Aspect Blindness: Arnold Kemp and Sreshta Rit Premnath by Thom Donovan

September 7th, 2010 by Thom Donovan on the Art:21 Blog

This past week I received two packages in the mail. The first was from Arnold Kemp, who is an artist, curator, and teacher and currently directs the Visual Studies Program at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland. The second was from Sreshta Rit Premnath, an artist, writer, and curator, with whom I have been collaborating to construct an archive of video materials dedicated to the future anterior (the French conditional tense for what “will have been”). In both packages, I saw an affinity among the printed materials, all of which have to do with certain aporias of historical representation, cultural encounter, and aesthetic mediation.

Kemp’s artist’s book, Spirit and Image, which comes from a show at Gallery ESP in San Francisco from 1998, features drawings the artist made after an exhibition of Armand P. Arman’s African Art collection at the Museum for African Art in SoHo in 1997. Throughout the book, Kemp’s drawings—some of which are quite detailed, some sketchy or seemingly unfinished—are interspersed with various texts. The first of these texts is a series of shout outs by the artist—an endearingly exhaustive and intimate dedication to Kemp’s friends and family. The second text consists of a mock interview with (made-up?) New York-based novelist, Michael Albin, in which Albin and Kemp go back-and-forth about the possible affinities between modernist/minimalist artists and African aesthetics. Here, Kemp frames one of the central problems of his artist’s book and the show of which it was part: the implication of the subject within certain modes of cultural production.

Michael Albin: What about you as a subject? Is your own identity implicated at all?

Arnold J. Kemp: I wonder more about distance. How far away or how close one needs to be to look critically at cultural production.

To this the interviewer adds: “Where would you really like to be in your own work?” Kemp replies, “Maybe outer space.”

What follows after the interview are reproductions of Kemp’s drawings captioned with text, written in both German and English. Though the text seems to be attributed, there is not a proper attribution, and I have not been able to figure out where the text came from using Google searches. Some of the captions are of an autobiographical nature and seem to describe the artist’s cultural background. The captions are also ruminative and border, at times, on nonsense. Context accounts for this nonsense, such as in the caption: “Is this chicken a human, once all of its feathers are plucked?” Directly above this caption is a drawing of a statue from the Arman collection exhibit depicting a chicken. The chicken drawing plus caption is both funny and unnerving. In another humorous, yet comparably edgy, caption one reads:

Or if the philosophical budget can’t afford a train ticket the following truth is found:
For example, often business people, the drivers of expensive Mercedes or BMWs, pick-up hitchhikers when they are bored.

Among the captions, there is a constant—sometimes playful, sometimes ruminative, sometimes absurd—meditation on the difficulties of cultural encounter in regards to the sense of distance Kemp cites through his mock interview with Albin. What does it mean to preserve this distance—to make it palpable or present through an artist’s book or other aesthetic object? Then again, what might it also mean to draw the viewer/reader closer to the cultural production of Africa through a recognition that “Maybe nearness is produced by certain forms of cultural activity?”

If the crucial controversy of the Arman show was Arman’s choice (much like that of his modern predecessors) to collect and display works from another culture without context and, in some cases, to destroy the works judging them somehow aesthetically deficient, how to respond to this disastrous cultural encounter? Kemp’s book is about the blind spots we all face with cultural encounter; it is also about the blind spots that constitute identities and account for a particular sense that history is contingent and produced, if not completely a wreck.

What I most like about Kemp’s book is the way, at every turn, we are presented with a new element of the condition of blindness we all face (and some more than others) in regards to personal and large-scale history, and that the book forms a dynamic and playful conversation about this phenomenon. Bookending the text and images in the artist’s book are two quotes from Time magazine, one from an African (-American?) written in 1960, the other from a (white?) Southerner written in 1937. The irony of both quotations cannot be overstated, and are yet another testimony to the misunderstandings, blind spots, and slippages at play in Kemp’s wonderful book:

There was a slight error, which I do not think you will mind
my calling attention to. It concerns my African name. I would
like to spell it correctly for you:

Zenzile Makeba Qgwashu Nguvama Yiketheli Nxgowa Bantana
Balomzi Xa Ufun Ubajabulisa Ubaphekeli, Mbiza Yotshwala Sithhi Xa
Saku Qgiba Ukutja Sithathe Izitsha Sizi Khabe Singama Lawu
Singama Qgwashu Singama Nqamla Nqgithi

The reason for its length is that every child takes the first
name of all his male ancestors. Often following the first
name is a descriptive word or two, telling about the
character of the person, making a true African name somewhat
like a story

Miriam Makeba to Time magazine
New York City
Feb. 29, 1960

The record on “spittin image” should certainly be kept
straight. I don’t think that the expression has anything to do
with saliva. It originated, I believe, among the darkies of the
south and the correct phrasing—without dialect—is “spirit
and image.” It was originally used in speaking of some person
whose father had passed on—and the colored folks would

“The very spi’t an’ image of his daddy”

Joel Chandler Harris, Jr. to Time magazine
Atlanta, Ga.
Oct. 11, 1937

Coincidentally, Sreshta Rit Premnath’s newspaper-format pamphlet, Zero Knot, from Premnath’s recent installation at Art Basel, also arrived in the mail. Since I had seen various drafts of the publication before, and the installation for Basel as it was being produced in Premnath’s Brooklyn studio, it was a pleasant surprise to see the final product of Premnath’s work.

As with Kemp, Premnath seems to be most concerned to present history-making and the ways that history becomes represented (and prioritized in its representations) as a kind of aporia, or constellation of aporias. Premnath’s muse in this is two-fold, invoking Ludwig Wittgenstein, after whose work On Certainty Premnath curated a show at Bose Pacia gallery in Chelsea in Spring 2009, accompanied by numerous readings, talks, panels, and other public presentations. His other muse in Zero Knot is mathematics, and specifically the mathematics of knots, which Premanth relates to problems of political reality. If the knot is that which, even in its reduction to simple forms, reveals an infinite complexity, then political events are not unlike knots especially with regards to historical representation—how political events become seen retroactively as tangled and untenable.

In the installation of Zero Knot, one first encounters what appears to be a statue with a blue tarp over it, fastened with rope. The statue is making a gesture. Its arm is outstretched, maybe its finger pointing. It seems the archetypal monument of a political leader. That its identity is veiled signals that it is archetypal, a “cipher” as Premnath calls it. It could be any leader past, present, or future. The specific identity doesn’t matter.

Surrounded by this sculptural work are a series of measuring sticks to which have been fastened placards with various mirrors on them, as well as silkscreened images of knotted ropes and a generic political imagery. Given the allure of Premnath’s installation—as though the aftermath of a public demonstration, or its fetishized reliquary—the Zero Knot pamphlet provides a poignant departure into the meaning of public monuments as they relate political events, struggles, and performances.

Sreshta Rit Premnath, cover image of the “Zero Knot” pamphlet. Courtesy the artist.

What becomes most unstable through the Zero Knot—both the installation and the pamphlet—is the question of what gets to be a monument and how, when a monument is destroyed, the memory of that monument (its archivability) becomes conditioned by political and social forces. Premnath poses this problem poetically through the following page of the pamphlet, where the word “MONUMENT,” capitalized and crossed-out, can and I think should be read “under erasure,” which is to say, as a term inadequate or questionable, given the findings of Premnath’s work:

The Chinese traveler, Huen Tsiang’s 7th Century record is the earliest description of the now destroyed Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. It is also the only one on record which describes the statues while they still functioned as religious idols, during a time when Bamiyan was the seat of Buddhism.

On the declivity of a hill to the northeast of the capital is a standing image of Buddha made of stone, 140 or 150 feet high, of a brilliant golden color and resplendent with ornamentation of precious substances. […] East of this is a standing image of Sakyamuni Buddha over 100 feet high, made of [bronze], the pieces of which have been cast separately and then welded together into one figure.

Now that the Taliban have destroyed the statues completely and several international bodies have promised to reconstruct them, will they take this description of the statues to be the most accurate one or must they also consider: […]

In the sequence following the above quoted paragraphs, Premanth goes on to consider descriptions of the statues by the Macedonians in 330 BCE, Abul Fazel in the 16th century, Quintin Craufurd in 1817, and Helena (“Madame”) Blavatsky in 1888. All four descriptions of the monument prove culturally specific, if not totally different “language games” (to use a term from Wittgenstein) within which to approach a reconstruction of the destroyed monument.

As Premnath also goes on to show, these famed descriptions of the monument are superseded by a single photograph taken of the monument by a historian in 1970, which is currently being used to make a scale model of the monument and eventually produce a reconstruction of it. As Premnath concludes:

Whether it is appropriate to prioritize the physical appearance of an object at a particular time over an archive of its representation is an open question. But perhaps a more pressing question is whether the international community’s energy and resources could better be spent on the thousands of local families who live in dire poverty in the grottoes surrounding the statues, for whom a symbolic reconstruction is neither here nor there.

As with Kemp’s artist’s book, Spirit and Image, Premnath’s Zero Knot presents a series of frames for historical and political realities which a reader/viewer must hold in their attention, where some frames negate or simply block out others. Much like Wittgenstein’s own rigorous linguistic-philosophical investigations, I encounter through Kemp and Premnath a discursive pragmatics in which what can’t be seen (or resolved) is as important as what is known through an enumeration of the facts. In the work of Kemp and Premnath, facts become only as good as their display and our position towards their display, and this prevents a kind of solipsism that art might otherwise induce. Skepticism overshadows solipsism, becoming a force for critical thinking and renewed reflection upon aporetic cultural encounter.