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 I encounter your recent installations I am often reminded of Walter Benjamin, his notion of history and the way in which he used photography as a kind of metaphor for history. Can you comment on your own idea of history in Requiem?
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Peter Kennedy, Chorus: The
Presence of the Past from
: From The Breath of
Marching drums (with
marching snare drum), 1-9"
black and white television
set and 1-5" black and white
television set (both modified),
with video tape looped
programs of Joseph Stalin's
hands an angels' wings
and marching German army
with two loudspeakers and
tape recorded sounds
intermittently amplified,
1.60 x .80 x 3.60 m, 1993

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

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

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

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

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

    AM: Can you explain how you work on your work? What it is that is important to you in getting the message across?
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Peter Kennedy, Other than
art's sake
, 16 mm,
still shows Adrian Piper
performing Mythic Being, NY
in 1973, 1973-4

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

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

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

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

    AM: In Requiem you insert a subjective voice, a narrative about you. Thus amidst the downfall of the 'master narratives' we have the narrative of an individual man. An artist committed to an analysis of the big picture, as it were, who reinserts the 'I' in the visual text. Why have you chosen to do this at this time?
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Peter Kennedy, But the
Fierce Blackman
, installation
and performance, Inhibodress,
Sydney, tape loops,
amplifiers, speakers,
electric fan, taxi
cab radio calls,

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

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

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

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

    AM: In many situations I am sure that you are considered a 'difficult artist'. Difficult because your work is political, difficult because it is not predictable, difficult because of its scale, and difficult because you are a perfectionist in terms of style and content. This must make it 'difficult' for you to negotiate your artistic practice at times: What is it that impels you to continue producing art?
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Peter Kennedy, Snare, part
of Idea Demonstrations,
drums, loudspeakers,
amplifiers, tape deck,
recorded sound and chair,
Inhibodress, Sydney 1972

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

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

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

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

The artist and
Courtesy of the artist.

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