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: 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?
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Peter Kennedy, Panic Mantra
- A Breathless Performance
detail, red neon light,
timber panels, 60.0 x
1,567.5 cm, 1997-8

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?

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Peter Kennedy, The Illuminated
Steps - A War Memorial for the
Twentieth Century
, part of
Requiem for Ghosts
, blue and
white fluorescent light and
metal battens, x-rays, glass, dried
flowers, a history of wars of
the twentieth century. In ascending
order: illuminated texts
with references to death from
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
1922, and Benjamin Britten,
War Requiem 1962 (superimposed
words from the choral score
Missa pro Defunctis and the
poems of Wilfred Owen); top:
illuminated stretched image
of the Milky Way. All
components mounted on
a timber base and
plywood ziggurat, 216.5 x 733.5
x 63.5 cm, 1997-98

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?
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Peter Kennedy, People Who
Died the Day I was Born - April
18, 1945 (Part 2)
, Part of
Requiem for Ghosts
, blue
neon and fluorescent light
with text mounted on metal
battens and set into
two adjoining timber boxes
fixed to the wall. 56.0 x
414.0 x 6.5 cm; 56.0 x
694.3 x 6.5 cm, 1997-98

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.

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

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.

The artist and
Courtesy of the artist.