Falling Vision Jon ThompsonFalling Vision
If you pay close attention to the landscape photographs of Jan Kempenaers it is impossible to escape the crushing weight of the horizon. It seems that everything in the visual field is pinned to it, hung from it: held by the camera. And although they are fastidiously decorous, these powerfully mute images of semi urban-places, it is immediately apparent that they are not presented in the guise of formal exercises. Indeed, there is no extra aesthetic concern in Kempenaers’ images beyond the geometry that is given to them by the subject itself and its closure within the frame. At first sight, then, these works appear to the straight-forwardly photographic, and it comes as something of a surprise that the more one looks, the more they reveal themselves as conceptual rather than optical or retinal pieces.
For Kempenaers, the site - the character of the connection that is made between subject and camera position - is everything. And he makes his topographical choices with almost ritual solemnity. First he circles the subject in his minds-eye. He is looking for those marginal locations where urban and rural life bruise and bleed into each other. Afterwards, he researches them on the ground. And it is this initial bridging of the conceptual gap between the projected, imaginary image and the 'real', that allows for the many layers of meaning given to him by the motif to form themselves into a complex and subtly-coded photographic trace. It was the French literary critic and semiologist, Roland Barthes, who first described the photograph as an 'object-laminate' - making it a 'thing' as much as it is a 'picture' - a memorial image trapped between a transparency and an opacity and this is precisely the experience that we have in front Kempenaers’ work. His images seem to have what can only be described as a 'glazed thickness' to them, inside of which the pattern of resemblances circulates against a spatial limit which is heavily underscored by their placement on a broad white field. In this respect too, the raised horizon - the way in which the landscape rears up slightly to present itself for the purpose of viewing - is a crucial element in Kempenaers’ strategy. We are made immediately aware that we are looking at a comparatively flat landscape, slightly from above: from a first or second floor window; from a road bridge; from a raised section of motorway. Our gaze is directed outwards, but at the same time a little downwards towards the ground-plain. Our notion of reality, by the same token, is nearly always a qualified one. It is as if we are looking upon a model of the world; at mis-en-scene which has been carefully, even miraculously crafted in miniature. Thus it is that in Kempenaers’ photographs, the image of the world seems to have been made over again as a conspicuous site of allegory.
Baring this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that one of Kempenaers’ favourite subjects of late has been the miniaturised, composite 'Model Cite' near the Parc des Exposition in the Heysel district of Brussels. Here, captured by a single, striking image of this orderly, but on close examination, highly duplicitous and confused 'reality', the purpose behind his use of the partly elevated gaze is suddenly of vision, thrown outwards and downwards, allows the viewer to experience that 'fall into reality' - into the social world - metaphorised by Jonathan Swift as Gulliver’s inaugural, one-eyed view of Lilliput: allows the viewer to experience what Paul Virilio has described as the vertigo of one who must “constitute as well as observe the world". Taking his cue from the great choreographer and teacher of dance, Rudolph von Laban, Virilio characterises the act of walking as a “repeated fall towards the horizon”, and this is very close to the sensation that we have in front of the photographic works of Kempenaers. We are made aware of a similar looping trajectory, but robbed of any rhythmical contact with the earth. It is a striking feature of his images that they have no real foreground; that there is nothing immediate to the eye and nothing beneath our feet either. We seem to be held more-or-less permanently at the apex of the parabola of the thrown gaze, trying to make sense of a world which is self-evidently sedimentary, cumulative and highly compressed; a world on which political allegory - the semiotic morphologising of life as it is lived in the present - is given equal weight to the deeper markings of history.
It seems clear, then, that what is at stake in Kempenaers’ images is what is always at issue, in one form or another, where the indexical, photographic image is in play. Namely, the way in which he activates a very particular notion of the viewing subject as 'physical body'; as a sensate, perceiving organism whose presence is attenuated in historical as well is in 'real' space and time. As viewers, Kempenaers’ photographs give us extra stature and place us at a distance. Almost we are being offered a kind of omnipotence, but then at the same time our vision is being split by perspective, de-focused or emptied out. The world as the pre-eminent subject of the camera’s gaze - of our gaze - is thus radically de-sublimed and de-territorialised. The place is quintessentially Belgium with all of the peculiarities of the Belgian semi urban sprawl carefully logged and given pictorial form. The new industrial estates; the motorway junctions with their carefully manicured grass verges and designer trees; the ribbon-development of factory, warehouse and showroom spaces that drift out from the towns and cities; the layed out and mostly barren open-air car parks and the enclosed town gardens: all of these are typical Kempenaers' subjects, characteristic of the country in which he was born and raised. And they still form the visible routine of his daily life. But these are images which he encodes beyond the local the confines of national identity. They are much more than vernacular, pictorial ideograms. They speak powerfully to the post industrial condition; speak of the technologised human subject in whatever geographical context. Through the camera’s eye, the physical becomes re-encoded as the semiotic body, the weightless assimilator of patterns and signs.
© Jan Kempenaers