C Magazine


Issue 133

That ends that matter
by Amy Luo

“It’s a difficult and a long show to commit to in many ways as a viewer,” admitted Jean-Paul Kelly in an interview about his recent solo show, That ends that matter, which premiered a new video work of the same name. One reason why the work might frustrate could be its nerdish deployment of multiple image sources and genres across its three-channel video-installation format, putting off viewers with its sheer heterogeneity. Kelly has used this combinatory strategy before: his 2013 video work Movement in Squares, for example, was composed variously of found video footage, an appropriated soundtrack and original video recordings produced in his studio. This new work, which was exhibited on hanging screens across the darkened basement space of the Delfina Foundation in London this past fall, enjoins materials and strategies plucked from even broader sources: blog feeds, documentaries, reportage, abstraction and animation, to name but a few. Kelly uses the relationships between multiple lines to tease out insights into representation and fairness.

The courtroom offers the raw material for exploring these topics. During an artist residency at the Foundation in 2015, Kelly visited the City of London Magistrates’ Court for eight weeks and observed trials for offenses from petty theft to large-scale embezzlement. The UK court prohibits live documentation of trial proceedings in any form – photography, video or even hand-drawn sketches. For Kelly, this situation magnified the contradiction inherent in the justice system between the ideal of “open justice” and the real-life impossibility of objective reportage. The court proceedings he witnessed can only persist as memory’s warped product.

In memory, we often remember what we want to remember. This editing act shaped by desires and predispositions is a suitable analogy for documentary making, which is essentially the selection, both willed and automatic, of images and narratives that refer to reality. And just as memory remakes the event, the re-enactment is a common documentary strategy for representing the past. In That ends that matter, one of the three videos presents a reconstructed court scene using a handful of actors. The video contains no sound, except for the hum of white noise. In this near-silence, the camera shifts its gaze from one character to the next. Its view often enframes multiple actors only then to zoom in and out to alternately draw each figure into focus. This glaring movement merely calls attention to the video’s construction in a structuralist way, without cohering with any narrative line. In fact, the video’s soporific 12 minutes contains no perceivable narrative at all; the re-enactment is not reproductive but analytical, and the subject on trial is the representational form itself.

Vision and its obstruction – as theme, motif, allegory – is everywhere in the work. It’s especially prominent in the second video, which presents a succession of photographs culled from online image-based sites, wherein several motifs recur: trials under process, defendants with faces shielded, scenes from protests and riots, teargas victims with milk splashed across their eyes. Kelly assembled this slideshow to represent his courtroom experience by way of a “re-enactment through found-images,” a mode of narrating modelled after the Tumblr page. Compared to the opioid pace of the re-enacted court scene, this image stream gives us photographs that shout out loud, in quick, steady succession, much to the satisfaction of the contemporary viewer.

Despite being billed as a work that interrogates representations, it directs quite as many questions at the nature of the viewer. The synesthetic viewer is implicated in the third video, which transposes the formal qualities of the slide photographs into black shapes and lines that appear, disappear and glide around on a white background. These abstract graphics are in turn transformed into the soundtrack that plays in the room. This indexical translation between sensory forms draws on the animations of Norman McLaren, a Canadian filmmaker who experimented with producing sound from graphical marks and turning that sound back into picture, so that the same content could be simultaneously seen and heard. Experiments in synaesthesia can be traced back to 19th-century developments in modern physiology, which eclipsed the more unified classical understanding of human perception; it splintered sensorial experience into distinct nerve bundles, one for each of the senses, which were shown to produce different sensations from the exact same stimulus (say, electrical input). This model of the perceiver surfaces in Kelly’s work, in which the repetition of the same court experience by various modes of stimulation provocatively denies a transparent, gestalt kind of reception of the outside world.

The abstract components of the work also help to bind the multiple elements of the installation, looping back to relate abstraction to documentary, by way of the index. The indexicality of the photographic medium is linked to the truth claim of the image, and this is the most common topic of debate in art theoretical discussions on documentary. Kelly’s manipulation of indexical forms, however, is concerned not so much with questions of truthfulness as with the underlying structure of representational forms. In this work, he embeds indexical information in abstract visuals and sounds, turning them into non-representational bearers of data. This contradicts the modernist discourse of optical purity attached to abstraction, which John Ruskin heralded as an art to restore the “innocence of the eye” – an art of pure vision liberated from signification.

Contra Ruskin, Kelly does not grant innocence to the image, not even to abstraction. But his project is not at all given to cynicism. It is, rather, guided by curiosity and a sense of ethical responsibility that comes with being a maker of images, as well as one who consumes them. Beyond its structuralist and formalist concerns, it is a project that interrogates not only the image but also the viewer, and which shows them to be inseparable – continuous, even. Perhaps it retains a vestigial romanticism, echoing William Blake’s words: “As the eye, such the object.”