Again elevate your eye
'We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.’ So writes the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto in an essay about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. In classical Latin, monumentum denotes a commemorative statue or building, a tomb, a reminder, a written account or a literary work. The monument is meant to record, to preserve and to protect – it is supposed to keep the past with us, and the dead too. And yet it is surely the fate of all monuments to suffer almost immediately an evacuation of such meaning. The very gesture of erecting a monument puts a distance between us and the persons or events memorialized. And as soon as we begin to admire the monument – to pay attention to its heft, its contours, its rugged or polished surfaces – we must admit we have somehow traduced its subject by attention to the object before us.
Of course, this is also where art begins, an art that is its own tribute to the past. Only the most literal-minded of civic or state authorities, the most crudely exacting of private patrons, could expect or wish for a precise correspondence between monument and memory. Degrees of artifice, indirection and abstraction are inevitable. The monument necessarily uncouples from its referent even when it recalls it, and detaches from its environs at the same time as it appears, in the form of a ruin, to degrade and meld with the landscape. As the American novelist William H. Gass has put it, ‘The monumental wrestles with the dialectic of endurance and denial.’ One can see this dialectic in action time and again in the photography of Jan Kempenaers, whose images of monuments and the territory that surrounds them are as much about distance and disavowal as they are the brute presence of his centred and frontal subjects.
Consider Kempenaers’s photographs of the monuments known as Spomeniks that were built throughout what was then called Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s. They were commissioned mostly as memorials to the dead of the Second World War; in a country with a complex relation to the Nazi invaders, the structures were deliberately neutral in terms of historical references, and thus frequently abstract. Here is a pallid concrete wedge situated among forested mountainsides, with steps apparently mounting to a doorway at one end, and a vast disc of the same concrete deposited atop the whole. And a thing like a wood-formed-concrete flower, at the summit of a concrete stalk, with its petals so many crudely lined or fluted segments. Or a collection of fat mirrored cylinders arranged on a plinth or platform of marble, whose panels are coming away in chunks. Like all monuments, these had their specific occasions for being built. But in Kempenaers’s pictures they appear anonymously, isolated like classical ruins whose decay and disarray may be dignified by distance, subtilized by an elevated viewpoint, refined by recourse to pale grey skies and no shadows.
Does this mean that Kempenaers has merely exalted such structures, in uncritical accordance with the aesthetics of the picturesque that he avowedly invokes? Not at all. Because despite their austere clarity, their knowing citation of historical ways of looking at landscapes and ruins and monuments, in spite of their cool remove from their subjects, there is always something involved and involving about the texture of these images. The monuments positively bristle, they fracture and ramify like crystals, they shed their skins and reveal complex, enigmatic innards. And nowhere is this tendency more obvious than in Kempenaers’s recent ‘composite’ photographs, in which details from the monument studies are collaged and overlain. Horizons vanish, perspective becomes kaleidoscopic, the viewing eye is lost among multiple edges and competing surfaces. The even light that typically pervades Kempenaers’s landscapes gives way to a seething obscurity.
It is the updated darkness, one might say, of the historical antipode to the picturesque – the darkness of the sublime. Kempenaers’s composites suggest nothing so much as the teeming architectural fantasias of Piranesi, recast in spalling concrete and rufous steel. In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater of 1821, Thomas De Quincey described the drugged visions he suffers after viewing Piranesi’s engravings, in which he seemed to see the artist climbing the stairs towards a void: ‘But raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher: on which again Piranesi is perceived, by this time standing on the very brink of the abyss. Again elevate your eye, and a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld: and again is poor Piranesi busy on his aspiring labours: and so on, until the unfinished stairs and Piranesi both are lost in the upper gloom of the hall.’ Kempenaers’s combination of sobered picturesque and confounding sublime is an apt embodiment of the contending impulses inside any monument.
Brian Dillon, March 2017
Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art. His books include The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015), Objects in This Mirror: Essays (Sternberg Press, 2014), Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011) and Ruins (Whitechapel Gallery/MIT Press, 2011).
 Arthur Danto, ‘The Vietnam Veterans Memorial’, The Nation (August 31, 1985): 152.
 William H. Gass, ‘Monumentality/Mentality’, Oppositions 25 (Fall 1982): 144.
 Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 71.