that I am committed to a vision that, by way of artistic expression, attempts to characterise a set of ideas or principles around which much of the life of the twentieth century has, in one way or another, been defined. It is about a modernity of the broadest dialectical proportions. All of our lives have been determined in some way consequently and, irrespective of when or where we have lived in this century, resonances remain in the present time.

For many who have lived in this period there has been a crisis of faith. People on the Left of politics have, in many respects, had to rely on their own instincts and resources to negotiate a way through. And now, for everyone, the old cold war certainties no longer offer a familiar if perilous stability. There is, instead, disequilibrium, confusion and dissatisfaction – a state of being that has been characterised as life in the post- modern age: life in the age of uncertainty!

In summary, the object of my work, perhaps the aim of all my work since the early 1970s, has been to produce an art that speaks clearly, although paradoxically not in a familiar language, about the times in which it was made.

AM: Following your work over several decades, I have been most interested in the ways in which an artist committed to politics has negotiated his way through the crisis of the Left. Can you comment on your own inspirations/convictions, in terms of politics and art?

PK: I imagine that I have always believed that art can change things although this view has become more oblique or attenuated with the passage of time. There was a time when I held the view that art could be a form of direct political action. Although not directly active of, or by, itself, it could nevertheless have some agency in concert, and contemporaneously, with a broad range of what we might loosely define as social, political or cultural movements.

The November Eleven2 installations of the late 1970s/early 1980s were examples of this type of action. These works were produced in response to the constitutional crisis and the sacking of the Whitlam Labor government in November 1975. Although the intensity of this time seems now to be almost forgotten, it was a moment of extraordinary crisis by Australian political standards, driven as it was by emotions long suppressed but now erupting as traditional class hatreds. It seemed to me that this event required an artistic response equal to the emotions of the time. It was in line with this thinking that I took up the traditional trade union banner and all its attendant iconography of class struggle. It seemed to me to be a vehicle that was appropriate to the expression of some quite unequivocal, declarative statements on democracy, sovereignty and national independence. Although the latter has apparently become a quaint idea, given the embrace of globalism, it seems to me that the concept might well re-emerge in revised form in some future context which may be more interested in a critical relationship with ‘globalism’.

Contiguous to this interest in a broadly based public politics was a desire to confront the more conservative tenets being deployed in support of formalist modernism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For instance: I was conscious of the implications of many of the ideas explored with Mike Parr in the film Idea Demonstrations (1972). In a number of ways this work involved the audience directly. It was the way in which the audience was impelled to identify personally with some of the material in the film that implied a nascent potential for political action that could be induced by an art work. I found this to be one of the most propitious elements of the project. By this, I mean that I found myself responding positively to the idea of an art that had some direct political or social agency. It seemed to me that there were means available to an artist to reach an audience in this way. This, of course, was the antithesis of the traditional view of an art of transcendence – art’s spiritual role in the scheme of things.

Coextensive to this thinking was the film Other Than Art’s Sake (1973-4)3 that I made about artists in New York, Los Angeles and London who were working outside the existing art institutions and for whom the idea of striking some potent alternative models of visual expression were very important. One could argue that there was some collective thesis (albeit unresolved) that had at its centre an implicit criticism of modernism. Specifically relevant to this was the advancement of an idea of an art practice directly linked to politically engaged and transformative social and cultural movements. Although I didn’t recognise it as such at the time, it was post-modernism in its progenitive state.

To get back to your question: it would be correct to say that I have negotiated my way through the politics of the Left in various ways. I’m drawn to the idea of my work since 1993 (Chorus: from the Breath of Wings) as that of a memory chip that in one way or another gets inserted into the contemporary, historical moment. This seems to me to have some significance if one sees today’s society as one that is in deep narcosis, anaesthetised and amnesic. In this context Requiem for Ghosts (1998) delivers a spectral presence. It is both a revenant and a metaphor for the presence of absence.

I think that it is important that the spectres of the twentieth century insist on inhabiting the twenty-first century. We would be less than responsible if we did not seek to enable them to do so. I would maintain – in so far as it is valuable for the future to be reminded of the past, for it to be informed of its past by our letting loose upon it the ghosts of the twentieth century – that to do so is an act of some consequence. But is it political? It depends on how one defines ‘political’. I will have to leave that for others to determine!

1. Marshall Berman, All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
2. November Eleven – Part 1, 1978-79 was a collaborative work with Melbourne film maker John Hughes for the 1979 Biennale of Sydney, incorporating a painted banner and video installation. Exhibition of this work preceded the renaissance in traditional trade union banner painting which gained momentum in the early 1980s. The exhibition was shown in all Australian capital cities and in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1982. Part 2, 1980-81 began a ten year collaborative working relationship with John Hughes. The video November Eleven (done in collaboration with Hughes and Andrew Scollo) won the Penguin Award for Community Television from the Television Society of Australia.
3. Other than Art’s Sake included Adrian Piper, Hans Haacke, Judy Chicago, Charles Simonds, Ian Breakwell, David Medalla, Steve Willats and art historian Arlene Raven. Copies of the film are now in various collections, including the Tate Galley, London.


Poetry and Silent Music

AM: In your recent work there is a marriage of politics and poetry. Not quite a political poetry but an interception/injection of poetic language punctuating the signifier/signification. Can you comment on the ‘poetic turn’ in your recent installation work?

PK: This ‘poetic turn’ is not new – there are traces of a poetic inclination that recede as far as some of my earliest work at the beginning of the 1970s.

I can recall talking with Terry Smith and Mel Ramsden in about 1971 when Mel Ramsden visited Sydney at the height of Art and Language’s influence in the context of conceptual art. In the course of conversation I raised the question of the problem, as I saw it, of an absence of a ‘poetic’ in the work of Art and Language in particular, and in much other conceptual work of the time as well. I can’t recall the reply but I’m sure misgivings of such a type were quickly dispatched!

I have had an abiding belief that an artwork’s capacity to resonate in the minds of an audience is very much contingent on its ‘poetic’ presence. It is the power of this tenebrous emissary, hovering just beyond the immediately understood or directly knowable – this shadow-breath on our minds – that invests the poetic with its resonating power. A concern with invoking it can be traced through some of my early performance work and some early sound and photographic pieces. It appears, on occasion, in the November Eleven video tapes that were so critical to those installations and it re- emerges much, much more explicitly in the 1987 Stars Disordered, Bicentennial project.4

In Chorus: form the Breath of Wings5 the ‘poetic’ was engaged through the deployment of loudspeakers which, through various juxtapositions with other objects, attained a state of Delphic lamentation, encouraging a speculative relationship between audience and objects that wove its own poetic space.

More recently, in 1996, Requiem: Choruses from the North and South,6 an exhibition incorporating water colour paintings and fluorescent light, constitutes what I consider to be the platform on which the ideas and forms for Requiem for Ghosts at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art was constructed. Requiem: Chorus from the North and South extended the ‘poetic’ into the sublime whilst retaining a political edge.

Requiem for Ghosts with its inclusion of a significant proportion of documentary content, inhabits a poetic space that is literally radiant and emotionally charged. In this installation the ‘poetic’ has entered into a partnership with the ineffable – a blue, hazy emotional space where we can tentatively encounter the vague outline of our own, future non-being.

I am of no doubt that the most recent work has pushed the ‘poetic’ pulse considerably beyond earlier engagements. This was done out of a very clear sense of the unusually intense emotions that the material I was working with was bringing forth, and it was important to me to convey something of this personal experience in the exhibition. I pursued the idea of a resonating presence for the work by sustained mediation of documentary photographic imagery and other media, principally neon and fluorescent light.

AM: Language seems to be a key to the Requiem installation but it is a language that is almost a music. The repetition of the chorus, the stanza, the meter of language (not quite rational) seems to interest you. The joke lines in Requiem, which run like a freeze positioned above the heads of the spectator, are all joined with the conjunctive ‘and’. – an ‘and’ that erases the punch line or the final words of the joke. You set up a seduction with this use of language at the same time that you appear to be using language to deconstruct itself. Can you explain how language works in Requiem and what you were trying to achieve?

PK: If, as with Requiem for Ghosts, ghostly revelation is to be achieved by the construction of a poetic space, a space in which the ghosts can be encouraged to congregate, then, essential to any such invocation are transformative interventions to the material at hand. I was committed to an elevation of the various forms of language I had opted to use by subverting the conventions of those language forms to reveal something less familiar and more elementally useful to the construction of poetic space. These transformed languages, the languages of politics, journalism, humour, music and death, literally constitute an outline of the poetic space – the ghostly habitat.

Furthermore, the act of desecration of the word, or the sentence – the excavation of the word and its meaning for instance – reveals a new, unfamiliar space from which the voices of Requiem’s choir are projected. It is this space, the poetic space, that is the interstice across which, in all its different guises, the contrapuntal ‘and’ floats.

As a description of the tumultuous events of the last fifty years of the twentieth century, the breathless ‘and’ maintains an insistent presence by weaving its way over, under and through most of the works in the exhibition. It is deployed as a transformative agent, alchemically disposed to the maintenance and elaboration of the poetic space.

AM: The neon sign has a primary role in Requiem and the sign is always in language. Written words scripted in neon (key words from Raymond Williams) but also the word as homage, as testimony, as speech – tightly contained in neon lights. These ‘words of light’ take on an individual presence – like time capsules, they promise a future yet together they have the quality of a musical score. Can you explain how and/or why you came to this design?

PK: I have alluded to a number of examples of my early work and perhaps, now, I should explain why. Following my involvement with the Institute of Modern Art’s touring retrospective of Inhibodress in 1988-9, I resolved, having revisited most of my early 1970s work in the course of assembling material for that exhibition, to give myself over to recovering work from that period that could be reconstituted in ways appropriate to my more recent ways of thinking and working. It occurred to me at the time that there was a lot of unfinished business – opportunities requiring further exploration or exploitation, at a level more sophisticated than I was capable of twenty eight years ago.

The recurring loudspeaker in Chorus: from the Breath of Wings came from my use of loudspeakers in various Inhibodress installations, as did the use of the marching drums deployed in The Presence of the Past and the refrigerated electric fan in The End of History, 1990, both of which were part of the Breath of Wings exhibition. These pieces had their genesis in Inhibodress sound installations. Snare (1972) incorporated a snare drum, loudspeakers, tape recordings and amplification. But the Fierce Blackman (1971) included a rotating electric fan, tape loops, television, amplification and live performance.

These installations were predated by works in neon light, such as Neon Installations at Gallery A in Sydney in February 1970 whilst other Inhibodress pieces were concurrent with Luminal Sequences (1971), an installation using neon, other light sources and projection. These works, together with early photographic work, presented themselves as real working opportunities when we became re-acquainted in 1988/89.

Requiem for Ghosts was about death in a variety of manifestations, and as it had been sufficiently funded to enable me to take up working again with neon, I regarded the ethereally radiant qualities of neon and treated fluorescent light as critical to the installation’s overall emotional expression.

A Language of the Dead and Receptacles for the Dreams of the Twentieth Century Dead are subjected to an evisceration that leaves only a residual outline – an auratic presence in A Language of the Dead or a haloed carapace in Receptacles for the Dreams of the Twentieth Century Dead. What remains in these two instances is a sign significantly different to its commercial cousins – one that speaks by no longer speaking. The shadows of the twentieth century might well look like this – victims of an imposed obliviscence.

In Panic Mantra – A Breathless Performance the red neon ‘ands’ assume frieze status and breathlessly bounce across their jokey context, like notes in a music score. The word ‘and’ recurs across a number of works where it is recast in graphic text or as script. Recapitulations occur across the illuminated x-ray bones of The Illuminated Steps – A War Memorial for the Twentieth Century; set into the fluorescent text of People who Died the Day I was Born; reticently present as inscriptions behind the mass of recording tape in An Opera – traced in air – across the years 1945-46; finally, appearing as polymorphic interlocutors in the personal stories accompanying the photographs for A Brush with Death – two true stories.

The ‘headings’ in ‘People who Died the Day I was Born‘ – Part 2 – ‘died, ‘executed’, ‘suicided’, ‘murdered’ etc. – are rendered in an intense deep blue neon script in my handwriting, and slip silently over the black banded surface to which they are fixed, punctuating the textually treated fluorescent lights that bear taxonomic witness to one brief moment in the infinite procession of lives ended.

The installation was designed in a way that allowed for a sustained but variously modulated use of the two types of light sources, that meant that their configurations assumed a role of consistent mediation of the context. In the event the result was, as your question suggests, a silent luminous music.

4. The Stars Disordered addressed Australia’s future by combining paintings and film/video in an examination of human social relationships as defined by society’s relationship to nature. In so doing it emphasised the idea that our sense of belonging to, and unity with nature, could possibly be a way in which a truly post-modern, twenty-first century might be constituted.
5. Chorus: From the Breath of Wings (1993) was a synthesis of past and more recent work. It incorporated video, sound, light, musical instruments, refigeration, other objects and large charcoal on paper drawings and was made possible with the support of the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial and the Museum of Modern Art at Heide.
6. Requiem: Choruses from the North and South, Sutton Gallery, 1996.


History and the Future

AM: When I encounter your recent installations, I am often reminded of Walter Benjamin, his notion of history and the way in which he used photography as a kind of metaphor for history. Can you comment on your own idea of history in Requiem?

PK: The idea of history that I have, and the one that seems to me to inform my work, is a history predicated on the fear of forgetting: an instrumental construction that suits the task.

In a more general sense, I would say I’m drawn in equal measure to Eric Hobsbawm’s account of his motivation for writing Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-19917 and the theorising of history by Walter Benjamin.

Hobsbawm describes his intentions in Age of Extremes as partly autobiographical – he’s lived the best part of the century – and partly as a concession to being aware that knowledge of the basic facts of the twentieth century cannot be taken for granted. He cites being asked by an American student whether the phrase ‘Second World War’ meant that there had been a ‘First World War’. However, I’m drawn most particularly to his concern to explain ‘why things turned out the way they did and how they hang together’.

I have also been drawn to Walter Benjamin’s speculative accounts of history. I have been enchanted, I suspect, by his ‘Angel of History’.8 The angel’s involuntary flight backwards into the future; his gaze fixed firmly on the accumulating piles of debris – what he sees as one single catastrophe, what we see as progress; the storm blowing from Paradise, and so on. This is as compelling a view of the twentieth century as anything that I have encountered, and, although Benjamin had his sights set more on the nineteenth century, there could not be a better vision of the twentieth century.

Then, there is his idea of ‘Now – Time’, the notion of the past charged with the present. The past as a sudden thought that snaps us awake. The idea that the past coincides with the present, like two asteroids colliding in space, and that this coincidence generates a ‘now’ state. And Robespierre, whom Benjamin describes as ‘blasting’ the Now-Time of ancient Rome out of history and inserting it into France’s revolutionary moment. There is, for me, a strongly poetic dimension to these ‘meditations’. Here, in this cleavage of the simultaneously graspable and elusive, is, perhaps, the ‘poetic’s’ natural residence.

AM: Can you explain how you work on your work? What it is that is important to you in getting the message across?

PK: All of the work in the last twenty years has been project based. I’ve determined to work on a particular subject, or I’ve been given a subject, in the case of a commission, and I have then set about arriving at the most appropriate means or form that can be brought to the project. The fact that it is a ‘project’ – something with identifiable dimensions, if you like – means my level of engagement with the subject can be likened to the level of immersion experienced when paying a visit to the Titanic! The deeper in I get, the more complex and refined everything becomes. Unexpected connections are revealed as, too, are expressive options. Always present is an alertness to a transformative opportunity. Interventions of a transformative type have their origin in a personal, creative predisposition to the oblique and perverse material act. The insertion of the recurring ‘and’ and the truncated jokes about death, in Panic Mantra – a Breathless Performance and its embedding in the visually rendered magnetic recording tape in the two part An Opera – traced in air – across the years 1920-45 and A song – traced in air across the years 1945-46 illustrate what I am referring to.

Furthermore, acts of transmutational perversity9 apply in this latter work. The unspooled, and now reconfigured recording tape, presents visually, as opposed to aurally, ideas of history and death as a musical expression. Confronting us here are the barbed wire convolutions of the one and the smokily sinister inscribed loops of the other, in an operatically loaded silence.

Finally, I have to be convinced that having explored all the identifiable expressive options, I can confidently conclude that the idea or subject has been pushed for all it’s worth, and that the final form is superior to all the other options I might have considered. All of this is done in the context of the space in which the work is to be located, with consideration being given to the funds available for the project. An overarching and guiding principle in my work since the late 1970s, is the desire to democratise the work by making it accessible either intellectually or emotionally. To do this I try to consider the work in a way that reveals to the audience my own ‘journey’ in making it. Much of the archival text used in Requiem for Ghosts first emerged in the research stage of the project, and its inclusion in the installation is consistent with this notion of ‘revelation’.

Meriting mention here, is a concern to reconcile this democratising tendency with an ‘avant-garde’ (for want of a better term), expressive language. Perhaps Requiem for Ghosts is unique it that it combines conceptualism (conceptual art) with material that is clearly historical and demonstrably grounded in lived experience. It might be that the current boundaries of conceptual art are widened somewhat as a consequence.

AM: In Requiem you insert a subjective voice, a narrative about you. Thus amidst the downfall of the ‘master narratives’ we have the narrative of an individual man. An artist committed to an analysis of the big picture, as it were, who reinserts the ‘I’ in the visual text. Why have you chosen to do this at this time?

PK: The destruction of the linkages that bind contemporary experience with the experience of earlier generations is identified by Hobsbawm as “one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the later twentieth century”.

I was constantly reminded, in constructing the two parts of ‘People who have Died the Day I was Born‘, that those people who have lived through the events of the first part of this century now have a tenuous hold on the present, and that that clasp will soon be broken. At that point the contact we now have with living memory will be cancelled and we will be left to negotiate our own contracts with the past.

My generation is the one born the decade following 1945, and the one that has lived half of its life in the shadow of all that post-1945 signifies, or has come to mean. We, all of us, have lived in the shadow of the Cold War, subjects of the antagonisms of socialism and capitalism; and all of us have been witness to the consequences of ideological meltdown – the disintegration of one partner in that ‘cold’ binary relationship. We have recently lived through ‘the end of history’ and seen the re-emergence of nationalism and looked upon in horror at ethnic cleansing with all its recidivistic inclinations. This same generation will, uniquely, have a foot in two centurial camps. It will also have a life half-spent in one millennium and a life half-spent in the next. In this regard I am aware that my three-year old son, Alastair, will, as an adult, rightly conceive of himself as a man of the twenty-first century. In this respect temporal reality forces me to cede a considerable part of my once confident claim on the future.

This said, my own insertion into the work introduces me, together with the aforementioned outline of my own future non-being, as an autobiographical presence and narrator. This setting of the ‘self’ inscribes a fibrillating line across the shadows; it commences in the shadow of my father’s lost memory – he believes I am dead – and weaves its way, almost invisibly, across nearly all of the other works in the exhibition. What flows behind all of this is an impulse that has its origins in the 1995 exhibition ‘AJK at the Wall of Ghosts‘, an exhibition featuring my son and some of the Left’s fallen heroes.

AM: In many situations, I am sure that you are considered a ‘difficult artist’. Difficult because your work is political, difficult because it is not predictable, difficult because of its scale, and difficult because you are a perfectionist in terms of style and content. This must make it ‘difficult’ for you to negotiate your artistic practice at times: What is it that impels you to continue producing art?

PK: I have a perception that the commitment and energy that goes into the production of an exhibition like Requiem for Ghosts is excessively disproportionate to the energy and commitment surrounding its reception. No project of mine has ever been as substantially supported, nor have I ever before had the kind of expressive opportunities that such support promises. One would hope, that given this support and the project’s artistic success, that there would be some translation into new and equally rewarding future artistic opportunities. Alas, this does not, with the exception of one particular possibility, appear to be the case. This is not a new experience for me, in fact it constitutes the norm. This means that the continuation of art-making requires an act of considerable will. Although the general lack of a clearly identifiable and positive reception is disappointing, I remain alive to the telling of the story and to the idea of this body of work having some place in a future public discourse. Therein, however, is the rub! Virtually none of my major work is in any public collection. Nothing that I consider to be of major significance is, for instance, in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria or the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

So, how do I feel about that? Angry! I have come to the view that this is not a neglect that can be put down to curatorial oversight but an act of suppression that operates at varying levels of curatorial consciousness. There’s a benign indifference at one end of the scale, whilst hostile ideological and aesthetic mind-sets seem to greet the work at the opposite end. It is, also, not just the curatorial mind that determines those artworks that go into public collections, but the curatorial whims that, by and large, inform choices relevant to contemporary survey exhibitions. My view is that the Australian art world, and the Australian public generally, are ill-served by their public art institutions in the context of contemporary art. I believe that these institutions lack any really independent, imaginative and genuinely rigorous, intellectually engaged curatorial participation in contemporary Australian art, or, for that matter, contemporary ideas. A worthy subject for any art history MA or PhD thesis candidate would be the collecting policies of our major institutions in regard to contemporary Australian art and practising Australian artists.

So, to return to the question of impulse: my personal commitment to working as an artist in an effective way over the last thirty years has been enormous and something I cannot discontinue. I remain committed to the project that I began in about 1990 and continue to see ways in which that can be extended.

7. Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, 1994.
8. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, London: Fontana, 1973, p. 249.
9. I use the word perverse here in a constructive sense rather than pejoratively.