Interviewee: Peter Kennedy
Interviewer: Max Delany
Date: 16 March 2015
Max Delany: I thought it might make sense to start at the beginning…
Peter Kennedy: Right
Max Delany: …and perhaps return to 1945 which actually is a neat historical milestone in…
Peter Kennedy: Right
Max Delany: I guess in 20th Century history but also it was the year you were born in Brisbane.
Peter Kennedy: That’s right
Max Delany: Um, and it might be helpful to understand how you got involved in art and sort of your upbringing in Brisbane.
Peter Kennedy: Right, well, as you say I was born in Brisbane in April of 1945 and that my birthday, I think, was about 10 days before Hitler and Eva Braun put an end to themselves in a bunker in Berlin. I think the war in Europe finished three weeks after the date of my birth. I remember stories given to me by my grandfather who had a house in Brisbane and, at the backyard of his house, there was an air raid shelter built in anticipation of a Japanese invasion. And in the street in which they lived there were regular air raid shelter drills for how things might be handled should the Japanese start bombing and strafing the suburbs of Brisbane. So, Brisbane at that point was going to be in the front line of this cataclysmic event. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. My grandparents had a house in a suburb called Nundah, which was a northern suburb, an older northern suburb of Brisbane at that time. My parents, at the end of the war, built a house in Wavell Heights which was an adjoining suburb but that then was still bushland. Wavell Heights today when I visited it recently is a, sort of a, middle Brisbane suburb, not quite an inner one but a middle Brisbane suburb so it’s all changed, but at the time we moved in there in 1949, it was still bushland and there were rabbits and snakes and lizards and so on.
And it took a long time to build the house because there weren’t supplies available like bathroom fittings and baths and basins and stoves and all that sort of thing as nothing was being manufactured in any great numbers at that time. I went to Wavell Heights Primary School, which was a new school, constructed in anticipation of the baby boom, which was probably a good move on behalf of the Education Department in Queensland. It was at school that I discovered a certain talent for painting and drawing, although it wasn’t necessarily at school. I can recall a rainy holiday sitting down in the house that we lived in and copying a painting done by my Uncle Reg, he was an uncle by marriage so I can’t, you know, claim any genetic transposition of talent, but it was a painting of a gumtree and it was on a calendar that he’d given as a present, and the gumtree was in the foreground and there was a fence and there was a road that sort of wound around and through the hills and there were mountains in the background. And I copied this with my Mickey Mouse, or Donald Duck set of watercolours and made a pretty good fist of it I have to say. And people who saw this were absolutely amazed and there was mention of talent and all sorts things and clearly this was something to be encouraged. And that was like the starting point, that’s my memory of when I thought I had something special, and the special nature of this endeavour on my part, or achievement, I think, em, presented itself as special in relation to my failure as a student at school [LAUGHS]. I, um, continued through primary school and into high school with an abject academic record I have to say. So art was the prime motivating force and I continued it in a hobby sense, I guess, in my pre-teen years and then in my early teen years by going to Brisbane Central Technical College, as it then was, and doing outdoor painting classes with one of the technical college’s luminaries of that time. And so it developed. And then I started to win art prizes at the Brisbane Exhibition, otherwise known as the Ekka, and I still have some of those first prizes and second prize cards that were attached to the works. So there was a strong impulse to pursue that activity which led to my taking a job in my mid-teens with an advertising agency in Brisbane in Fortitude Valley. I worked there for 3 years before I decided that commercial art really wasn’t the thing that I wanted to do. It held out the possibility of a good income I suppose, but I was also then discovering serious art and that was the art of artists that we all know now, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd and, well, Brett Whiteley, I guess, in my late teens attracted my attention as did Ian Fairweather whom I met some years later, very briefly on Bribie Island in 1965. So all this came together in a particular way that suggested that commercial art was not for me, that there was this other thing, serious professional art, and in my innocence or naivety at the age of about eighteen or nineteen I embarked on what has now been a fairly continuous career ever since.
Max Delany: So, Peter you’ve grown up in a period of post war reconstruction and you are someone who probably came of age in the cold war, but your first exhibition, your first solo professional exhibition was in 1964 at the Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane.
Peter Kennedy: Yes
Max Delany: What was the nature of your work at that time?
Peter Kennedy: I think I was very influenced by Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, less so Ian Fairweather. I could appreciate that work but I hadn’t really made the jump from figurative, representational work to abstraction. It was still a bit of a mystery to me and in those days in the early to mid-fifties, abstraction, as portrayed in the media, was often represented by chimps wearing berets and smocks and standing at easels with palette and brushes and this was in response to what the Americans were doing with abstract expressionism, you know, Jackson Pollock and so on, that sort of gestural work. So I was sceptical, or suspicious, rather, of abstract expressionism. I thought maybe there wasn’t an appropriate range of skills involved in the way I could see it with Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan for example. I mean, I was wrong, [LAUGHS] and I learnt that a year or two or several years later.
Max Delany: So that’s actually a good preamble just to, your first exhibition was at Johnstone Gallery.
Peter Kennedy: Oh, yes, Johnstone Gallery, yes
Max Delany: And what was the nature of the work and how was it received
Peter Kennedy: Right, yes I’d forgotten about the Johnstone Gallery.
Max Delany: [LAUGHS]
Peter Kennedy: The Johnstone Gallery was important for me because it was the established, serious, gallery in Brisbane at the time and I think I was seeking ways in which I could legitimise my decision to be a professional artist, a serious artist, and to get a show at the Johnstone Gallery reinforced that desire. It was not in the main part of the gallery there was an upstairs gallery – it was a Queensland house that had been converted and so there was sufficient room underneath. And that, from what I remember, was called Gallery F, and there were a number of younger artists who showed there. It seemed to me to be a great privilege and I made the connection with Brian and Marjorie Johnstone by turning up one day with a series of paintings on the back of a trailer that my grandfather helped me to deliver so he was present at the meeting with Brian and Marjorie and I showed them these paintings. I always remember Marjorie saying they were so bold and so on; they were landscapes – I’d been out to Coober Pedy having left the advertising agency and was doing it tough at that point travelling to get material, subject matter, for producing landscape paintings. Subsequent to that meeting they offered me an exhibition which I grasped with a great deal of enthusiasm.
However, in retrospect, and I think when I say retrospect I don’t mean retrospectively from this point in time, although that’s still the case, but shortly after the exhibition I realised that I had made a mistake and the mistake that I’d made was that, whilst I was preparing the work for the show, my grandfather, with whom I’d been very close – we used to go fishing and he provided me with a studio at his house and so on – he died, and this was the first death I’d experienced. I was 19 at that time and it was a big shock. Someone close to me had died and it threw me. Now, were I to experience that situation now, or were I to have encountered a similar situation even twenty or thirty years ago I would have not pursued the exhibition idea. I would have allowed a certain amount of grieving time and a period of readjustment. But I didn’t know that then. I just, sort of, ploughed on, but I was a lost soul, and it was difficult. Some of the works I think were successful, others less so, but it wasn’t, from my point of view, a completely satisfying experience and for a period of time I… whenever I had to readjust or add to my CV I tended to drop it off. So my professional career rather than starting in 1964 has the tendency in a number of my CVs floating around out there to begin around about 1970, with the show at Gallery A in Sydney.
Max Delany: And that was subsequent to your move to Sydney?
Peter Kennedy: Yes
Max Delany: So I think that it was in 1964 that you moved to Sydney and went to the East Sydney Technical College?
Peter Kennedy: I went to East Sydney Tech in 1965
Max Delany: Right
Peter Kennedy: And I thought that if I could get a qualification there I could become an art teacher. This would still put me closer to art than working in an advertising agency. However, I discovered that the course was fairly, or exceedingly, not fairly, but exceedingly traditional, and not as exciting as I had hoped. Again, this was another mistake on my part, because clearly one could have learned a lot of skills but I was impatient and one of the things that I discovered – and had I not gone to East Sydney Tech I suspect I would not have discovered this – but I started to spend more time in the library than I did in the studio settings under instruction and it was there that I discovered art magazines, so this was, as I said, 1965, when I was 19 years old.
Max Delany: I think that’s often the case for artists, I remember speaking last year with Gareth Sansom when he was studying at RMIT in the mid-fifties…
Peter Kennedy: Oh yes, yes
Max Delany: …and a copy of Studio International lands on his desk and he sees the work of Francis Bacon at that time and I think the same might be in your case, you know with the pages of Art Forum and Studio International you were introduced to Avant Garde art and International modernist art.
Peter Kennedy: That’s right. It was an eye opener, an epiphany. It was like suddenly here was all this work that I had never encountered; didn’t know about, and it was very exciting. I mean, I just couldn’t stay away from the library. I’d be there at 9 o’clock in the morning and go straight to the library and miss a whole day of instruction. Of course, this couldn’t last forever. I got found out. I wasn’t delivering what was expected so I moved on, I think around the middle of 1965, and went back to Brisbane and then to North Queensland, Cape York, on an archaeological or anthropological expedition and it was on the way up there that I dropped in and met Ian Fairweather, where, were I able to find it, it’s eluded me, but if I could find it, there’s a photo of me standing looking over Ian Fairweather’s shoulder. He’s sitting on a stump with a book of Chinese poetry and he’s drawing a map on the inside of the front cover indicating a good camping site for when I reached Cooktown. I put the photograph in the book of Chinese poetry with Fairweather’s map, thinking this is important it’s got to be protected, to be conserved – I’ve never been able to find it since!
Max Delany: [LAUGHS]
Peter Kennedy So that was that. But what I discovered at East Sydney Tech, was, in the first instance, the work of Robert Rauschenberg, his combine paintings and his silk screen paintings and although I didn’t know it then, these were examples of an early post-modern practice. Similarly, with Jasper Johns, but probably not from my point of view having quite the same impact. It was Rauschenberg’s screen prints and the gestural, painterly, overlays that he’d managed to pull off and his assemblages like with the goat and the tyre around the goat’s neck and so on, as well as the fact that he was doing performance work.
It was at this time that I also encountered the ideas of John Cage and his work with Merce Cunningham and David Tudor, the pianist, who performed Cage’s works. This made a very big impression on me and caused me to think about, you know, where it was that I might go artistically or what I could choose to do. This was predicated on my looking at the art scene in Australia and realising that in fact no work of this kind was being produced here: that we were conservative in our tastes as far as Australian visual culture was concerned and it followed that there were opportunities that hadn’t been touched on. It occurred to me that there was a field of opportunity that was completely unexplored and this caused me to begin to think about what was then called environmental work, which subsequently became known as installation art. But this thinking stretched from 1965 to 1968. In 1967 I moved back to Sydney and at that point I got a job designing neon signs at Claude Neon with the intention of drawing on the facilities and expertise that were available to make the first exhibition of neon art in Australia.
And, so, I began to seriously explore that idea; first of all with the people at Gallery A, and then with Claude Neon, who needed to be brought on board. That was in 1968. I designed the exhibition in ’69 and the exhibition itself, Neon Light Installations opened in February 1970.
Max Delany: So your work with Claude Neon, um, alongside your encounter with experimental art practices and avant garde art practices and the multi-media work of Rauschenberg and other artists, Cage, engage with sound and performance and led to obviously a very interesting period coinciding internationally with a whole range of new approaches to conceptual art. And I guess with your work at Claude Neon you were already experimenting with industrial materials, with light, photography tests etcetera, and that then led in 1970 to your first significant exhibition at Gallery A, which is credited today, and certainly Steven Jones notes this, with being the first exhibition in Australia to use neon light.
Peter Kennedy: Yes
Max Delany: Can you explain a little bit about the exhibition at Gallery A?
Peter Kennedy: The other thing, the other ‘first’, I should mention whilst we’re putting this on the record, Max, is that as far as I can recall, it was the first public outing, or the first expression in Australia, of the term ‘installation’ as it was incorporated in the title Neon Light Installations. I think that’s interesting because what we’d had previously was this idea of environmental art, which as mentioned earlier, was art that occupied a three-dimensional space rather than being, for instance, a work of sculpture on a plinth or a painting on a gallery wall.
Max Delany: And I think too, that the.. that first exhibition is very pivotal in creating a kind of passage from, if you think about, The Field Exhibition in 1986, and the focus on colour field and minimal and late modernist painting, and sculpture, to a more immersive, dispersed, um, installation format which still has allegiances and alliances with colour, and geometry and sort of formal concerns, but actually presents them in a de-materialised form through space and then begins to incorporate the viewer as a participant in the work. Perhaps you could explain this, more the formal nature of the work in Gallery A.
Peter Kennedy: Well, there were several factors at play here. One was this being the first neon exhibition. I had never seen a neon exhibition before. There were other artists who had worked with light. There was Frank Hinder who was doing freestanding kinetic works, you know, moving wheels and light bulbs and so on. And Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski who was working in Adelaide doing projections and so on and they were doing that back in the fifties, if not the forties in Frank Hinder’s case. But there were no examples of neon art until I did Neon Light Installations, so…
Max Delany: Were you aware of the work of Dan Flavin?
Peter Kennedy: I was aware of the work of Dan Flavin. I was also aware of the work of Bruce Nauman, and Keith Sonnier, and I’m on record as saying that I probably responded more directly to Flavin’s work. There’s a reason for that. The work of Bruce Nauman’s that I would have seen would have been the spiral works which I think he did around nineteen, eh, nineteen sixty seven, sixty eight. To me, those works would have looked too much like signage – something I was doing as my day job. Again, it was an early example of post modernism I suppose, but I didn’t know that then. It just looked like signage. And that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I mean I still had this hankering for ‘high art’. There was an elitist aspect to my endeavours at this time I think. But there was also an economic factor. Once you get into bending glass and doing those sorts of things you increase the cost of the production because then you require a glass bender and normally you don’t to the same degree if you’re working with straight lengths. So Flavin was a useful model in the sense that you can simply work with straight strips and do something interesting. So what I decided to do was to work off the geometry, or the architecture of the internal space of Gallery A and to design elements that conformed to aspects of that space but also referred to one another across space in ways that the works themselves entered into a kind of dialogue.
On the… in regard to the issue of colour that you mentioned, and its immersive aspects, the…. one of the surprises to me when the whole thing was installed was the extent to which the room became coloured, and by that I mean the air appeared to be coloured, and in one of the interviews I’ve done in the past about this I’ve talked about it, that experience, being a bit like being inside a rainbow. You don’t get the definition of the spectrum but you do get this mixture of colour which is almost like entering into a kind of perfumed space. I think it is quite beautiful and I’ve described it as being calming or restorative, something like that. It has a quality to it that is different to overhead lighting, commercial lighting or interior lighting. The difference between what I was doing at that point and Flavin’s work had to do with the glass, the nature of the tubes themselves. Flavin was working with commercial or industrial fluorescent tubing which tended to be fat, thick tubes and no longer than 4 feet maximum and 2 feet minimum in length, so quite limited in size range. He also tended to bring them together in ways in which they were imagistic. That’s my perception now and I think it might have been my impression at the time. They were discrete objects in their own right, so there was less playing with space. But the other thing with the neon is it’s very attenuation. It can be produced in quite considerable straight lengths as a continuous light source. The other aspect that differentiates the work from Flavin, as I see it, is that I put these long strips of neon into what I call channels. This comes from neon signage, the method of public presentation – so called channel lettering – used in the huge signs that would go on top of buildings like the Coca Cola signs or Esso or Shell signs at that time.
These channels were made of sheet metal and the neon tubes were placed in them so that at night there was a contained aura or halo effect created by channelled light. I thought that made the work noticeably different.
On the sides of the channels were slots, allowing light to spill onto the walls. Looking back at this work, one of the other influences that probably informed it were some of the light works that were being done by various European artists whose names don’t necessarily immediately leap to mind, but some do. I’m thinking of Martial Raysse for example, Mario Merz who worked with strips of neon and other material as well, and then there was the US artist, she may have been New York based, named Chryssa, who was doing neon works placed within Perspex boxes. So there were a range of inputs informing me. Certainly, to go back to the earlier point I made, there was nothing in Australia that I could refer to.
Max Delany: Peter, along with the kind of emanation of colour that issues from neon, another by product of the neon technology was of course a very low hum or static sound element that kind of provides a kind of slow, low lying buzz in the background that introduced sound into the space
Peter Kennedy: Yes, yes…
Max Delany: And that’s something that will become more important even in the next year…
Peter Kennedy: Sure…
Max Delany: when, or in the same year with projects that you undertook at Inhibodress gallery
Peter Kennedy: That’s right, yes…
Max Delany: But was that already, you know, you’ve mentioned before your interest in Cage and in performance and other related contexts. Was that already a consideration or was that a sort of happy happenstance?
Peter Kennedy: eh, it was already a consideration and possibly a happy happenstance as well, I think, Max. I, eh I had the good fortune to encounter a publication called the Tulane Drama Review which was published in 1965. I encountered it in 1968. Now, I think I’d already been aware in my reading at East Sydney Technical College library of art magazines, that one of the other things that was occurring in the visual art world, or had an association with the visual art world, were happenings. And clearly there was a correspondence between what Robert Rauschenberg was doing and John Cage was doing, and what Alan Kaprow, the so called inventor of happenings, was doing. And this 1965 publication of the Tulane Drama Review that fell into my hands, I think in 1968, was an issue specifically devoted to happenings. And in that issue, was a lot of performance by instruction work, most notably, because I can still remember some of the work that was published, instruction pieces by a composer named Lamont Young.
Now one of those pieces was, it wasn’t really an instruction piece, more an insight I suppose that we were to take and meditate on. He did hundreds of these works. This one was, “I once tried mustard on a raw turnip and it tasted better than any Beethoven I ever heard”. If you read back through all of this literature it seems they really had a thing about Beethoven. John Cage was anti-Beethoven. Many of those avant-garde composers of that period, from the forties through to the sixties, were anti-Beethoven. Somehow or other poor old Ludwig was the whipping boy, or the designated object of some kind of counter response for what music could be. So that was my first introduction to the idea of performance or performance by instruction, and in 1970 I became associated with a group led by a young musician, composer, in Sydney named David Ahern. He formed a group called AZ music. Although he was several years younger than me, he was highly talented and had at that point just returned from Darmstadt, which was the important electronic music studio in Germany that Stockhausen built his reputation on. The Americans went there, Cage went there, and Terry Riley, also Steve Reich and so on. It was an important entity, or institution, within the world of contemporary music. What I was going to say was that I produced a series of instruction pieces which were published in a magazine in London called Pages. The editor of that magazine got in touch with me, his name was David Briers, he had just read an article by Donald Brook, a Sydney critic, in Studio International, where he, Donald Brook, was writing about “new art” in Sydney. This was late 1970 or early ‘71.
And David Briers published these performance works of mine in Pages, an avant-garde publication, mainly for music, but, you know, for performance of one sort or another. One of these works was to do with preparing a tree. The concept involved changing the sound of a tree by preparing it in various ways. The idea of preparation comes from John Cage’s 1946 work called “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano”, which is where he placed nuts and bolts and pencils and erasers and various other items on to the strings of a piano so that you get a percussive sounding piano. It was a beautiful work. So changing the sound of a tree involved listening to the sound of a tree when there was a breeze blowing, and then, having taken note of that, you then proceed to do various things to the tree by way of preparation, inserting materials of different sorts into the tree and thereby changing the sound of the tree. Now, I actually did this at the Bonython Gallery in 1971, and Harald Szeeman who was then the Director of the, em, might have been the Venice Biennale? He did a big show in London called “When Attitude Becomes Form” at the ICA. He was brought out to Sydney by John Kaldor.
Max Delany: At the Kunsthalle Bern actually I think it was where that had come from
Peter Kennedy: oh yes, it was, yeah yeah. He was a big name at this time in the contemporary art world…
Max Delany: And I think John Kaldor invited him out in 1971
Peter Kennedy: That’s right, ’71, that’s right, yeah, yeah.
Max Delany: So at that time, perhaps just to set the scene for this work…
Peter Kennedy: Right
Max Delany: Um, 1970 you established along with Mike Parr and Tim Johnson, a gallery called Inhibodress, and it was really what we might understand now as an alternative art space or an independent artist run gallery…
Peter Kennedy: An artist run space I think is the….
Max Delany: Artist run space. Um, and it ran from 1970-72 and it’s also credited with, you know, it was, the activities at Inhibodress that were published in Lucy Lippard’s book “Six years, the dematerialisation of the art object”. So it was very much conversant with related practices around conceptual art, performance, installation, mail art and other kinds of dialogues taking place internationally. Can you explain how that came about?
Peter Kennedy: How did Inhibodress come about and the connection with Lucy Lippard?
Max Delany: Yeah, I mean, I think in the first instance because you held some important exhibitions at Inhibodress in 1970, certainly after the Neon Lights Installation exhibition at Gallery A you held an exhibition of video tapes by Peter Kennedy and Mike Parr, also in 1970, at Inhibodress, so on the one hand you are involved with arguably the first exhibition involving neon light at Gallery A in 1970, and the same year yourself and Mike Parr present an exhibition of video tapes.
Peter Kennedy: Yes – the video was 1971.
Max Delany: What was the thesis or the ideology or impetus for establishing Inhibodress?
Peter Kennedy: Well, I think there were several impulses at work. Mike had his own agenda. He hadn’t at that time had any commercial exhibitions in Sydney, and he probably got out of the starting blocks a little later than me. He had started as a poet, but transitioned over a period of time into being more visually preoccupied in terms of his practice. He hadn’t, in 1970, had an exhibition. As you’ve noted I had this neon light installation show at Gallery A. Inhibodress gallery was established towards the end of 1970. There were shows by members of whom there were probably 10 or 12 members at any given time. The gallery lasted for 2 years, and wrapped up towards the end of 1972 when Mike and I then went overseas.
I was a little sceptical when the idea was first floated. I felt fairly comfortable with what I’d done at Gallery A, but I could also see that my interests were becoming antithetical to the commercial interests that would apply to a commercial gallery like Gallery A. Also, I should point out that there were only about four galleries, four commercial galleries or five commercial galleries operating in Sydney at that time. There was Gallery A, Waters Gallery, Barry Stern Gallery, the Rudy Komon Gallery and the Holdsworth Gallery. I took the view, when the idea or the concept of Inhibodress was first being discussed, that even though I was quite comfortable with Gallery A at the time, I could see that my work was developing in a way that Gallery A would become less interested because the commercial opportunities attached to it would decrease as my ideas developed. So it was March, 1971, when I did what now seems to be an iconic exhibition titled “But The Fierce Blackman” which brought together various elements in a multi-media form, and one of those elements was a television. It’s been noted that it was probably the first instance where a television set was introduced into an exhibition of visual art. The dominant…
Max Delany: In the Australian context…
Peter Kennedy: In an Australian context. The dominant expression was aural, that is, it was predominantly a sound work, rather than anything that might have, at that time, approximated to what would be considered a visual expression. There was a visual aspect to it as there was a performative aspect and the performative aspect involving myself, the various physical restraints I applied to myself and the degree to which I could actually bear those constraints, did create a strong visual presence. There was a powerful synthesis of sound and vision by way of live performance. The other thing I should mention is that part of the sound mixture combined not only sounds omitted by me in the context of the performance but also sounds coming from taxi cabs operating in the Kings Cross, Wooloomooloo area, that fed into the gallery, a lot of static, strange voices and so on. Em, and also the use of a tape loop, which was an idea I had picked up from Steve Reich’s early tape loop works, “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out” pieces he did in 1965-66 which I’d heard and thought impressive. So there was a range of things going on, but completely outside the prevailing model of an art exhibition as understood at the time.
Max Delany: And as well I think some industrial fans…
Peter Kennedy: There was an industrial fan blowing a rabbit-ear aerial onto wires behind the television set so that whenever the fan oscillated the aerial would come in contact with the wires at the rear of the set and that created this static sound that was amplified – there was a lot of amplification.
Max Delany: And this practice came to perhaps typify in one sense along with other things taking place for example with Mildura’s Sculpture Triennial and land art etc. – that came to typify what Donald Brook would term Post Object Art.
Peter Kennedy: That’s right.
Max Delany: Perhaps to situate that, Post Object Art was a uniquely Australian and New Zealand term I think
Peter Kennedy: That’s correct, it is
Max Delany: But coincides with a range of other conceptual art practices, performance, land art, and other more ephemeral forms, counter cultural forms, forms which question the visual status of the art object. Was there also a sense of a critique of the economy of art?
Peter Kennedy: I think so. I think that was a large part of it. In fact, one of the big questions at the time was to do with the notion of the preciousness of the art object. Of course, if you considered the art object to be precious and you ascribe monetary value to it, then you were part of the problem [LAUGHS] rather than part of the solution.
Max Delany: So there was a kind of anti-institutional sentiment?
Peter Kennedy: There was a very strong anti-institutional sentiment and that grew out of the protest movements connected to the Vietnam war and Australia’s participation in that war at that time. There was a prevailing anti-authoritarianism at large amongst a large proportion of post-war baby boomers. Parental attitudes and values were being questioned. What followed three, four or five years later was the emergence of arts feminism and or feminist art. But that wasn’t prevalent early in the 1970s. Another point I should make is that all of the members of Inhibodress between the latter part of 1970 when it was formed and its demise at the end of 1972, of all those ten or twelve artists, there were no women members. In fact, one of the ways in which I established a dialogue with Lucy Lippard, and that would have been after she contacted me about making a contribution to her book, “The Dematerialisation of the Art Object”, which was where the video scripts that Mike and I had written were included, was the letter that she wrote to me asking if I could put her in touch with any women artists. I was living with Barbara Hall, my partner at the time, who was just becoming interested in feminism, but that was feminism in a general sense, not in an art specific sense, and very unformed at that point. I’m talking about 1970-71, and between us Barbara and I could only think of about 3 women artists. I mean it was very embarrassing, but that was the situation at that time. There would have been other women artists but they were hidden, they didn’t have a public profile. Two artists that I can remember we suggested were Vivienne Binns and Ann Thompson.
Now, there might have been one or two others, but I can’t recall who they might have been. So there’s four or five commercial galleries, there’s so few women artists, or not that many that we know about publicly, and so there’s an impulse to question everything and art, itself, became a subject for some of that questioning. Part of Inhibodress’s raison d’etre.
Max Delany: And I think the title of an exhibition that you presented in 1971 was “Interference Variables”
Peter Kennedy: Yes, that’s right, and subsequently re-titled as “Luminal Sequences”.
Max Delany: And I think, I wonder whether the idea of interference and static which are both technical terms around the multi-media technologies that you’re engaging with also have a political dimension?
Peter Kennedy: I think it probably does, em, I mean I saw the idea of interference as having some sort of connection with interrogation. I think part of the subtext with a lot of the work that was being produced in those early years of the seventies had this underlying interrogation of why things were the way they were, and why they were made the way they were, what the impulses were behind them and of course if you start to indulge in that kind of interrogation you start to see that a large part of it is actually supporting the status quo. And of course we didn’t want the status quo, we wanted the alternative to that.
Max Delany: Peter you mentioned that Inhibodress attracted the interest of Lucy Lippard, and indeed your work, Mike Parr’s work, Tim Johnson’s work, and a number of the other activities at Inhibodress were published in her book “Six Years, the Dematerialisation of the Art Object”, um which was really an anthology of conceptual art activities internationally.
Peter Kennedy: That’s right.
Max Delany: You then went travelling, so at the conclusion of Inhibodress in ’72, you travelled in 1973 to London and in particular New York
Peter Kennedy: Yes
Max Delany: And you encountered not only Lucy Lippard in New York, but other artists such as Judy Chicago and Hans Haacke, Steven Willats, in London, among others. And you made a film called “Other than Arts Sake”. So which, perhaps, suggests that you were coming to be interested in extra aesthetic contexts in more social and political contexts for art. Could you perhaps outline what your activities were in New York?
Peter Kennedy: Right, I’ve got to give a context for this transitional moment, I think, Max. And that context is my experience at Inhibodress in ’71, ’72. In ’71 it seemed to, because, I was starting to receive a lot of communications by virtue of the Studio International article that I mentioned by Donald Brook, and also the Pages magazine display of my art by instruction works that I’d written in 1970, people started to write to me, and that introduced me to the world of mail art as defined at the time within the broader context of conceptual art, and from that examples came to me of socially engaged practice, often of a politicised nature. One of the interesting things in relation to that, and this is a digression, was an exhibition, this was in 1972, I developed from work that had come to me in 1971 and continued to come in 1972, was an exhibition that I curated called “Communications” that included all of this material and to which I responded by sending my own work out. Well, some of this work that came to me were examples of feminist art practice. Now, when “Communications” was exhibited in ’72, and I think it would have been around the middle of 1972, there were probably half a dozen, ten perhaps, women artists in that exhibition and that was extremely unusual. It was the first time women’s art had been shown at Inhibodress as well. And these examples of feminist art looked strange. They could have come from Mars, they looked that different. But it occurred to me that it was interesting as it was a shift away from anything else I’d encountered. It had a clear political or social content. The other thing that made me receptive was that in the making of “Idea Demonstrations”, the film, and the performances that were done in the exhibition with Mike Parr, again it was 1972 – and the exhibition also titled “Idea Demonstrations” – included a number of works that were presented to a live audience, or alternatively, to an audience who viewed the film of those live performances. The idea formed that art could be something other than an art that is transcendent. That is, that what people were encountering in some of these pieces was not loss of self but a reinforcement of a sense of self. I developed this idea that if there was an art like that… I’ve since discovered this thinking is Brechtian… I would have been reading about Brecht at that time, he was big in the world of theatre, and his ideas… the idea of audience alienation… So, you know, some of my thinking in this regard had come from another art form… It suggested to me that if somebody’s sense of self was strongly reinforced then there was the capacity, the potential, for social action, of social change, of a positive kind.
And this led to my thinking more about work that incorporated various elements of a new avant garde, but also had a content that suggested a level of social engagement or was, somehow, constituted so as to get people to think about their lives in a way that was different to their current way of thinking. So the work exhibited in “Communications” – these examples of feminist art – was quite astounding. But also, another work that was made available to me came from a group in New York called “The Guerrilla Art Action Group” – not to be confused with “The Gorilla Girls” who came some years later – but this was ‘guerrilla’, as in guerrilla warfare. They sent me a tape and transcripts of their radio interviews and performances.
This work was polemical, political, analytical and highly socially charged. I was very impressed and began to think of an art practice that could embody or embrace social action or social response. When I went to London, and then subsequently to New York, I sought out artists whose work conformed with this model. And the artists that I met in London were David Medella, who was a Filipino artist who had an interesting history; he’d played chess with Duchamp, met Jackson Pollock, an incredible back story! He was an Asian artist. We weren’t thinking of Asian artists at that time but he was living and doing very, very well in London. A fine artist, still, in my view. Ian Breakwell was another interesting artist who was working with text and performance, and Steven Willats who had moved completely outside the art world as we knew it….
Max Delany: The field of theory..
Peter Kennedy: … and he was working with communities and producing work that arose from his interaction with them. Then, in New York I met Hans Haacke, who was important, because of his questioning of class and social attitudes and values and the effect of business corporations on communities. It was about politics as lived. How it affected ordinary people, seemed to be his concern. And then there was Adrian Piper, whose work, although I would not have classified it in this way at that time, not having come to identity politics in art at that time – this was 1973 – but her work was about identity. She was a black woman artist who was often mistaken as being white and she was working within that contradiction. And then, in Los Angeles, I filmed Judy Chicago and art historian Arlene Raven. They were the two principal agents in the establishment of what was then called “The Womens’ Building” and connected, perhaps, to the University of California. It had some connection to one of those Californian institutions. Interviews were done with all of these artists and finally it was put together and became this film, “Other Than Arts Sake”, which questioned Modernism, by looking at ways in which we could begin to evaluate artistic production in terms other than aesthetic; that is, it was looking at works that were inbued with some kind of social content; that could, themselves, still be considered works of art but not in a traditional aesthetic transcendent way, to return to that term, since this was about self, action and change.
Interestingly my history keeps catching up with me. I got an email just the other day from a professor at MIT wanting to know if I could make available a copy of this film to be shown in classes, so it’s come full circle. It was influential at the time when I first released the film amongst the art community in Sydney and Melbourne particularly. And then it sort of faded, eclipsed by other movements and ideas and interests but it’s come back as a point of interest.
Max Delany: Peter, perhaps it’s best, thinking about moving from the art world into a wider context, if we move ahead a couple of years, in 1976 you held a two person exhibition with John Nixon at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, and after that there’s really a period of a decade or indeed 12 years until your next solo exhibition and I think this is characteristic of a number of artists who have been involved with conceptual art and there is, perhaps in mid to late seventies, a movement out beyond art world context, you know artists moving into trade union contexts, into education contexts, feminism, community art, activism and other realms. You, yourself, were becoming involved both with, you know, you continued to work with visual arts and film, but you also took up a number of teaching positions, one of which was at Preston Institute in Melbourne, in Bundoora, from ’77 to ’79 with a number of other interesting artists which was an important period for experimental art practice in Melbourne in the academic context. And then you moved to Sydney and you took up a role at Tin Sheds, which was also very well-known subsequently for a socially engaged type of art practice and for its interest in feminism. Can you explain… and you were also making films with John Hughes, can you perhaps explain the expanded nature of your work over that period.
Peter Kennedy: Well I think that there was an economic impulse at work there at that point Max. I’d been living on my own devices, I guess, during the early part of the seventies and then I managed to get a travel grant that partly supported me whilst I was overseas, although I’d saved up for a number of years, as one did in those days, which was the major supplement. The travel grant was somewhat less in terms of its monetary value. So, on my return I finished off the film I’ve just mentioned, “Other Than Arts Sake”, and that was completed in ’74 and partly on the strength of that, what people could see in it, the worth of it that they perceived – I must have shown it in Melbourne on one or several occasions – as I subsequently received an invitation to apply for a position at Preston Institute of Technology. And so at the beginning of 1977 I moved from Sydney to Melbourne to teach there which I did for 3 years as you’ve suggested. What that involved me in was something that I’d not experienced before which was administration. But at a more interesting level beyond the administration there was the opportunity for facilitation and that I was appropriately positioned to provide the wherewithal for a lot of different things to happen. For example, Tom McCulloch who had previously been the Director of the Mildura Triennial started work there in 1978, perhaps it was ’79, and I formed an alliance with him and we did a week of performances there at the time which I think was a big event and in some contexts it’s still referred to. There are artists who still do performance who did their first works there – Jill Orr, for example. Some of the staff I was working with would be people who are well known now, like Dom de Clario, Dale Hickey, Peter Booth, Mike Brown, and Betty Churcher who came down from Brisbane where she’d been teaching at the Kedron Teachers’ College as an art historian. Betty moved from Brisbane to Melbourne in 1979, my last year there. Betty and I did some things that I think were of interest. She was certainly a very interesting and approachable person to work with and it was the beginning of her stellar career.
At the end of ’79 I was offered the job of Director of the Sydney University Art Workshop, otherwise known as the Tin Sheds, where many, many political posters had been printed, from the late sixties through to my arrival there in 1980. It has a history of radical production, political work of one sort or another, particularly posters and that poster work continued during my tenure there between 1980 and 85. But again there was the beginnings of a… an emergence of a young group of aboriginal artists, particularly photographers and some of them are, two of them at least, are quite well known today, but they were just beginning their practice and were getting support from the photography tutors at the Tin Sheds. Those two young artists are Michael Riley and Tracey Moffatt. And then there was another young artist, Avril Quail, who I think works at the Queensland Art Gallery now, she was learning photography there at the same time.
Max Delany: And those artists went to start Boomalli I think in the mid 1980’s which was an indigenous co-op.
Peter Kennedy: Yes, that’s right, that’s true, so it was a centre for the coalescence of ideas and attitudes that then filtered out into the community, and I think, you know, that resonates today in all manner of ways. It was the beginning of an urban aboriginal art practice that hadn’t, to that time, really existed. I mean we knew about the desert artists, and the artists up north and Namatajira, from an earlier period, and the, you know, the Arunta, Aranda painters who were doing water colours like Namatajira, but there was little indigenous urban art until the time that it was being produced at the Sheds, and The Tin Sheds, I think, helped support that development in a quite fundamental way.
Max Delany: And you were also making video tapes and films with John Hughes,
Peter Kennedy: That’s right
Max Delany: Including a work called “November Eleven” which were videos made in two parts over a number of years, ’79-’81 which reflected on the dismissal of the Whitlam government
Peter Kennedy: That’s right, yes
Max Delany: What was the nature of those works?
Peter Kennedy: I had, prior to these works with John, produced another film that had its life in a gallery as a video tape, it was just more convenient to present it on a small screen, as a video, and that work was called “Introductions”. It came out of my travels overseas and what I’d managed to draw from my experience meeting those artists who were part of “Other than Art’s Sake”. “Introductions” involved me going to the Western suburbs of Sydney and meeting two local recreational groups as well as two other clubs close to the centre of Sydney, and producing an artwork that was based on my interaction with these groups and their interaction, as groups, with one another.
This included their perceptions and their contribution to society, what they were critical of, and so on. It was, in a sense, a gentle film, I think it, you know, speaks about the reality of middle class life, at one end of the middle class spectrum and, conversely, at the opposite end of that same middle class spectrum. This is quite interesting today, but it, at the time, lacked a kind of strident, political polemic which emerged in my own thinking with the dismissal of the Whitlam Government on November 11, 1975. And at that point everybody who was left leaning became more politicised and proactive and so this was a watershed moment in the context of the development of political art practice in Australia. It went from ’75 through into the early part of the ‘80s before it was eclipsed by semiotics and everybody kind of got lost and bewildered [LAUGHS] and went off down various wrong tracks. [LAUGHS]
Max Delany: Possibly in the early 80’s you have this sort of, you know, perhaps the heroic failure of conceptual art is manifested in the return to painting…
Peter Kennedy: That’s right
Max Delany: … and a kind of return to figurative painting, the return of the art market as a sort of boom, and a recalibration of art world politics and polemics.
Peter Kennedy: Yes, that’s right, yes…
Max Delany: And certainly in your case, in the mid to late eighties and then into the nineties, you embark on a very active period again in gallery based practices.
Peter Kennedy: Yes
Max Delany: Certainly, in 1989, I think that is a very interesting year, because of course, in ’89 it’s the fall of the Berlin wall, Tiananmen Square happens and these, all of these historical occurrences, begin to feed into your work or have done so, and I think it’s interesting to think of your work also from this point as increasingly engaged with political philosophy or the philosophy of history, and historical engagement in particular. Perhaps you might be able to introduce the, your work around that period and your interest in history of that time.
Peter Kennedy: Yes. I think that I became overtly politicised due to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, which we, at the time – I’m still inclined to refer to it as “a coup” rather than “the dismissal” [LAUGHS], um, I think that event introduced a way of thinking about the world – of the precariousness of the lives that we led – and how uncertain things really are, even though at the time they might have appeared to have been certain and stable. Clearly they weren’t. There are always forces at work that animate actions of one sort of another, and often these actions are, um, quite antithetical to the wishes or the thoughts of those who are negatively affected.
That politicised my work in a way that it hadn’t been politicised before. But then in ’91, as you say, there was the collapse of the Soviet Union which interestingly happened on Christmas Day, 1991, and rather than going with a bang it went with a whimper and I think that was a shock to everybody. Even the Americans, even the CIA, who were supposed to be montoring all of this, and affecting the course of events, were caught unawares as well. So it was a huge shock but, preceding that of course there was the Tiananmen Square event, um, which happened, I think, in June or July of 1989, so at that point ’89, ’90, ’91, people who felt that left politics provided the means by which change, social change, could be effected were suddenly thrown back on their own reserves. What had formerly constituted a kind of platform was now looking questionable and doubtful. So that took my thinking away from national politics as it was constituted, my experience of 1975, and I was drawn into global politics. One of the reasons why that happened, my interest in national politics and now directed towards global politics, had to do with the coup in 1975 and the degree to which Australia at that time, before, then subsequently and right up to this very moment, has lacked true independence.
That is, we’re very much at the behest of the Americans and tend to fall in line, pretty much voluntarily and easily, which seems to be a “natural” relationship which has developed since the end of the second world war. One of the things that was impinging upon Australian independence in the 1970s was the cold war and super power contention between the USA and the USSR. Australia got sucked into that. Even though we thought we were a long way away from all of this, a long way from Europe, the Cold War and so on, we were still a part of it. We had bases here at North West Cape in Western Australia and in Central Australia that were tracking stations and ways in which the American’s could, should they need to do so, draw upon surveillance and so having the wherewithal to know what the Soviet Union was doing. The US could draw upon that as a way of counteracting any Soviet initiative should the Soviets decide to challenge them militarily. So we were part of the world even though we seemed pretty isolated and we’d have got caught up in it, in the way that we have in Vietnam and Iraq. It’s an ongoing story. But I always found global politics fascinating for that reason: how it would impinge upon our reality here in all sorts of ways. The way in which globalism permeates our perception of reality etc, seemed to me to be a worthy subject. Hence the works that are behind me now which I started in 1991-92, and, for one reason or another, I am still working on.
It seems quite contemporary now, this disquiet, given what’s happening in the Ukraine and the general breakdown of the Russian and American relationship along with the suggestion that we’re about to confront a new cold war. So it seems very timely, having returned to the work after all those years, working on it again, now.
Max Delany: So Peter perhaps one might say that over the last twenty-five years, since an installation called ‘The End of History” in 1990, and then with subsequent bodies of work “The Language of the Dead” in 1997, but also your well known drawings of some of our totalitarian fathers, um, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Stalin, you have explored these grand discourses and ideologies of modernity in the 20th Century, and you’ve been interested in the kind of political paradigms, and ideological propositions that we have encountered in, over the past, you know, since, you know, the post war period, the post second world war period, um, which led to another installation at the end of the 20th Century, “Comedy and Tragedy Step Out” which was from 2000 – 2002. Um, there’s a sense that you’ve increasingly not only engaged with public, global histories, but also inserting and weaving your own personal history into dialogue with that.
Peter Kennedy: That’s true, I have [LAUGHS], I think. I began to do that, um, around ’96, ’97 and the first instances of that would have been in an exhibition that I did at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, called “Requiem for Ghosts”, that opened, I think, probably in February or March of 1998, and that exhibition came from an invitation that Jenepher Duncan, who was then the Director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, presented to me in the form of “would I be interested in doing an exhibition on the subject of death?” And I’d never really explored that subject, I have to say, and my thinking about it, if ever I turned my mind to it, was usually in relation to images of skulls and skeletons, the usual suspects. You know, there’s a history of this that goes right back, in terms of artists’ interest in mortality and death. I attempted to conceive of something that looked at the subject in less predictable ways. The two ways by which I’d identify that thinking are two separate works in that exhibition. One, called “Passage with a Twist” and the other, I think, was called “Artist’s Brush with Death”. The first, or former work, was to do with the loss of my father’s memory. He’d suffered various strokes and it appeared that from time to time he had this idea that I was already dead – which seemed interesting; an interesting concept and worth exploring. So explore it I did, in a performative way, evoking this sense of myself as a ghost. It was a self-portrait, me as a ghost, my father having conceived of me as an absence due to loss of memory. And then there was a small photographic piece that had my father in his early to mid-thirties I think, holding me with my arms around him. I was about 3 years old I suppose, hence the idea of passage and that movement we all experience taking us towards resolution, the conclusion of our lives. The other work, “Artist’s Brush with Death” was about two experiences I had within the space of about 3 hours when I’d gone to do an exhibition in 1976 at the Experimental Art Foundation, in Adelaide.
I was with Donald Brook and we encountered a body in the river, and it was my first encounter, publicly, with a dead body. One doesn’t have these encounters too often, fortunately, but this was my first public encounter and it was, you know, something of a surprise. Then, three hours later, and following that experience, I was going into the Experimental Art Foundation – it was a Sunday afternoon – to set up this exhibition and, just as I got out of the car and was walking across the footpath, a bird dropped out of the sky and hit me on the head and I thought I’d been shot.
That was my first thought, that somebody had shot me and I’m about to die. You know, this was my last thought! Anyway, that thought, as brief as it was, was superseded by the reality of what had really occurred because when I looked down at my feet there was a dead bird. It was a pigeon, that had just dropped out of the sky, dead. So that was the beginning of an interest in portraiture on the one hand, and the expression of a personal experience on the other, albeit of a quirky nature. I continued that interest in the year 2000 for an exhibition I did at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University, in 2002, where there were a number of self-portraits – again with a narrative component. I became interested in writing, and I should mention why in a moment, but those works came out of my experience with having been diagnosed with cancer, and an interesting aside to all of this is that, whilst I was working on the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art Exhibition, in 1997, as I say it opened in 1998, I started to get infections, and after that exhibition – I mean there’s a great deal of irony here – it being an exhibition about death; after the exhibition I became increasingly ill, and given the number of episodes, something was clearly wrong. I had a lot of tests and finally on the 19th March, 1999, a year after the ACCA exhibition, I got a definitive diagnosis. I had non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and probably the best I could manage was another three years, maybe not that much. As somebody has said, it concentrates the mind wonderfully, and so my mind was concentrated. And I produced a series of portraits for this exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. One of those works involved not only myself in a performative role, but also my young son who, I think, was probably 6 years old. That work was titled “Segue” and has three panels, the final panel has him nursing a skeleton. There were other works where I used my cancer cells as part of the imagery combined with that idea I’d explored earlier at ACCA – of my being a ghost rather than somebody more material. The overarching trajectory, or intention, I think, was exploration of presence and absence and the mystery, or mysteries, associated with that.
Max Delany: Ghosts and requiems, you know and cycles of life, which appear both in the reflections upon your father and his memory, um, the birth of your own son, also I guess, allow us to see not only is your practice extending across media, but it’s also extending across history and a good example of that is a work which is called “Seven People Who Died the Day I Was Born”. Also around ’97, ’98 where you look back to that period of the second world war, and at the same time you’re also looking at your own brush with death, so these cycles of life, memory, renewal, and commemoration become really important.
Perhaps another area more recently you’ve become interested in alongside your abiding interest in history and the philosophy of history and politics, um, is that of science and the philosophy of science, and one of your most recent works is a work called “Light Rain and Everything We know about the Universe – Except Gravity” from 2013. It’s actually the largest neon work I think that has been produced in Australia. It’s a work which is 80 metres long, and it was presented at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2013, 2014, for the exhibition Melbourne Now and it is a representation of the LeGrangian model and was made one year after the confirmed discovery of the Higgs Boson.
Peter Kennedy: Yes that’s right
Max Delany: And from my understanding and I’m not an expert in particle physics, but I understand the work or the Legrangian model represents the theory of everything as we know it, expect for gravity.
Peter Kennedy: Yes
Max Delany: Can you perhaps reflect upon your interest in that scientific, physics based, you know, theorum, and which is perhaps taking the work into a more universal terrain.
Peter Kennedy: Right. Well, I have to say at the outset [LAUGHS] Max, that I’m not going to, in answering this question, put myself up as being an expert in particle physics [LAUGHS]. But it is an interesting area. I guess, again, to put that work in context, and we spoke about this yesterday, prior to the interview today, was that when I look back at my work I can see a number of nodes of, or points, of interest and they go right from the personal through to the universal. And, generally looking at it, you can see examples of the personal in my practice, you see examples of the local – I’ve worked with community groups – and there are numerous projects we haven’t discussed today that I’ve done that are community based. We have the national, in that a number of the works like the “November Eleven” pieces or “On Sacred Land” which came shortly after and which, again, I’d worked on with John Hughes, and then there is the global, which is to do with global politics and the end of history, as announced by Francis Fukiyama, which really was not the end of history, but the end of ideology. I think that leads to a kind of triumphalism for the Americans, and Neo-liberalism, which we’ve also mentioned, and the way that politics are affected today through these attitudes. And then we get to the universal. That work, in some respects was partly an accident. You, and your curatorial colleague at the National Gallery of Victoria, Jane Devery, approached me – I think at the very beginning of 2013 – and said that you’d like to commission me to produce a large scale work that would be part of Melbourne Now which was a huge exhibition, and a watershed moment, I think, in terms of how the National Gallery of Victoria regards contemporary art and supports contemporary artists – which was a change, and a very positive one. And so you then showed me Coles Court, as it’s named on the plans, on the ground floor of the National Gallery of Victoria in St Kilda Road. As we walked around you said, “well, you’ve got all of this”, and we went around the corner and you said, “Peter, you’ve got all of this”, and we went around another corner and “Peter, you’ve got all of this”, and finally I had this 84 metres, if not more, of space from just above eye level to the ceilings. And then the issue was, “well how do I do something meaningful here?”, and I explored a number of ideas. You had mentioned, I think, that one possible area of exploration would be to go back to my early 1970s work and reconfigure it. That accorded with another part of my practice which we haven’t touched on which is the idea of my work being a kind of repertoire which I can draw on for particular things should they be useful or of interest, and that’s informed my practice over many years now. This was a case in point. I took some of the ideas from the Gallery A “Neon Light Installations” exhibition. But then there was this: you wanted words, ideas, or something to be inscribed in neon, in some way. Initially, I wrote a series of stories that were about my encounters with the space; moving along the space I would have these moments of insight about which I developed little stories, reminiscences, architecture as humourous subject, and these stories were to be experienced as encounters within the space, as light writing, text, on the walls. And so all of that was looking fine. I’ve still got that work and I think it can have another application somewhere. Maybe we’ll talk about this one day, it’s kind of there, half there. But then, I had a birthday on the 18th April in 2013 and a friend who is a particle physicist – he’s Director of the Centre for Excellence in Particle Physics at Melbourne University – and involved with certain aspects of that institution’s engagement with the construction of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Switzerland. He turned up with a print of the formula, otherwise known as the Standard Model, or the Lagrangian model which is a description of everything in the universe except gravity. The reason why it doesn’t describe gravity is that gravity is linked to dark matter or black holes and no-one quite knows what’s going on there. Clearly, the Large Hadron Collider’s not going to tell them, so there’s a gap. But this formula, stretched out as it was in the National Gallery of Victoria, came to, I think, 84 metres in length, so it was a huge piece.
In the course of interviews I likened the scientific value of this in the 21st Century to the importance of Einstein’s theory of relativity expressed in the formula which is E=MC². I’ve compared the succinct nature of the Einstein formula, E=MC², with a rowing boat, and if you were to park E=MC² alongside everything we know about the universe a-la the Lagrangian model it would resemble a rowing boat alongside one of those gigantic US aircraft carriers. I mean, it’s just a huge concept that seems beyond belief and if you look at the images of the Large Hadron Collider where the Higgs Boson was proved to exist the amount of human invention, engineering and intellectual power is simply extraordinary. I mean, it’s truly breathtaking. But the other interesting thing is that this formula, in all of its 84 metres, not only describes everything that’s out there, but it it’s a description of us as well, it includes us which, it seems to me, is amazing. I mean it’s the, it’s the materiality of us that can be quantified and converted into a formula by virtue of a crashing together of two particles and from that collision, what emerges in the space of 3 trillionths of a second, is this description of everything. I mean, I’m not a particle physicist but that seems, from a fairly prosaic, mundane layman’s point of view, fairly extraordinary.
Max Delany: Peter in your work is a very strong sense of history and an artist’s sense of history and some wonderful leaps of faith
Peter Kennedy: Yes
Max Delany: And leaps of, or points of connection, and often the past informs the present very much in your work, but what about the future, is that something you reflect upon and what are your plans for your work, as well, in the future.
Peter Kennedy: It’s a very good question Max, and the way I’m inclined to attempt to answer it is that we had a kind of pre-emptive 60th birthday celebration here for Jillian, my partner, a few weeks ago and because I turn 70 in a few weeks’ time, in April, the two birthdays were combined and I had to make a small speech. And one of the things I said was that although there were a number of people present at this event who were, themselves, going to celebrate this year one of these sort of decade birthdays, I felt that having got to my 8th decade, that is, being about to turn 70, I now have a strong sense, which I haven’t had before, of, and I’m quoting myself here, “the sense that the horizon is getting closer, or, alternatively, it’s getting narrower.” I think that what promotes that line of thinking is that now, more than ever – apart from when I thought that, you know, the cancer was probably not going to be managed – I now have a strong sense of the limit of time available. Some time back when I was diagnosed with a second cancer, this was back in late 2012, early 2013, just before we embarked on “Light Rain and Everything We Know About The Universe”, I thought I was in trouble again, you know, with my health, so I sat down and wrote up a list, a schedule, of all the works that I was planning to do, and would still like to do, and that list came to about thirteen projects. Then I factored in the amount of time that it takes me, on average, to make a project – which is roughly about 2 years, given health factors and general exigencies of life. I did the sums and thought, hell, to be able to do all thirteen I’m probably going to have to reach 98 before I’m finished. This seems clearly impractical so I’ve pared it down to about 7 projects but that’s probably, on the basis of my formula, still too optimistic. However, at the moment I’ve got 2 or 3 projects that seem pressing or likely to be more satisfying than some of the other options. One is to do a major exhibition of all my moving image work, or a selection, as an installation. There are some works that no one has ever seen, or there are works that were seen so long ago, you know, 45 years ago in the case of the black and white videotapes I made in 1971, few would have seen them, no one would remember them. Then there are more recent works. Due to the recurrence of illness… making art, things on the wall like we see here today, involves an expenditure of energy and I haven’t had that kind of energy on a number of occasions. The energy I have had has then gone into writing stories about various events, and one of those works – we’re shooting here next Tuesday evening – we need darkness – is a story that I wrote and have continued re-writing since 2004.
It is an event involving my son, who’s now almost 20, and a practiced musician, a drummer, and the work is about an intervention of his, about an action by him back in 2003, involving six photographs – the work is titled “The Photographs’ Story” – that were published in the newspaper and he’s inscribed his first graffiti across these images. The images, not particularly pleasant, were about the shooting of a young boy in Palestine. It so happens that Jillian, my partner, is a professional actor, and so this is going to be a family affair where I’m the writer, director, and my son gets to perform, both on the drums and as the grown up version of the child he once was. His graffitied intervention all those years ago generated the story, and Jillian tells the story to camera from the point of view of the photographs – that is, how the photographs themselves, having been on the receiving end of this young boy, my son’s actions, have responded both to what it is they present as images – the shooting of the young Palestinian boy – and also having been on the receiving end of my son writing his strange words – which I refer to as a delphic chorus – across them. This work is now in production. However, it requires a lot of money so I’m only doing part one. It’s a six-part work and multi-screen. It can be jigged in all sorts of ways, but I would say by way of conclusion that I think this work has stretched me creatively, imaginatively, and is more complex than anything else I’ve done. So it’s my Magnum Opus… more than anything else I’ve attempted. Part of the content of the work is to do with the idea of the fear of artistic failure, which comes in the sixth part. It’s my fear. However, for the sake of art the fear is writ larger than I currently feel it. [LAUGHS] Nevertheless, there is a possibility that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew and there is some cause for a level of… low level of… apprehension, which is to do with ‘can I pull this off?’.
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© The State of Queensland (State Library of Queensland) 2015
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