The Entire System Of Degradation, Turnovers and and Travesties.
A study of the chain-driven carnivalesque in recent 110 Volt works by Jon Kessler
by PETER CAREY
Anyone who has ever put their hand on an electric fence and experienced that violent, almost concussive, pulse of energy will appreciate the effectiveness of Jon Kessler’s invention of the ART FENCE, which is used to protect the sometimes fragile works in the present show. Although new to downtown Manhattan the ART FENCE dates from the artist’s early years in Yonkers where, surrounded by dairy farmers, he saw the potential market for electric fences. At the age of fifteen Kessler was not only innovative but enterprising, having already produced plans for a suspension bridge and a FERAL KETTLE, the designs for which have since been lost. Fortunately the origins of the ART FENCE are more fastidiously recorded, the drawings in the archives of the Kakdorp Museum, Amsterdam and the author’s youthful account in the Provincetown Museum of Oral History (Tape JK205/c) "The neighbors wanted these things, so I made them some…I'd make half a dozen and go out on the road, up as far as Albany, sell them, leave them on a month's trial…and people would mostly pay for them," he said.” But my parents finally put their foot down and that was when I built PAY UP FUCK YOU which was the first time I got into trouble in that way.”
The first of Kessler’s electric fences worked mechanically with a mercury switch as part of the timing device. A motor rocked a horizontal tube of mercury side to side, which had electrical contacts at each end, so that whenever the tube was flat the mercury connected them. Mercury is a liquid, and because it is also a metal it is a very good conductor of electricity and was ideal for this ingenuous system for regulating the pulse through an electric fence.
In this post 9/11 epoch where the fences are all electronic and work with transistors, capacitors and computer chips, the old mercury model is still a remarkably effective tool. It is this device, that completes the video circuit in UNTITLED (2004). The 2 mls. of mercury flow to the bottom of their glass vial, thus connecting the circuit, thus distorting and shaking the photographic image of a mountain landscape so that we see it, hypnotically, beautifully, as from the pilot’s seat in an aircraft spiraling out of control.
A long way from Yonkers? Perhaps, and yet, with cardboard boxes, duct tape, clamps, pliers, in what Jacques Taylor would call the ‘shed-ness’ of his new work, Kessler’s Yonkers remains everywhere in evidence and although we may now doubt there were ever dairy farms next door to suburban lots, the evidence here is otherwise. Kessler’s sometimes shocking lack of ‘finish’ - a new direction - make him an outsider but, never, in any sense, naïve.
These seven works are profound meditations not only on current theory and art history, but are also, in themselves, a veritable encyclopedia of electrical and mechanical engineering from the earliest times. Kessler utilizes Geneva Mechanisms, Acme Screws, Linear Bearings, Turnbuckles, Power strips, Oilite Bushings, Micro Switches, Solenoids, Transformers, Cam Timers, CCTV Cameras in ways doubtless disturbing to their original inventors.
Glimpsing the inventory of hardware the artist has at his disposal one may be doubtful of his claim to have spent four years struggling to invent a clock mechanism first discovered in the Tang Dynasty. But it is always a mistake to underestimate Kessler and it is likewise a mistake to understand him too quickly. Was he deliberately attempting to reinvent the wheel? To which question we might wisely answer both yes and no, and it might be instructive here to reread Borges’ story Pierre Menard, where Don Quixote is rewritten word for word, thereby producing an even greater work.
Could this be an enriching way to view Kessler’s extraordinary ONE HOUR PHOTO with its tumbling twin tours and its solarized LED images? Might he also, in Williamsburg, have hand fashioned this chain link by link? Might this fastidious demanding manual replication of the manufacturing process explain his disappearance since his successful showing at MINIATURES AND MONSTROSITIES at the American Center, Paris nine years before?
All we can be sure of is that he is now back with an exhilarating body of work. Something happened to him, but what that was we may never know.
Kessler, while engaging in critiques and celebrations of modern media, is still a man with his eyes not only on the COOL STUFF of the present but on the mechanical triumphs of the past. It is therefore hardly ridiculous to see in the twin 15.2’ chains of ONE HOUR PHOTO, an homage to the clockmaker Su Song who, in the year 1090 invented a drive using a 19.5’ chain. Might Kessler have willed himself, like Pierre Menard, to create a parallel but original chain drive. Or should one, forever aware of the agri-cultural references present in ART FENCE, see ONE HOUR PHOTO as a comment on those traditional Chinese devices which moved irrigation water by means of square pallets affixed to an ‘endless’ chain?
Without fabricators, with no other assistant than a GE answering machine, this genius of duct tape and cardboard here gives us seven important pieces. In this new context, in the year of Iraq, Enron, and the invasion of Canada, the sometimes painful burns caused by Kessler’s ART FENCE might be seen not as much as a symptom of the times, but the key to our enlightenment.