The Art of Fascination
by Siri Hustvedt
When I entered the long, large gallery in The Brooklyn Museum, I turned to my right and saw that everyone in the room had gathered in front of a single work. Curious, I joined them. The sculpture by Jon Kessler was called "Peter Kubelka", a title that meant nothing to me at the time, but I stood with the others and watched. Soon I felt I had to look at it. From behind a thin grey cloth, lights illuminated a series of frames of varying sizes. At the lower right, a large lightbulb punctured its wool covering slowly dimming on and off. The motion of the light excited me. What on earth produced this feeling? I eyed my fellow spectators quickly and saw in their faces a uniform gaze of quiet fascination, interrupted here and there by a squint of puzzlement or a hesitant smile.
The ability to fascinate remains the most immediate quality of Jon Kessler's art. It seduces instantly, draws the viewer toward it and holds him. It seems to me that whatever the object, fascination requires a secret. At least some part of the thing seen must escape full comprehension. Fascinations most easily dispelled are those in which the hidden part can be readily revealed: a glimpse of wire above the hands and feet of the flying boy; the mannequin in the store window that blinks, and the trick is life masquerading as thing. Prolonged fascinations however, are never mechanical. "Peter Kubelka" attracts for a reason that has nothing to do with the secret of its construction. Its workings may interest me, but it isn't why I look. I now know that the sculpture's title refers to an Austrian filmmaker, and that the illuminated rectangles allude to film frames. This knowledge informs how I regard the piece, but it doesn't explain or quell my fascination. Its secret lies elsewhere.
I suspect that what holds my gaze is that I don't know what I see, even though the sculptures are often built from objects I can name, sometimes even the vulgar refuse of our "chachka" culture. But to list or even describe those objects doesn't represent what I see, and the problem goes beyond the universal cleft between a sign and its referent. Museums and galleries rarefy any object. The simple act, say, of moving a wax banana from a bowl in Yonkers into a museum changes it forever. Whether that wax banana is captivating inside the walls of the museum is another question. The words "wax banana" function surprisingly well as a description of what meets my eye. This is true not only of my hypothetical banana but of many works of art. The vacuum cleaner encased in plexiglass may appear otherworldly through its transparent shell in a gallery, but again my identification of it serves me efficiently. In Jon Kessler's sculpture familiar objects are denatured. The familiar is made unfamiliar, and that transformation is not caused by a simple Duchampian displacement.
What is the context for this alienation? When does a thing cease to be itself and become something else? In S.W.A.M.P (1985), a glowing figure strides forward into a fantastic landscape, a light in his outstretched hand. Cast from a jockey lawn ornament, the fellow's origins aren't entirely invisible. If you look closely, you can see that the little man's ancestor was meant to adorn a close-cropped, middle American lawn, but now he's
another, just as the illumined halls and thoroughly undisguised Christmas tree decorations both summon their intended use and erase it as part of this trembling landscape with its own allusion to woods, sky, lichen and water. Like the spectator, the little man is about to enter a fiction that announces itself as such. The lights, movement and colors conjure the conventions of science fiction, the imagined worlds of books and movies. But again the evocation isn't neat. A part of what I see slips away when I try to locate it, and I'm left without an answer.
It may be that the power of the work lies in the unarticulated space between, or rather among, a host of references both literal and metaphorical. So the Murano vases in "Under Venice" (1987) sit on display in the work as they might in a suburban house as "collectibles". But these vases seem to move, and within that shifting blue world, they call to mind submerged pictures of the aquatic world: coral, sunken treasure, water and light itself, as well as an imagined surface-the city of Venice, both as real place and as myth. The old city, heavy with priceless works of art, sinks under its own weight and blurs the threshold between above and below. Title aside, the sculpture's frames, motion and lights threaten the very idea of drawing the line. When I try, what I see literally floats away.
If an examination of a single sculpture resists definition, the body of Kessler's work to date similarly eludes category. There are repetitions, leitmotifs and recurring images, but the range of visual vocabulary is remarkable. Gallery visitors are accustomed to sameness from an artist. That sameness may be ingenious or dull, but to a huge extent a dominant "idea" reveals itself in a show with only subtle variations. To put it simply: Jon Kessler's sculptures don't all look alike. The man who built "Arts et Metiers" in 1989 also made "American Landscape" and "Broken Building" that same year. What links the sculptures is not uniformity of appearance. On the contrary, his materials, both physical and intellectual, appear to be unlimited.
There is, however, within the work a consistent vacillation between the abstract vocabulary of modernism and a newer (or older, depending how you look at it) use of mimetic terms. In "The Other Side" the addition of a tiny toy polar bear to a fiberglas shower, which looks suspiciously like a modernist sculpture, transforms its undulating shape into an arctic wasteland.
Even nameless, "Broken Building" would summon the architecture of the International Style that altered the face of the modern city. In this case, the sculpture's formal abstraction is itself a referent. In "City" (1989) the inversion of the abstract and figurative recurs. Its cylinders and partial cylinders of steel mesh and glass recall the urban landscape without reproducing it it in any way. "Earthquake" (1990) further complicates the problem of reference to the outside-here the realized architecture of modernism-and the inside-the art work itself; because it literally incorporates "Broken Building" into itself through a series of photographs. As the title suggests, the sculpture shakes alarmingly. While it points to the fragility of
The Comedians 1986 (detail)
those glass and steel towers when the earth cracks, it also dismantles itself as constructed art by referring not to any "real" building but to a "real" sculpture-removed from itself as photographs, pictures repeated over and over and over so that, like a chant, the repetition empties them of meaning and obscures their origin. And weirdly, like a photograph, even the sculpture's movement is a kind of "still" its tremor doesn't progress. The structure doesn't collapse. The quake has no end. "Earthquake" tarns the inside out. And because that turning is neither fully transparent nor opaque, I am able to sense a third presence, not a building but a body: a perpetual human shudder, an anatomy caught in a moment of seizure that repeats itself forever.
Kessler's complex relation to mimesis allows me as a viewer to link the cityscapes to the very different works that also contain on first glance familiar environmental images: "American Landscape" (1989) and "American Landscape #2" (1990). Both appear to be night pictures: the former, a barren amusement park with elements of industrial wastelands; the second, a hut or tiny house in a flat land against an evening sky, it's single window aglow with the eerie blue light of the television within. They seem to be pictures of a cultural notion of America, suffused with nostalgia: the wish for what never really was. And yet the world, too, looks like that on certain nights when the real seems to wrap itself in fiction. I feel irony as well when I stare at that "little house on the prairie", but it doesn't block poignancy. Both works are boxes. The boxes are art crates, sculptures so self-contained they can be shipped to a collector (almost) as is. The landscapes are at once collective dream and commodity-one idea encased in the other and impossible to separate.
"Arts et Metiers", named after the museum in Paris, presents itself superficially as another historical fantasy-this time as an homage to the machine. "Arts et Metiers" is a functioning machine, fabricated from real objects the artist sought out while he lived in France: notably the barrel and black-smith's bellows. The thing moves, the bellows open and close like an enormous mouth and emit a noise-comic, compelling and terrible all at once. That the piece recalls the drama of the Industrial Revolution and its nightmare of monster machine is apparent. Both Thoreau and Zola would have recognized their fears in it. But the steel framed parts also lose themselves to a whole that is curiously abstract without feeling modern-the nineteenth century reinvented as a mechanical body that clanks away in our heads. "Arts et Metiers" is finally corporal. Those bellows breathe, and the oversized breaths make it difficult to leave it behind in a dead past. Either as ghost or ancient survivor, it has tracked us into the present.
Time as historical phantom intersects with the present spectacle of the work itself. As kinetic sculpture, Kessler's art requires an eye witness in a, way that painting or immobile sculpture doesn't. While all reproduction impoverishes, art that moves or is illumined remains particularly intractable to the stillness of photography. The sculpture exists in the time of viewing, in memory and sometimes on film. "Word Box" (1992), for example, a collaborative work (Paul Auster wrote the text, Christofer Wool painted it), takes roughly fifteen minutes to experience if the spectator chooses to read the entire text that revolves vertically inside the large, beige rectangular box: "The world is in my head. My body is in the world". Similarly, Marcello 9000 (1994) which includes as part of its mechanism an audio tape of the famous Italian actor in heated conversation with a female counterpart, requires time to absorb, even if one doesn't understand the language. These are works that unfold, that become themselves in time. "Le Grand Ecran" (1991) is, in the artist's own words, "a self-constructing spectacle". A small movie screen, a record player, two speakers and a box which holds several records sit respectively on the shelves of a steel frame. The screen moves slowly up the ramp to which it is attached and then a record plays for ten seconds. This mechanical narrative is repeated over and over. The sculpture enthralls me, a baffling fact when I note it resembles nothing so much as the makeshift arrangement of a poor but neat student's audio visual equipment. The machine seems to have sprung from some ordinary domestic landscape of the present or recent past, every object in it smacks of the homely and familiar rather then the high-tech. Like "Arts et Metiers", it is an autonomous machine. Like "Peter Kubelka", it isn't how it works that fascinates me. The familiarity of its components acts against the nonsense of its business: that climbing screen and its brief ejaculation of sounds. Its independence and the uncanny quality of its repetition estrange me from it. And while I gaze at it, it recedes in time, not only into the immediate past of my viewing, but the things I seemed to know so well appear as relics of the age I happen to live in, the record player suddenly as peculiar as the blacksmith's bellows.
Repetition in a Kessler sculpture is never a simple effect of whatever mechanism the work employs. It is the sculpture, the incantation of itself that recalls a heart beat as often as a wheel. "Birth of a Clown" (1992) and "Music Box" (1992) both use repetition as a device of transformation. When I first saw "Birth of a Clown", my approach allowed only an initial view of a white cube. Not until I moved several steps around it did I see the gyrating black torso and legs. My first response was to laugh. The struggling half-man looked ridiculous, but as I continued to look at the kicking limbs and contorted waist, I began to feel not just sober but grave. The clown's body, though obviously a body, doesn't mimic real human anatomy but the invented bodies of dolls, cartoons, and drawings-his jester shoes aren't on his feet; they are his feet. Were the sculpture a mere witticism, the figurative born of minimalist abstraction-it would carry only the charm of an art world joke. But the clown's struggle goes on and on, his movements look organic rather than mechanical, and this breech birth resonates like a dream image I suddenly remember mid-day, its context irretrievable.
Repetition in "Birth of a Clown" creates its emotional range: from laughter to disturbance. "Music Box", a monumental work that weighs two tons and measures over nine feet long, also gains power through recurrence. A black steel box and a revolving cylinder covered with spiked prongs sit on a simple, even crude wooden frame. Music plays as the cylinder turns, very very slowly, one somber hollow note at a time. The melody is "The Star
Blues and the Abstract Truth, 1985
Spangled Banner", a tune unrecognizable unless the listener concentrates hard. Jon Kessler has said the original inspiration for the piece came from a hook that depicted torture devices of the Spanish Inquisition, and though these particular horrors cannot be gleaned from the sculpture, it conveys an oppressive feeling of sinister invention without explicit reference. The American national anthem is present but disguised. Significantly, the machine's steel spikes that bear oblique reference to instruments of war and torture are necessary to its mechanism. The object's lack of extraneous parts or decorative elements further connects it to the efficiency of mechanized terror. Naked of ornament, it is a music box that starkly opposes the pretty things I imagine when I hear those words. And yet all it does is play music. The tones it issues combine the candence of a mantra with the inexorable regularity of machinery. "Music Box" made me feel grief, not present but remembered grief for some loss I couldn't name.
The unfathomable workings of memory stand at the center of Jon Kessler's art. His constructions, no matter how sophisticated, do not constitute a vision of the future or technology, except in so far as these ideas figure in our cultural memory and present landscape. After all, "the world is in our heads", and that includes the junkyard as much as the museum. Kessler alludes to both realms and many others, but in the process of his reference they are changed. I look, I recognize, but I cannot articulate what I remember, and the act of trying to unearth that lost image accounts for my enduring fascination. That may be the enchantment of Kessler's work. When I look at one of his sculptures, I remember what I have never seen before.