A Conversation with Peter Kennedy

First published in Photofile No. 66  September 2002 by the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney

The Ian Potter exhibition sets out to survey your career over the past three decades, to highlight your production and philosophy, but it also inevitably in part ends up highlighting your struggle with cancer.  Why make art when your death appeared so imminent?

Cancer is very confronting and I thought the experience of coming to terms with my own mortality should not be wasted.  I resolved that should my health improve – as it did – I would work with those two traditions of creative self-expression – autobiography (in the form of the short story) and the (photographic) self-portrait.  There was also anxiety and a sense of urgency on my part towards the project because of the distinct possibility of the cancer returning and impeding the development of my work.  Always at the back of my mind was the thought that this was to be my last exhibition – hence the elegiac mood that permeates the gallery in which the photographic self-portraits are displayed.  To my mind these works also represent an iconoclastic or transgressive act in so far as the conservative view is that words – let alone short stories – have no place in visual art.

Your work includes neon installations, drawings, paintings, sound and performance works, photographic documentation and digital imaging.  Indeed photography has been integral to your artistic practice since the early 1970s, and it continues to feature in your most recent work.  What is it about photography, in particular contemporary photographic practice, that still interests you, and has its role in your work changed over time?

My relationship to photography is essentially pragmatic in that I remain detached from those seductive aspects of photography that are so intrinsic to the formation of the conventional photographer/artist’s identity.  Although I still know very little of all there is to know about photography, I have always appreciated the emotion of the photographed moment.  Even more important to me has been photography’s capacity to authenticate material tendered as evidence by the artist.  The veracity of the claims I make can only be sustained by submitting photographic evidence.  My current use of photography also parallels my evolving interest in story telling.  This includes the re-combination of disparate images into a synthesised seamless, single, perfectly flat photographic surface that allows for all manner of juxtapositions, intersections and poetic revelations.

Some people might be surprised by the prominence given in your recent work to photography, and might even wonder whether it’s not playing too literal a role in such speculative images.  I am thinking in particular about works such as ‘Segue’, the large three panelled photographic document of your son surviving (transcending) your own inevitable passing (death).  How would you respond to such criticism?

Segue is one of several autobiographical photographic works in the current Potter exhibition.  I re-encountered this work just the other day after not having seen it for some weeks.  I was surprised how taken aback, how momentarily shocked I was by the potency of the images.  Recovering from the sadness of the idea of departure that the largest of the three pictures promotes, I found myself reflecting on our conceptions of being and non-being – the collapse of one into the other – of will and intellect – of optimism and its dark twin, pessimism and all of them compressed into a single experiential moment.  I am therefore more inclined to regard Segue as allegorical given its allusions to life and death, presence and absence and the potential for absence to re-establish itself as presence – as an active participant in the realm of memory.  It was Joseph Conrad who wrote of the “invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts … which binds together all humanity – the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”  Segue’s essence lies in this immutable sense of passage we all share. Perhaps the perception of literalness comes more from my use of the short story form inscribed as it is on the surface of the middle photograph.  The text reveals the chain of events linking the three pictures, but even here I would argue there is an allegorical component based on the familiar, common experiences of serendipity, synchronicity or coincidence.  We can also conceive of Alastair, my son, who will most certainly in some imagined future be seen as the primary subject, considering his very own personal responses to the work.  He will no doubt have different responses to it at different stages in his life, and we are left to speculate as to what those responses might be.

There are numerous references in your work to external events, such as medical technology or the Port Arthur massacre, but it is also work circumscribed by a very subjective and specific ‘emotional history’.  How do you reconcile these tendencies, and what is there to stop your work being read as too personal, too anecdotal and therefore asocial or ahistorical?

We are all subjects of a pervasive Western democratic libertarianism that privileges personal autonomy and self-expression.  Paradoxically, this could be seen as a great collective unconscious effort at a quite specific moment in time, in describing the human condition.  Today everyone has a story and one story is as important as the next.  Personal lives tend to rub up against history in all manner of persistent ways.  The question really is do we need any more stories?  I believe we do.  My images involving cancer cell imagery and the creative options of digital technology could only have been produced at the end of the twentieth century.  Here then are ‘portraits’ not available to previous generations; it is personal work sited at a precise moment in history.  It is also ‘hot’, emotionally charged work – the antithesis of much recent art in which cool ironic detachment is the identifiable characteristic.  Even though my work may evoke an elegy in two voices – the historical and the personal – logic does not demand the subordination of one to the other.  The personal, as I see it, is a free-floating fragment.  History, in this context, I see as a stream, and sometimes a torrent.  To allow both to coexist on equal terms is to remain faithful to their importance.  Such a view may enable us to look beyond dissonance, discontinuity and fragmentation, and understand that everything is connected.

Les Walkling
June 2002

Peter Kennedy collaborated with Sandy Edwards (photographer) and Les Walkling (digital compositor) on the production of the recent photographic works in the exhibition ‘Peter Kennedy, Selected Works 1970 to 2002’ at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne, 24 April to 30 June 2002.

Peter Kennedy was Artist in Residence in Media Arts at RMIT University, Melbourne (2001), which facilitated the digital printing of his photographic work.

An extensively illustrated 32 page exhibition catalogue including an essay by Dr Anne Marsh is available from The Ian Potter Museum.

Copyright Les Walkling 2002