Peter Kennedy
Poetics, politics & a silent music
Interviewed by Anne Marsh

 
 

(1) Postmodernism and Politics
(2) Poetry and Silent Music
(3) History and The Future

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?
   


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Peter Kennedy, Passage -
with a twist, Portrait of
my ghost
, photographed
by Sandy Edwards, 142.0
x 101.0 cm, 1997-8

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?
 

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Peter Kennedy, Eight Sections
- Peice for Introductions
- part of Idea Demonstrations,
Inhobodress,
Sydney 1972

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 collaboratively 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) Postmodernism and Politics
(2) Poetry and Silent Music
(3) History and The Future

The artist and
Courtesy of the artist.

Endnotes
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.