Jean-Paul Kelly: A sensation best described by another
by Laura Demers
Jean-Paul Kelly is known for harnessing the malleability of what he’s called “documentary substance,” in terms of its implicit, suggested and potential narratives. His most recent solo exhibition’s central work, a three-channel video titled That ends that matter (2016–2019), places in proximity: a montage of mostly photojournalistic documents manipulated by Kelly’s hands, a synced animation of patterns and shapes echoing each of his gestures and a dramatized re-enactment of a court hearing witnessed by the artist.
In the darkened main room of Centre Vox, a succession of challenging photographs unravels on a small screen: snapshots of violent altercations between police and protesters, wounded civilians and silhouettes of criminally accused individuals concealing their faces during trials. More than once, I unwittingly averted my gaze as they appeared, one after the next, with overwhelming bluntness. Subtle references to the court case of whistleblower Chelsea Manning are embedded here too—particularly those pertaining to her unbearable living conditions while incarcerated and, due to her military affiliation, the denial of her hormone replacement therapy in the early stages of her transition. Interspersed with stills from Jean Genet’s avant-garde erotic film Un chant d’amour (1950) and gay pornographic materials, this montage produces oscillating feelings of lust, empathy and dread, a mixture of sentiments rarely felt together, let alone in formal gallery settings.
During a Vdrome interview, Kelly elaborates on his own rapport with the pictures he collects, which range indiscriminately from the widely disseminated to the somewhat taboo: “Within those [images] are things that I can’t deal with, or that seduce me, or that I can’t compartmentalize in some way.” In the montage, Kelly intervenes with the printed photographs by gently stroking their surfaces, sometimes wiping the tear gas from protesters’ eyes with his fingers, sometimes tracing the contours of an exposed inner thigh and groin. I let my gaze be guided by his touch, and through these interpretive, agential gestures, I begin to read in Kelly’s selection of images a new, rather intimate narrative.
Come to think of it, the exhibition’s title, A sensation best described by another, hints at the act of reading-through, which characterizes much of Kelly’s work. On one hand, the phrase suggests a kind of lived experience that is only definable through an intermediary, through an other with whom a sensation was shared. Yet the title also denotes a sort of synesthetic experience, whereby an ineffable sensorial impression is made perceptible as a result of its translation—into another sensation or otherwise. A few steps away from the video montage, Kelly’s tactile cues are synchronously transposed into geometrical shapes and projected onto a wall, as though another kind of legibility could be gleaned from the process of abstracting; as though each image, once stripped of its representational content, could somehow better attest to a feeling.
The animation, I soon found out, draws inspiration from the oeuvre of American abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly, who, after a brief stint in the army, became the subject of an intrusive FBI investigation that eventually prohibited him, based on his sexual orientation, from further professional involvement with the US government. The report from this investigation lies on a table behind a velvet curtain, in a binder filled with dating app selfies of queer men who have strategically blurred their own identities in order to avoid similar scrutiny. Either taken at an oblique angle or with facial traits cropped out, each man is made to be unrecognizable. Again, in an abstracting gesture, another kind of experience—that of institutional violence—becomes legible.
In the adjoining room, a third channel features a re-enactment of a court hearing, of which the essential contextualizing details remain obscure. Kelly often visited the City of London Magistrates’ Court during his residency at the Delfina Foundation. In the UK, laws restrict all visual documentation of events that take place within the circumscribed space of the courtroom. Thus, the so-called accuracy of official court drawings is inherently contingent upon the subjectivity, memory and note-taking abilities of the reporting sketch artist. In an interview with Elephant Magazine, Kelly recalls his own note-taking as dependant on idiosyncratic analogies: “when describing the finishes and fixtures [of the room] I would make associations with textures, colours, and shapes that were within things in my own house.” The scene is therefore filtered through the lens of Kelly’s own biases, resulting in a retelling that is highly suffused with partiality.
In fact, the artist plays up his bias with great poetic freedom. The gaze and the politics of sight within the justice system are dramatized in such a way that tensions are made tangible. “Now I’m going to switch on some noise so that we can discuss some matters privately,” a woman’s voice announces. Anxious glances are exchanged by the cast of witnesses, defendants, judges and jury members. The dull sound of a white noise machine suddenly envelops the room, granting select interlocutors (their roles indeterminate, since none of the actors’ roles are ever quite concretized) a thin veil of privacy as they converse. Meanwhile, a young man taps his finger on the desk—a symptom of palpable unease—while he awaits his turn to speak. Under this blanket of silence, the actors furtively glance in our direction one by one, acknowledging the cinematic apparatus, and our voyeuristic presence by proxy.
In this implicatory act of bearing witness, I was reminded that images are often made to bear witness in our place. With A sensation best described by another, Kelly challenges the claims that visual documents impose epistemological notions of truth, and instead underlines other registers—affective or sensorial—by which they may reveal underlying structures and narratives. “Thank you. That ends that matter,” the woman’s voice declares, bringing me back to the present moment and away from the endless possible readings-through that Jean-Paul Kelly’s work incites.