On ViewRichard Saltoun
March 8 – April 16, 2021
In her essay “The Concept of History,” one of the eight comprising Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (1961), philosopher Hannah Arendt discusses two different conceptions of history. In the ancient world, history was first and foremost the recording of great men and deeds. Because humans were thought of primarily as “mortals,” perishable and finite beings pitted against eternal nature—the historian’s (and poet’s) job was precisely to immortalize those worth remembering, salvage their lives from oblivion. For any number of reasons, among them the advent of natural sciences and secularization, this ancient conception progressively gave way to a modern one best exemplified by Hegel and Marx, in which history becomes a man-made process, at once the product, meaning, and horizon of all human action.
In his namesake solo show—part of an ongoing series on view at Richard Saltoun in which artists respond to Arendt’s seminal book—British artist Peter Kennard (b. 1949) engages less with these two ideas of history than the world devoid of historical direction and purpose which Arendt alludes to in the epilogue of her essay. For Arendt, technology’s colonizing of every sphere of life has alienated man from both nature and himself creating, in turn, “a mass-society [of] … human beings who are still related to one another but have lost the world once common to all of them.” In the three bodies of work on display, which span the artist’s more-than-50-year career—Kennard similarly portrays humanity as a faceless mass in the thrall of greater impersonal forces: militarism, repressive state apparatuses, unfettered markets, austerity.
Upon entering the gallery’s main space, the visitor encounters a heap of damaged wooden pallets which, at first, look laid out on the floor at random but, on closer inspection, reveal ghostly traces of faces and hands. Pallets, like containers, are the vessels of global commerce, the interchangeable, anonymous units on which commodities travel around the world. As he explains in the exhibition’s virtual tour, however, the artist got the idea for this series that he started in 1987 after seeing how these cheap but sturdy structures are often found on the streets and recycled by homeless people who use them as makeshift beds. Stamped with the haloes of anonymous men and women, Pallets is an indictment of a globalized economy that allows the free flow of goods but fails to provide shelter to so many.
The second body of work on view consists of a triptych of untitled paintings, which Kennard completed over the course of last year, all featuring hands caught in the act of grabbing and seizing against a background of stock prices. The clasping hand has long been a recurring motif in the artist’s work. In Crushed Missile (1981), a photomontage which became the symbol of anti-nuclear campaigns for disarmament, for example, a clenched fist is presented in the act of crushing a warhead in half. In the case of these hands overlaid on a newspaper’s financial pages, the meaning is much more ambiguous. The artist interprets them as an expression of frustration. To me, though, in their ominous ghostly presence they cannot but represent the invisible hand of financial capitalism: its reach, volubility, and unaccountability.
As interesting as these more conceptual pieces are, the focal point of the show—the place where the visitor’s eye naturally lingers and returns to again and again—is Kennard’s early series, STOP (1968–76), which takes up most of the gallery walls. Produced when the artist was still an art student and born out of his engagement in the Anti-Vietnam War movement, this group of gloomy, monochromatic paintings created with an obsolete technique similar to silk screening combines gruesome snapshots of the Vietnam War with images of May 68, the Prague Spring, and the American Civil Rights Movement. Not to conjure a world on the verge of total revolution—the culmination of Marx’s idea of history as the history of class struggle—but rather, an indistinguishable wasteland in a state of turmoil and fragmentation.
Facing the gallery’s entrance are STOP 32 and STOP 7, which portray respectively a seemingly never-ending file of refugees and a group of soldiers juxtaposed with the hardened expression of an old woman’s face. A little bit further into the gallery, there is STOP 1—a vertiginous montage of weapons, heavy machinery, and troops depicting a world in the thrall of militarism and always on the brink of war. The same sense of oppression and impending threat carries on in the main room where scores of faceless soldiers and policemen are shown carrying out their mission of terror under a relentless rain. There is also STOP 37, an elongated panel juxtaposing a checkpoint in daylight and an interrogation rendered in chiaroscuro. And there is STOP 23 in which the legs of an otherwise concealed hostage are superimposed with projectiles bursting in all directions.
As illustrations of late capitalism’s “melancholy haphazardness,” as Arendt calls it, these series lack the sort of situationist knack for counterpoint and humor that characterizes Kennard’s later, best-known work such as the iconic photomontages Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980) and Photo Op (2007). On the contrary, because they are so uniformly bleak, they run the risk of inducing that feeling of anaesthetizing overexposure which Susan Sontag describes in On Photography. This might be due to an automatic response (“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” writes T.S. Eliot). At the same time, the disconnect runs deeper. We have learned that the arc of history doesn’t necessarily bend toward a classless society, but, as climate change and COVID-19 both show, neither can it languish in an eternal return of the neoliberal same.
In showing the ugly obverse of what many on both sides of the Atlantic triumphantly hailed as “the end of history,” “The Concept of History” relays the effect of an epoch that, perhaps by the sheer force of our naïveté and not necessarily for the reasons we would like, we imagine teetering slowly to its end.