by Lynn Cooke
May 1988 Pages 50-54
When Philip Taaffe first started appropriating Op art imagery it seemed as if a significant threshold had been crossed, for no twentieth-century art was more debased or derided - with the exception of Light sculpture and Cybernetic/ Kinetic art of the sixties, to which it was distantly related. While not irredeemably damned to oblivion, such objects were certainly more recalcitrant to reconsideration. This was partly because this work had been so quickly picked up and assimilated into the mass market that saturation point was rapidly surpassed on a wide variety of fronts. But there were other reasons too. With its focus on retinal gymnastics Op art had a relatively circumscribed aesthetic, whereas both Kinetic and Light art fervently embraced more substantial bodies of ideas, ideas deriving from a variety of branches of science: it is principally this technological utopianism which has militated against subsequent reconsideration. Two decades later, it is almost impossible to credit the degree of enthusiasm with which Jack Burnham discussed these art-forms in his epoch-making book, Beyond Modern Sculpture, subtitled 'The Effects of Science and Technology on Modern Art' and published in 1968. Arguing that 'the cultural obsession with the art-object is slowly disappearing and being replaced by what might be called "systems consciousness" ', Burnham saw this new philosophy as more concerned with information than physical presence, and with the total environment over the autonomous object.1 Confidently, he prophesied:
The downfall of the sculpted object will represent one of many climatic symbols for our civilization ...By rendering the invisible visible through systems of consciousness, we are beginning to accept responsibility for the well-being and continued existence of life upon the Earth.2
Within six years Burnham had radically revised his position. Although he did not repudiate the notion of an art that was environmental instead of object-based, he redefined its base, discerning in magic, the cabala and alchemy the true substructure of art, and rejecting all futurist technologies as highly dangerous Faustian agencies.3 His reorientation was matched by the rapid withering away of such idealistic programmes as EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), established in 1967 to promote a closer collaboration between art and technology.4 Lauding science and technology as 'the handmaidens of materialism' Burnham had argued that they 'not only tell us most of what we know about the world, they constantly alter our relationships to ourselves and to our surroundings'. Other artists utilizing these means during the sixties, like him, had concentrated on theories and processes, demonstrating them abstractly via quasi-models, to the virtual exclusion of their application in other guises, most notably in the rapidly expanding field of mass communications. Possibly as a result of dealing with abstract principles, these artists, in contrast to professionals like the technician or the scientist whose approach was primarily utilitarian, employed this technology in very circumscribed and relatively unsophisticated ways. Not surprisingly, the marginalization of kinetic/computer and systems-based art of almost all kinds has since continued unchecked, its distance from mainstream art and aesthetic debates increasingly unchallenged.5 Given that it is not just the products of these media but the media themselves which have been largely disdained, forgotten or ignored, the emergence of Jon Kessler's work over the past five years is noteworthy. That, working with such means as his principal medium, he has managed to create an independent and singular position for himself in a decade marked by the return of the autonomous, self-sufficient object as the artistic norm is even more remarkable. Kessler is not, of course, revising the tenets that in the late sixties upheld the work of the Zero Group, or such peers as Takis, Pol Bury and Nicholas Schoffer, but he refrains from treating these technologies as simply ancillary to the main body of his endeavour, as have most more recent practitioners like Jonathan Borofsky who, on occasion, incorporates them to meet a particular need. And though Kessler draws on some of the same sources as Borofsky, notably on cabaret and disco light-shows, rather than on predominantly fine art legacies, he is concerned with making discrete self-contained objects, whereas Borofsky's are part of a larger continuum. At the same time Kessler does not just deflect his media slightly from their normal function, as does, say, Bruce Nauman when he employs neon, or Alice Aycock when she builds functionless contraptions with moving parts: from composite sources Kessler creates new entities which have no directly identifiable existing counterparts in the contemporary world. But what, ultimately, distinguishes his approach to kinetic and light works is his preoccupation with the ways in which these media may serve to evoke the known and familiar. Anamnesis is their goal. Since he thus mines those experiences and feelings that dwell in the realm of memory, in preference to those that belong to some futuristic or even present zone, his works, notwithstanding their motorised and computerised parts, have more to do with the diorama and the magic lantern show than with the science laboratory.
Over the past five years Kessler has moved swiftly, exploring the various ends to which such techniques may be employed without allowing them to become simply projections, a kind of filmic spectacle. Central to this has been his careful control of the ways in which the viewer experiences the work: how the spectator relates to the object is as crucial as provoking an immersion into the passing array of evanescent projections. An early piece, The Guiding Light, 1983, stands directly on the floor, with an opaque corrugated sheet providing a frontal surface, on to which shadows are projected from motorized elements located behind. The metal scaffolding which supports the whole as a free-standing entity is not, however, fully integrated. Given that some of the action takes place low-down, around knee-level, and that the screen is obliquely inclined away from the viewer, the question of where to stand is never satisfactorily resolved. This problem disappeared once Kessler placed his work on the wall at eye-height, and condensed the projecting surface into a relatively small area appropriate to intimate viewing. By treating this structure as an integral part of the subject - the web in Parasite, for example - where before, as in Rockville 84, it provided a containing frame within which the projected events could be viewed, the illusory and concrete became even more closely integrated. Cantilevering the whole sufficiently out from the wall, so that a side view would disclose the identity of the changing mechanisms, was equally important, since it prevented the whole from being regarded simply at the level of magical effects conjured mysteriously: it ensured that the work belonged in the realm of objects rather than being aligned exclusively with the disembodied matrix of film, shadow plays and magic lanterns. In this Kessler's work is different from that of Christian Boltanski, who also works with projections but who maintains a careful, and substantial, separation between protagonist and product. In works like Les Ombres, 1984, delicate oddments become frail creatures animated by the aleatory play of wind. It is, however, the shadows waxing and waning on the surrounding walls (or their stolen traces in photographs) which are crucial for Boltanski. Where his art is fundamentally pictorial and his salient subject the loss and refab-rication of communal memory, Kessler's art is object-based, and his content derives as much from its processes as from the media and iconography. In Parasite and Rockville 84, since both the style and the subject-matter recall old films — Sci-fi, early animation and silent films — all the allusions refer to the past, to a more 'primitive' state of the art as well as of mankind. These shadow plays are preceded by a short sequence of moving multicoloured lights whose effect is to introduce a gradual disorientation akin to that which occurs at the onset of sleep or a trance. In these early works, where the front consists entirely of a screen or scrim, attention is firmly focused on the cycle of projected events. Yet the fact that this cycle is quite short means that it is easily identified, and a preoccupation with cyclical repetition soon surpasses interest in the ostensible subject. Gradually, the exact nature of this reality becomes indeterminate, and irrelevant, just as it becomes useless to try to discriminate between what is true and what false when something has been told too many times. Although circular time is often described as mythic time, the type of ritualized repetitious pantomimic unfolding of events found here also recalls that of dream. The realms of memory, myth and dream finally coalesce. The end to which these media have been employed are thus the very opposite from the obviously novel effects generated by video games, pinball machines and computer toys. Despite the use of sophisticated technology, the content is firmly embedded in the past. By alluding to the ways in which film and related media have come to condition and shape so much of contemporary experience without having actual recourse to those media Kessler is able to establish a continuity between them and such earlier forms as dioramas, magic lanterns and certain types of automata.6
Kessler's interest in a past that is as imaginary as it is actual soon led him to annexe another realm which also can be perceived as remote in time as well as in place - the exotic. The world of far-away places as imagined in travel brochures and television documentaries is a composite construct rather than an actuality; a fabrication whose reality is not measurable by any yardstick of authenticity. Yet, as attested by Visions of China, reality may be all the stronger for deriving from the realm of fiction. The most arresting and complex of the group of works based on Eastern motifs (it contains at least five different zones in motion, and some eighteen different light fixtures), Visions of China is a constellation of the simulated and actual, incorporating as it does both narrative and abstract silhouetted projections alongside physical components, some of which, like the fibre-glass rock, are patently fakes. Infiltrated with masses of tiny crevasses, including one containing an inverted television set veiled in purple and watched over by a jade-green kneeling peasant, this model landscape complements a decorative laquer lattice to the left of the central screen. Crowning all is the title, spelt out in simple, 'classic' letters of the type that might be used for the credits of a 'serious' documentary film, and set incongruously against the panoply of flickering and schematic activities found below. The whole starts with a single neon strip, placed behind the word 'Visions', lighting up briefly before being the nature of reality in a technological society (as presented here) is radically different from that forecast in the art of the sixties. In retrieving and recycling the familiar and fantastical into myth and memory, technology insinuates itself at the deepest levels of consciousness.
With its complex of actual and imaginary activities conjuring an exotic realm that is at once make-believe and real, Visions of China marks a highpoint amongst Kessler's early works. A second was reached with the exhibition he held last November at Luhring, Augustine and Hodes. The range of works included was surprisingly wide, attesting both to the continuing fertility he finds in these media, and to the fact that as yet he has refrained from defining too narrowly his abiding preoccupations.
In many respects Under Venice can be seen to extend the early wall works in new and promising directions. Objects float or are suspended independent of any ground; near and far, tangible matter and filmy phantoms are inextricably blended. The underwater realm as Kessler presents it is seductively luminous, far from the twilit or oneiric 'nowhere' zones that he had explored before.
Translucent panels, in tinted or patterned glass, are attached to narrow shelves on which gigantic Murano vases perch, slowly shifting back and forth across the viewer's field of vision. This activity is framed loosely by metal struts which are also the structural scaffolding securing the work. Since almost everything is in front of the large photographic backdrop, and since almost everything physical is transparent or reflective, the boundary between the concrete and the pictured is again effaced. But although, as previously, the actual is conflated with the disembodied, the past has now been replaced by the present. Conceived as a timeless weightless suspension, this benign present seems somehow as artificial as Venice itself.
With four discrete sections, two free-standing and two attached to the wall, Taiwan is Kessler's most complex piece. Yet in comparison to the multipartite Pictures of a Floating World executed the year before, the sequence of activity has become both simpler and clearer. Beginning at one end with a jaunty statuette of a kind of Eastern magus, and including parts which slowly rock, like the two mirrors whose empty surfaces are upturned to the ceiling, Taiwan contains some of the most poignant and memorable moments that Kessler has yet devised. As a whole, however, it is less satisfying than Under Venice. The problem arises from the difficulty of deciding quite where to stand: what is ideally required is to be an omnivorous disembodied eye. The interest in setting up tenuous and unexpected linkages between disparate sections suggests a parallel with Fischli/Weiss's film The Way Things Go, a parallel that may explain some reasons for this difficulty.
In the smaller pieces executed during the past year Kessler has simplified further, relying on elements like a single light or a bicycle chain instead of a panoply of cogs, wheels, mounts, springs, bulbs and gears. What is more important, he now invokes a mechanistic ambience in place of the 'homely' technological one. In No Radio, everything is visible from in front, operates parallel to the wall and is protected by a glass panel extending to the floor. As its title suggests there is no point breaking through this glass window, for there is nothing concealed inside worth stealing. Its value exists at the level of spectacle. Recalling an early modernist machine aesthetic, its beauty is entirely a matter of appearance, quite independent of any function. Standing in lonely and silent splendour above a moodily lit cavern of acid green shot with purple, an underworld whose character is defined solely through the quality of the light and the empty space, the ferris wheel is as much a beautiful structure as an image of entertainment. This combination of an elegantly lucid yet not precious finish, a streamlined clarity in composition, and a highly sensuous enjoyment of materials with a relatively small scale, makes No Radio very different from Kessler's work of the previous three years. The twenties' idealistic affirmation of mechanical omnipotence is viewed retrospectively, with melancholy fascination, as a lost age of innocence. Kessler creates and embodies rather than merely quotes that ethos, acknowledging at the same time that it is an ethos whose existence has been undermined, simplified to the status of a 'look' or a memory, while any surviving artefacts are stripped of their former functional roles and prized as aesthetic souvenirs. Despite the fact that No Radio is composed from multiples and facsimiles, and exists at one remove — behind glass, under tinted lights — surrogate experiences do not predominate. Kessler's is an art that still deals with first order experiences. He is far removed from that analytic conceptual approach to the consumption of art objects and to the conflation of sculpture with consumer durables which preoccupies artists like Jeff Koons or General Idea, with whom he has at times been inappropriately linked.7 Although consumer objects, together with new 'raw' materials, do provide the sources from which his art is fabricated, his use of them is entirely different. If comparison is to be made with other artists it should be with Duchamp and Picabia. But where they approached the machine in a spirit of ironic or erotic playfulness, today the machine has acquired a nostalgic patina — for machines, unlike technology, are still felt to work at the behest of man; they have not begun to evolve on their own.
In The Big Light Kessler has for the first rime completely resolved the problem of making a piece that works in the round, that takes on a resolute autonomy as an object. The solution stems from relating it formally to actual objects; in scale, structure and format it resembles such things as shelving units and display cabinets. The introduction of wheels reinforces this. The flex and plug, too, are no longer extraneous mechanisms but fully of a piece with the whole. In Taiwan, as in Pictures of a Floating World, Kessler incorporated actual pieces of furniture, but wove them into larger structures whose hybrid indeterminacy threatened to undermine not only their cogency as objects but their ability to inhabit the same space coherently. With The Big Light, unlike those works, its genus can now be identified, though the precise species remains ambiguous. Physically, the elements contained within this structure - the globes - act like abstract still-life components; illusionistically they provide the source for a light-show projected onto one of its faces. This visual symphony is in style abstract but in content referential, for it recalls works by Schlemmer and Moholy Nagy as well as certain other Constructivist structures. The kinetic/light content is thus thoroughly at one with the style and form of the containing structure. The result is something that, unlike much early kinetic art, has a satisfying object identity. Stylishly packaged, it boldly asserts its functionlessness and autonomy. Yet just as repetition earlier rendered distinctions between the real and unreal uncertain, so the identity of these objects is insecure. They seem to inhabit a no-man's land, a region that also contains Duchamp's roto-reliefs, together with certain earlier automata. But whereas those objects were constructed as marvels, these conjure a world resolutely of the past. In serving as touchstones, they manifest our current preoccupation with the past, and with nostalgia, as vehicles through which to evade confronting not merely the future but even the present.
As demonstrated by the shifts - 'development' would not be the proper term — from Visions of China to Under Venice and The Big Light, Kessler's trajectory has proved an unpredictable and independent one. Notwithstanding affinities with certain of his peers, such as Reinhard Mucha, to date he shares their concerns only intermittently. That he is able to move unselfconsciously but knowingly amidst a multifarious legacy that ranges from the mechanistic to the technological and cybernetic seems peculiarly American. But most un-American is the maverick spirit, devoid of cynicism or irony, in which he navigates this vast heritage.
1 Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture, New York, 1978, p.369. 2Burnham, op.cit., p.370.
3 See 'Introduction', Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art, New York, 1974, pp.11-12.
4 See The Machine at the End of the Machine Age, MOMA, New York, 1968.
5 This was exemplified at the Venice Biennale of 1986.
6 See The Machine at the End of the Machine Age, op.cit., for examples of these.
7 See, for example, Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 1986.