Jon Kessler, The Blue Period, 2007, installation view at Arndt & Partner Berlin; Multimedia installation, dimensions variable
Jon Kessler “The Blue Period”
Arndt and Partner, Berlin
by Amy Lin
New York artist Jon Kessler's solo exhibition at Arndt and Partner, aptly titled “The Blue Period”, utilizes surveillance cameras, film footage, and freestanding sculptural pieces to reflect the conflicted atmosphere of contemporary mediated society.
It's not the emotive blueness of Picasso's poverty and depression; rather, it's the blue of blue screens, computer crashes and those rogue M&Ms that never look quite right in the bag. It's a color whose disarming neutrality belies the fact that unlike a pristine and passive white wall, it is a blue that demands to be projected upon, like the screen of a television turned to video right before you hit “Play”.
In the first large room, Kessler has painted the walls with loose strokes of blue paint. There are cameras positioned at various angles that swivel and turn of their own accord linked up to monitors stationed around the room. Life-sized cardboard cutouts of people, Kessler's students at Columbia University, mingle amongst the visitors and each time that camera turns, it captures you, me and the cardboard hipster with some blue paint on his face next to us so that it's nearly impossible at first glance to tell who's real and who isn't on screen. The blue paint is used as a blue screen and filled in with clips of blue-faced actors from films like Braveheart, Apocalyptica, Godard's Pierrot le Fou and The Blue Man Group. There's a miniature model of the gallery in the middle of the room, turned upside down with Kessler's collages on the walls, a camera aimed at the inside. There's even a camera fixed on the gallery from an unknown location across the road, perhaps a sly nod to the fact that Arndt and Partner is located near Checkpoint Charlie on the street that previously split East and West Berlin. This is where Russian and US intelligence stationed themselves across the divide in order to monitor each other.
The second room features a spinning sculpture made faces cut out from mail-order catalogs. The myriad heads wearing the same smile blur together in their carousel, losing any shred of individuality. It's hard not to think of Logan's Run and its portrayal of idyllic group death via spinning out into space at the pinnacle of youth and beauty. The false freedom of nullification is rooted in the caged fear of straying from the ideal.
This theme is echoed in the piece “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” which features a camera aimed at a reproduction of Edward Hopper's “Nighthawks” with the outside scene and windows painted blue. The monitor displays the painting with aggressive and violent images overlayed on the blue screen. The diner patrons appear willfully oblivious to the destruction raging outside or at least resigned to their fates.
The Big Brother surveillance in Kessler's work is less Orwellian, more CBS. The show is a self-contained, self-monitored world. Like the participants of Big Brother, we are aware of the fact that we are being filmed. When we leave, the exhibition carries on without us; even the cardboard cutouts leave a more permanent imprint. As one cast member leaves, another takes his place.
There's a constant sound of mechanical whirring. The machines move on their own, filming but not recording; there's no one sitting in a control room somewhere monitoring our activities. In a culture when reality television is king, it's a struggle to determine who and what is sincere. Perhaps the issue is the new meaning of sincerity. News reports of wars overseas bleed into high-excitement army recruitment commercials which blend into war films that portray valiant struggles and/or dark desperation. Why did the United States government fail to respond in an adequate and timely manner to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina? Does a natural disaster that occurs half a world away register as more real to us than the tornado in Twister? By playing voyeur, we are absorbed into mediated culture. We respond with thrills, chills and fears to both real and fabricated events. We see parts of ourselves in the soul-searching roommate, the driven assistant, or the girl looking for love and financial security yet we recognize that these people are well-aware of the power of performance. A person in a control room would give us something solid to rage against; here, we are struggling and dancing with our shadows.
Jon Kessler's “The Blue Period” is at Arndt and Partner in Berlin through December 20.