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Peter Kennedy’s One long catastrophe

Language plays a central role in Peter Kennedy’s work. Throughout his oeuvre it has taken a rich variety of forms from solitary words to voices in song, political slogans and historical texts, from witty jokes to sombre stories. Combined with a vast visual lexicon of photographic images, language is a means through which Kennedy’s works meditate on the conditions of our times. In this recent acquisition, the alarming word ‘catastrophe’ articulates the work in blue neon light, glowing like a warning sign that emits a silent caution. Politically loaded and disarmingly poetic, One long catastrophe continues Kennedy’s investigation into the complexity of history and memory. Extending from the experimental and conceptual works he pioneered in the 1970s, One long catastrophe illuminates our understanding of the present through the patterns of the past.

Of the four images in this installation, two are derived from the 1940 photograph Holland House Library, taken by an unknown photographer. In this image a group of men stand in the remains of a bombed London library, engaged in the simple act of reading. Although the building is in ruins, the men continue to read as if unaware or defiant of the destruction that surrounds them. Important in the history of photography, this unusual image stands testament to the resilience of culture in the face of devastation. Closer to our own times, the remaining two images are drawn from a news reportage photograph of 1990s Rwanda. Set in an abandoned Kigali church, the ghost-like form of boy appears to be the only trace of life – a spectral presence that cannot help but recall the horror of the 1994 genocide.

Common to both photographs is the image of an open book, a recurring motif that is key to an understanding of this work. For Kennedy, the book is a metaphor for Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, itself an allegory for modern progress. Although written with the nineteenth century in mind, Benjamin’s meditation on history is a particularly compelling one for Kennedy and an important source for this work. A small drawing by Paul Klee that Benjamin owned, Angelus novus, was the catalyst for his famous angel. Benjamin explains that while we perceive the past as a chain of events

the angel sees ‘one single catastrophe’ … Caught between the future and the past, the angel yearns to stay and awaken the dead … But a storm is blowing from Paradise: it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned … it is this storm that we call modern progress.

(W. Benjamin, Illuminations, New York, 1969, p.249.)

Through the poetic integration of text, image and light and by reference to two devastating events of the twentieth century, each separated by fifty years, One long catastrophe presents history as a continuum within which human conflict is inevitable. Knowing that this work was in production at the time of 11 September 2001, further compounds our sense of despair in the idea that the twenty-first century is set to repeat the destructive patterns of modern history, a bleak forecast that finds a lighter counterpoint in Kennedy’s whimsical pun on the title, played out through the physical elongation of the word catastrophe.

Jane Devery, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and Exhibitions, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2005).