Following the recent publication of David Craig's eulogic essay on the land art movement, Perfectly mobile-Perfectly Still , artist and climber John Redhead was prompted to dust off and re-work an article which addressed the land art movement and in particular,one of it's more successful and mainstream artists, David Kemp.He offers it here as something of a riposte to David Craig's unashamedly romantic overview of the movement.
‘The land artists don't look beyond, to gods or demons; they deal with the trees, the rocks, the waters as they are…’ David Craig
An artist’s job is ‘looking beyond’, because they do not have the arrogance of presuming what the trees, the rocks and the waters are… nobody knows, ‘as they are’…
‘Meaning is but little to these men; all they care for is line, shape, agreement of contours… I have no patience with lunatics…’ Freud.
David Kemp is one of only two local artists gathered in for a collaborative visual arts project under the parasol of St. Ives International – A Quality of Light. A combined effort of heavy, grant pulling professionals, comprising the St. Ives Tate, Newlyn Art Gallery and the International Institute of Visual Arts. A ‘quality of light’ is an adage pertaining to the Penwith Peninsula. It is in this most southerly geographical region that light ‘talks’ its language of intense, ‘magical’ clarity that clothes the rocky coastline so distinctively. It is a familiar language and age-old with the countless artists who have ‘decorated’ its shores for over a hundred years. Big skies and big seas and big Art weigh heavy with expectation of appreciation. I am initially open to it after my body is ragged by days of bouldering at Clodgy Point with a young Barnaby Carver. But the light is already burning my senses; I cannot swim and feel tired by so many artists swanning around in this colourful, arty hell, seemingly sentenced by art history, romance and some ‘oceanic’ sense of the aesthetic.
Armed only with the sparse information gathered together on the free guide, a pair of shades and a means of escape, I head out from the burnt-out fleshpots of St. Ives and its serried Visa and Mastercard contents. Behind the wheel I ponder the guide’s spurious contents - ‘Welcome to the first St. Ives International - prompted by the distinctive quality of light of West Cornwall - artists from Croatia and the Philippines...’ I cannot imagine how such an international field could possibly relate their ‘art’ to light-fantastic West Cornwall.
So, a little confused, reading between the lines, I dodge and weave along the narrows of Zennor, and with speed, an enthusiastic promise of change – David Kemp, anthropologist and archaeologist extraordinaire, uncovers the remains of a fictional Late Iron Age solar cult...!
The van skirmishes past the ghostly, charred remains of Trendrine Hill, with stones scattered like sacked tombs, their secrets stilled like a shell-shocked army paralysed with fright. Arsenic-traps and tunnels lay deep-hushed in oxide-dreams while the bluebells and bracken push through the black earth like Pompeii horror to proclaim their right to an assured fertility. Since Roman times this earth was gripped in the sweaty grasp of labour. And I ponder Ra zooming across the sky in his tin-solar-machine and a horned Isis, rubbered-up at the sink, headdress of a solar-disk; a defiled land, a silted-up yoni and a broken phallus and the superstitions and doctrines and religions that suppress mankind... and Botallack, at last! At last!
And the Count House. The drive is the first test of appreciation and ‘will to art’. It is a veritable obstacle course and for me, the first inkling of a joke by a man brought up amongst broken heaps and ruins. Sleeping ‘feds’ disguised as rocks, ruts and chasms would test the skills of a Sherman tank driver. This is no car park for the average art tourist! Is this a clever device to reconstruct the trail to see the pre-art shamanic figures in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah? Practically, I wonder how many broken exhaust pipes lay dismembered within David Kemp’s workshop? I thanked the clearance under my van that no bits from my German monster will be ‘reclaimed’ for a future ‘Mad Max’ mobile! A flippant comment, yes, puerile and obvious maybe, but yes, as I thankfully park my intact machine, and my initial observation – Mad Max terrain! Yo, lets be daft!
David Kemp has produced a museum within a museum to house the reworked, recreated relics ‘unearthed’ from the abandoned tin mines that litter the landscape of the area. One is presented by a start-line anthropological journey – a spiritual legacy, ritual, mythocentric time. ‘Art of Darkness’ presents the archaeological remains of a fictional, Late Iron Age solar cult, which harnessed the energy of the sun and dominated the culture of Western Europe.
This is an environment, a site-specific array of Sky Gods, sun cults, shrines and artefacts of a lost culture, finely crafted by a man with a keen eye on the tribal and a keen tongue on the trivial. David Kemp is a joker. And of course his work is a balancing act to the remains of industrialisation that surrounds him. I appreciate he is not a reveller in beauty. I will recognise him in the pub because he will be wearing a woolly jumper with ‘myth mirth’ emblazoned across the chest and Kokopelli’s phallus tattooed on his forehead! But this is an excellent story from such a hasty discovery, that of a disavowed society anthropomorphised into a more accessible primitive root system. This journey of fragments and of gems is not ours, but of the African, the Aztec and the Aboriginal. The discovery of a lost antecedent is not ours but a whimsical wish, a madcap and clever reverie of myth and symbol. Funny and aesthetic, it is sculptural, pagan wallpaper! Hurrah, ice creams and a range of souvenirs. The idiot in me loves it – I think I am supposed to be bemused – my game-face knows there is something wrong. I think too much!
Symbolism is a fashion of the great Art establishments, pooling in their resources, and capturing all the funds for the great 'cult' land-artists to spit and spew? I guess that this show denies the energy of the sigil and the processes of awakening latent atavisms? Dare I joke about ancient memory? Who knows what entities are awakened here and is Kemp’s inspiration an atavistic-upheaval of ecstasy, anguish and obsession? Okay, so I am not a believer in making art interesting or accessible and I find novelty difficult. But lighten up, come on, Kemp’s okay, he is not possessed, he works in a workshop not a studio, he doesn’t ‘do’ art, he is an artisan, he’s one of the boys! The joke and the magick are on us! But…
The tourists with bored, trailing children will love it – but of course they also love candyfloss and ice creams. Can this be a sanctuary for the ancient art of storytelling? Maybe, but what story? The story of greed and avarice and profit for the few who honeycombed Cornwall’s underworld and left it propped ‘senseless’ in an industrial nightmare? The cost to the natural world could not have been greater and I think this brain-dead malaise continues its corporate oppression in Art. Art has taken over the industrial nightmare by honeycombing our souls. It is proportionate to this view that a tin mine could eventually become a museum! A National Trust funded, permanent reminder of some of the worst aspects of man’s endeavour - a graveyard of a landscape – flowered by ‘Free Cornwall’, and ‘English out’ graffiti. ‘The whole is other than the sum of its parts’, and this show is the fun part, and the one I am uneasy with. The museum theme works for the oddball rationale of this show, but let’s be careful. A museum is of history, learning what you can along the way, speaking of a past and a way that has gone. Image making should not be confused with such a business.
The images in this exhibition have no ancestral ritual usage. Only a clever aesthetic attribute is being represented and too analogous to popular B movie culture for me. Surely when Art is at its most potent…it recreates…and one has to dig a bit deeper to be nourished? I don’t mind the Mona Lisa or Guernica being mocked as precious, they are just the other side of the business coin. They can rot in their own way and good luck to them. They have done their bit. My problem is that this kind of art de-values, dilutes and negates a real-time legacy of a collected soul, that is not bathed in aesthetics or purpose or humour or business…it encourages impotency in this knowledge and language which, with effort and will, is there for all to feel and discover and move through into realms and purpose unknown. You may see this ‘unknown’ as trinkets everyday and not know it. If you want to feel the difference, go to Horseshoe Canyon. It is an insult to say land art follows the tradition of Aboriginal intent, because their rituals and form are beyond the processes of nature. Imagination here is stillborn and irrelevant! It is here that romantic poets lose battle, badly.
Kemp has his place assured in the best of Land-Art. Can one say that the industrial heritage he so wishes to cleverly transcend, is, in its turn merely helping to destroy the soul of mankind in other ways? By encouraging an aesthetic and a superficial perception of beauty, which are easy fashionable goals and goods, can a true grasping of the ‘whole’, of beyond, be incoming? Is Land-Art down to earth? I believe it to be the opposite. I find it in the land of teddy bears and dolls to which a child is attached and can become addicted to. Land artists love down to earth statements proclaiming impermanence and artworks that are unpretentious… so what! I have lost so many works that have rotted to earth, not in the sake of art, but by being a careless and bad keeper! Sure, it does not belong with the highly treasured business of art in the galleries but nevertheless has its place in the pack of cards called ‘to art’. It may illustrate a chapter in Kemp’s book of creation, but is it a verse of the great psalm chanted by the Cosmos? But hey, what the hell, all is valid, lets have a laugh, it’s a great show! My heart and soul beats to a different game.
So, I guess, artists should not comment on art!
The poet and the artist.
An abridged version of this review featured in the St Ives Echo, June 1997
John Redhead: 1997/2013