Journey Through Time, Back to the Origins of Identity
by Harald Falckenberg
“Germany has declared war on Russia. Afternoon, swimming lesson.”
(Franz Kafka, journal entry, August 2, 1914)
Jon Kessler’s large-scale multimedia show “The Palace at 4 A.M.” at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in 2005 was a tremendous success. When the Düsseldorf gallerist Hans Mayer called me from New York to suggest I show the installation at my factory space in Hamburg-Harburg, I spontaneously agreed. So far, all I knew were details. According to Mayer’s report, it was about Bush and a critical analysis of the Iraq war. Only as the installation was being set up did it become clear to Kessler and myself what we had let ourselves in for. The starting point for the work is the idea of capturing the terrorists’ final view of the World Trade Center before they crashed into it. The footage of the planes hitting the Twin Towers runs through the installation from beginning to end.
As a work dealing with 9/11 and its consequences, its installation in Harburg is a return to its roots. Marienstrasse, just a few hundred meters from the exhibition venue, is where the attacks were planned by Mohamed Atta and his accomplices. When Kessler learned this, he immediately installed a surveillance camera pointing toward Marienstrasse that sent pictures of all movements in the area to several monitors spread around the installation. Further, he mounted an airplane cabin’s molded-plastic window frame, an object he claimed had fallen into his lap during his flight to Hamburg, on a window of the exhibition venue.
This was my second encounter with 9/11 in art in just a few weeks. I had just purchased several works by Paul Thek from the period around 1970, when Thek was involved in actively resisting the construction of the WTC. In drawings, he placed gigantic black crosses between the Twin Towers as a symbol of their demise. Like many other New Yorkers, Thek did not understand why a long-established, organically multicultural neighborhood should be flattened to make way for a center of the international capital market. A painting from 1972 (Fig. 1) shows a view from his studio of the towers shortly before their completion. The picture is surrounded by hot potatoes—a play on words referring both to the children’s game where those left holding the potatoes when the music stops burn their hands and to the rotten stocks that continue to change hands at a profit until the market falters and their true value comes to light. In the works of both Thek and Kessler, as in the classic Hitchcock movie, the outside world is observed and monitored via a Rear Window, as an expression of voyeuristic and paranoid obsessions that shade into persecution mania.
And another connection. In April 2007, the Centre Pompidou celebrated its thirtieth birthday with an exhibition entitled “Air de Paris.” The show hinged on Gordon Matta-Clark’s 16-mm film Conical Intersect, 1974, which documents a “cutting” action by the artist, who, with the Situationists, was a bitter opponent of the Beaubourg project. (Fig. 2) Matta-Clark cut through the outer facades and interiors of two condemned houses in the immediate vicinity of the new building in an axis trained on the walls of the future museum. Although Matta-Clark could only gain authorization to carry out his cuttings on buildings that had already been condemned, he said he would “just as soon deal with something that’s brand new, crisp, and not ready for the ax.”[i]
The link between these two events, apparently far removed both in time and in cause, and the current situation is striking. Coincidence? One should be careful with the use of terms like coincidence, situation, and event. More than a few people consider coincidence to be the rule, order the exception.[ii] This view becomes more plausible if order is considered to include only deliberate, logically comprehensible constructs. According to the latest findings of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, cerebral space is subject to constant change due to the reorganization and rewriting of memory traces, with coded, repressed, and delayed subjective and collective meanings being moved around, the vast majority of which—scientists speak of up to 90 percent of all perceptive and cognitive processes—takes place below the threshold of consciousness.[iii] In the model put forward by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, art, science, and philosophy, as the three main forms of organized thought, constitute planes that cut through chaos to prevent the human mind from being destroyed by it.[iv] It is always a matter of reaching the shore safely, combined with hopes that risk being submerged by the next tidal wave. It is the distinguished task of the artist to run through man’s illusions and delusions in a finite context, all the more effectively to expose them, to break the illusions down, and to be free for a creative praxis beyond what is merely contemporary and fashionable.
Relations between architects and artists have always been fraught. On the subject of museum architecture and art alone, many books have been written. Architecture realizes the client’s wishes for significance and greatness; art struggles for independence and autonomy. Although barely acceptable in human and social terms when the victims are taken into account, it was thus only logical that artists like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Damien Hirst celebrated the demolition of the Twin Towers as a torch lit against capitalism. Writing on Gordon Matta-Clark, Dan Graham put it in a nutshell in the mid-1980s: “The architect builds, the artist destroys.”[v]
It would have been interesting to hear the opinion of Minoru Yamasaki (1912–1986), the Japanese-American architect of the WTC. He was spared having to comment on the demise of his greatest work, which is probably just as well. Almost thirty years previously, the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, designed by Yamasaki in 1950 and dynamited by public order in July 1972, made deconstructive history. (Fig. 3) According to the official version, deteriorating social conditions were the reason for the demolition. But what was actually at stake was a radical turning away from ideological notions that had seen housing projects as the new home for a modern classless society. In their works heralding postmodernism, Charles Jencks and Tom Wolfe cast Pruitt-Igoe as a symbol for the end of modernism. In 1977, Jencks gave the opening section of his Language of Post-Modern Architecture the concise title “The Death of Modern Architecture.” In 1981, Wolfe settled his own scores in From Bauhaus to Our House. And Pruitt-Igoe made an impact in Germany, too: The name of Berlin experimental band Einstürzende Neubauten (“collapsing new buildings”), founded in 1980, was inspired by the housing project’s topoclastic removal.
Jon Kessler’s oeuvre stands in the tradition of postmodernism. A descendant of an established Jewish family from New York, he was expected to take over his father’s clothing store. But Kessler wanted to be either an artist or a musician, and it turned out he became both. It was his intention to break through the mimetic adaptation of Jewish tradition to American culture. The “Broken Buildings,” a little-known series of works made between 1989 and 1991, is related to architecture. Kessler dismisses the idea of deriving identity from shells, forms, and functional frameworks. He was more interested in the skeleton and the mechanisms behind the facades.
In this light, his “Broken Buildings” series is less different from the kinetic sculptures he has developed as his main work since 1983 than one might think at first sight. In these strange objects, Kessler works with components of multicultural origin that—commercially exploited as kitsch, knickknacks, and trash—are now nothing more than reflexes of long-past historical contexts. The cultural melting pot of New York is the ideal place for such metamorphoses. Kessler rejects the American dream of representation, power, and wealth. Unlike Jeff Koons, he does not understand kitsch as the polished hunting trophies of an ostentatious middle class. He resists the cold ideas of Pop and Appropriation art and rejects Nouveau Réalisme’s relentless free play with objets trouvés. His handling of objects is marked by a respect for the historical models and by the romantic idea of saving them from the trash can of desire. Recombined and reanimated, they make up random and strangely unfamiliar documents of an everyday life devoted to the past. “I’m not a chess player,” Kessler says, “I don’t make art that way, and I never know where a body of work will go until I get there.”[vi]
The aura of antiauthority and settling scores with the world of the fathers is a central theme. Louise Bourgeois has said: “You have to forget your past every day. And accept it. And if you can’t accept it, you have to make sculptures.”[vii] She understands sculpture as unbridled pleasure in deconstruction and the symbolic destruction of the father—the cause of a constantly rekindled childhood trauma. Kessler’s work of the mid-1980s can hardly be seen as anything other than an oedipal serial violation. The art world with its theoretical discourses remains alien to him. He sees himself as a loner: “I’ve always held a position outside of the line of fire. It’s a good place to be: it’s a front row center seat.”[viii] Kessler set himself apart in a fictional world of esotericism and contemplation far from the fathers with their commercial entanglements. The retrospective show “Jon Kessler’s Asia,” at the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover and the Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz, brought this phase of Kessler’s emancipation to a close in 1994.
For many artists, the early 1990s were a nightmare. Having long been pampered and beguiled during the art boom of the 1980s, once the market collapsed, they were dropped by their gallerists overnight. They formed self-help groups and struggled to survive as critics, curators, and writers. Many became teachers at art academies. This was also the right path for the outsider Jon Kessler. Since 1994, he has been teaching at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, from 2000 through 2005 as head of the Visual Arts Division. In this sheltered academic environment, inspired by his work with the students, he was able to develop his art “outside of the line of fire.” Increasingly, he focused on the media-theoretical aspects of his work.
With “The Palace at 4 A.M.,” Kessler made a breakthrough. The obsessive, ego-psychologizing focus on the artist’s own identity is left behind in favor of a freer awareness in which systems of observation and surveillance overlap right through to the recipient, who watches the observer observing. This step does justice to the fact that the observer himself is part of the reality and the system that he observes—a blend of objective and subjective reality. “The Palace at 4 A.M.” is an eminently political work. It is, not least from Kessler’s personal point of view, proof of a development that has become known in media theory as the cognitive turn. According to this model, perception passes not so much through the eye as a supposedly neutral and objective organ[ix] as through cognition, controlled by the brain as the central organ of cognitive processes. In his treatise “Perception in the Technological Age,”[x] media theorist Peter Weibel sees the cognitive turn as being characterized by two fundamental experiences: first, that technological, machine-assisted perception enables the control of virtual bodies, movements, and spaces via ever more complex trompe l’oeil technology; and second, that the world becomes dependent on the observer. With this paradigm shift from passive registering to active shaping, the world perceived by the observer constitutes itself as a system of free construction.
“The Palace at 4 A.M.” takes Kessler, as a creator of the Newest, on a journey through time to the Oldest, to Mesopotamia, the anthropological and topographic origin of our linguistic and symbolic culture and the location of the Tower of Babel, one of the earliest monuments to human hubris. (Fig. 4) There remains the question of Kessler’s Jewish identity. I imagine his answer might be similar to that noted by Franz Kafka in his journal on January 8, 1914: “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”
[i] Interview with Liza Bear, “Gordon Matta-Clark: Splitting the Humphrey Street Building,” in: avalanche, December 1974, pp. 34–37, reprinted in Gordon Matta-Clark, London/New York 2003, pp. 163–169, here p. 167.
[ii] For more on this, see Henning Ritter, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 7, 2007, especially with regard to Sigmund Freud’s treatise “The ‘Uncanny’” (1919). And is it another coincidence? A couple of days after I finished this text on June 8, 2007, the American philosopher Richard Rorty, the master-thinker of coincidence, died. The ideas of his central work, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989), are confirmed by the latest findings of cognitive psychology and neurology, cf. Harald Falckenberg on the 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud’s birth, in: Aus dem Maschinenraum der Kunst, Hamburg 2007, p. 60ff.
[iii] Harald Falckenberg, op. cit., footnote 2.
[iv] Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, Columbia University Press 1994, pp. 208, 210–11, 216–17.
[v] Dan Graham, “Gordon Matta-Clark,” in: Sabine Breitwieser, ed., White Cube/Black Box, exhibition catalogue, Generali Foundation, Vienna 1996, pp. 215–237, here p. 230.
[vi] Jon Kessler interviewed by Lynne Cooke, in: Jon Kessler’s Asia, exhibition catalogue, Kestner-Gesellschaft/Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Hanover/Graz 1994, p. 54.
[vii] Quoted from Claudia Steinberg writing on Louise Bourgeois, Kunstzeitung, 12/2006, p. 18.
[viii] Jon Kessler, op. cit., footnote 6.
[ix] In this sense, Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976), expanded edition, University of California Press 2000, p. 16ff.
[x] (2000), in: Gamma und Amplitude, Hamburg 2004, pp. 320–344.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell