Rob Kennedy, ‘Is There Anything to See Here, Is There Anything to Do?’

Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, CCA, Glasgow, 30 April – 2 June 2012

This GI exhibition is a CCA commission and includes work by Colin Cook, Július Koller, Kostas Sfikas and, believe it or not, Walter Sickert. Let’s field that one first: Sickert’s painting, the real one, is the small oil, ‘Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom’ 1906-07 (Manchester City Art Galleries). It sits quietly on an end wall of the main space and is amazingly no more out of place than anything else in this wonderfully ckoo-kcoo exhibition. In the CCA press material, Kennedy sets an imaginary bar by saying that this is not an exhibition about anything. You see, ‘there is nothing you are supposed to take from it. It is a construction of images, objects and materials that want to converse with themselves, their environment, and with you, that’s all’. So far so pressy – up until the ‘that’s all’ that is. Kennedy, with CCA’s commensurate bravery, has collated and installed a show which achieves just that ‘nothing’ and no more, which is not nothing at all. This is a show that assaults you with the inventive conversation that the works have with themselves, their environment and with you. And if such a convivial triangulation is to amount to nothing, then let’s want for nothing more, and more.

One leitmotiv here is the artful ramshackle. Attending shortly after GI’s opening night, I’m wondering if CCA are now running late on programme: plasterboard, palettes and affiliated building junk are positioned as if to be jettisoned prior to the vernissage. Such constructive paraphernalia is to amount to an unsettling experience in a familiar environment, in fact , with emergency exits opened for now unemergency access to the CCA’s normative spaces, Kennedy succeeds throughout in ringmastering a nothing which says something about the sheeptrails which steer the navigation of contemporary art. In addition, the structural play is a ringmastering which says something in turn, knowingly, about the aesthetics of the constructed ramshackle as a convention of contemporary art, following a Hirschhorn or an Elmgreen and Dragset perhaps – a deconstructed space which is at once that ramshackle actuality and a perfectly (-; (de)form(ed) ;-} gambit of institutional critique.

The inventive conversation is evoked and promoted by the inclusion of a table-tennis table in the main gallery space – or at least, the largest gallery space. This work is an instantiation of Julius Koller’s 1970 Bratislava ‘Gallery of the Young’ ping-pong club. Back then, in place of an exhibition, or as the catalyst for the exhibition, across one calendar month, the table was a centre-piece for gallery-goer participation. The ping of conversational offer and the pong of interested reply make for an expressive dialogue which bounces here and there between strangers caught in a poetic intervention. Digital prints detail some of Koller’s sportart activities, including a monologue version of the table-tennis table which allows the player to endlessly ping and pong against the raised other half of the table. With one fold of a table leaf, then, Koller moves us back and forth from contemplative modernist onemanism to dialogic participative twomanism.

In an adjacent room a brutally-funny human ping-pong is effected with a projected film of a male protagonist falling down some West End steps and falling back up them. The sententiousness of one-directional 70s hurtme art is spoofed by the rewind, as the actor unhurts himself by playing with video time. Friends circle with hand-held video cameras and do nothing but grin as chum is tumbling: despite the set-up, one feels for the faller, but the salient artifice bounces the set piece back to the viewer – empathy turns to complicity, and Kennedy’s second salient leitmotiv, the incessant, pendular movement from one side of whatever to the other side of thatever, amounts to nothing more once again  – and powerfully so.

In the CCA cinema, which one enters the wrong way through an emergency exit, concepts of disassembly – intellectual chaperones of the artful ramshackle – return to us in filmic spades. In this darkened space we meet ‘Trilogy’ 2008, a looping reel of three short films which manifests collaborative contributions from Giles Lamb, Martin Parker, Sue Tompkins and Peter Dowling. Of the three, keeping disassembly and deconstruction in mind, spicing it now with dissemblance, Kennedy, Parker and Tompkins’, ‘The Story So Far’ is a festival highlight.

Opening the film is an excerpt from one of those media broadcasts which reinforces our presumption that politicians are frequently expert at saying nothing with exemplary authoritativeness. The interview addresses with intoned urgency some unnamed crisis which appears to stem from the loss of something terribly important. While televisual snow takes the screen, we are treated to such symbolic gems as: ‘something’s missing and we’re tracking it electronically’, but ‘it could have been missing for some time’ and ‘we’re searching for this thing on our premises’ and, predictably, ‘we cannot offer a view now for that would be pure speculation’. As the interviewer thanks the obfuscating interviewee, we know that we know nothing still about the something missing but something more about what’s missing with the average politician.

The last straw impact of this type of paradigmatic zeroness of public contribution is portrayed as superslowmo screenshots of familiar news frontpeople have them grind to a halt. Accompanied by a soundtrack of exasperated breathing – or is it panicking – Kennedy has each of four media-fronters appear just long enough in the 8-minute film to close their eyes. A teletext feed across the bottom of the screen gives insight into their exhausted state of mind: ‘composure, composure, composure’ takes over from conventional FTSE data we imagine, and the scene ends with the chilling sound of ‘tssssssss’ as all is punctured, and fade to black.

So, Kennedy’s leitmotivs of artful ramshackleness and perpetual pinging of one thing to another thing play with the normative structures of the gallery setting and much else besides. Chances for inventive conversations abound; conversations between us and the objects and between the objects themselves. One poetic conversation of no mean force between the running themes and ‘The Story So Far’ has something to do with the familiarity of media-human structures and the dependency we have (unwittingly) on celebicons of normativity as supports for our habitus. By knocking a hole in the media-wall of the News-At-Always staple, and by dismantling that everpresent proxy-friend who tells you nightly that the world is uncontrollable but the BBC is forever here, Kennedy turns a nothing into a something from nothing and reminds us that the two things are nothing without each other. Is there anything to see here, is there anything to do? Not much, but that’s more than enough.