PRINT April 2017


Jean-Paul Kelly, That ends that matter, 2016, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 12 minutes 34 seconds. Installation view, Delfina Foundation, London. Photo: Tim Bowditch.

“THE ACTIVITY OF LOOKING . . . helps us to be more truthfully aware of the condition of being alive.” These words, as spoken by Bridget Riley in a 1979 documentary, close Canadian artist Jean-Paul Kelly’s two-channel video Movement in Squares, 2013. Though he is an altogether different artist than Riley, the statement could be Kelly’s own. Broadly concerned with the production and reuse of documentary materials, Kelly combines a tactile engagement with found digital images, reenactments of events aligned with the production of truth (scenes from a courtroom, 1960s direct cinema), and abstract animation in the visual-music tradition. Through this vocabulary—which is as distinctive as it is effective—he probes our mediated experience of reality, or, in other words, the complex entanglements of looking and living today.

The found images that form the core of Kelly’s work suggest a world of sex, scandal, and brutality. Think shots of hard cocks, phone hacker Rebekah Brooks, and faces covered in milk to mitigate the effects of tear gas and pepper spray, all downloaded and assembled into an associative sequence. There are several standard responses to the all-too-familiar image repertoire encountered here, among them simple avoidance, the irresponsible giddiness of accelerationism, and the cynical proclamation that reality has faded into mere simulation. Kelly offers something else: curiosity, intelligence, tenderness.

To begin The Innocents, 2014, Kelly carefully places printouts of forty-two images (of the type previously described) on a wooden surface. In each, a circular hole (or several) has been punched, its edges marked by vibrant color. These holes pierce the photographs at random; the rationale behind their placement becomes clear only in the work’s final section, a Super 8 animation of the missing circles on a white background. Such non-indexical images seem the antithesis of documentary, but here, as in almost all Kelly’s works thus far, they play a central role. Placed on a continuum with the photographs, they could be said to allegorize the derealization of the digital, the attenuation of any tie to the referent. Yet their link to the missing details of the printouts points to an opposing proposition: that the very idea that reality has been abstracted beyond reference blots out our ability to attend to it as needed.

Between the photographs and the animation is a reenactment of Truman Capote’s performance in Albert and David Maysles’s 1966 documentary With Love from Truman. The actor mimics Capote’s gestures while wearing a plastic bag over his head, annulling the particularity of the face and introducing a whiff of torture. This unsettling yet mesmerizing image echoes Kelly’s eerie Service of the goods, 2013, in which figures dressed as ghosts (in white sheets with eyeholes cut in them) act out scenes from seven early Frederick Wiseman films—Titicut Follies (1967), High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), and Welfare (1975)—their dialogue rendered in subtitles. Against the notion that direct cinema is characterized by formless transparency, Kelly’s defamiliarizing repetitions underscore that there, too, the mediations of form are ceaselessly at play, if only we would deign to look.

The three-channel installation That ends that matter, 2016, spatializes the tripartite structure of The Innocents and extends its propositions. An image stream appears as a looped projection, but now Kelly touches—or seems to touch—the surface of each photograph (in fact, the surface of a digital screen), caressing or shielding elements of the picture from view. His fingers trace outlines and point out details, extricating touch-screen gestures from instrumentality and giving rein to idiosyncrasy and care. Kelly approaches these images as traces, but also as images: Each gesture is an attempt to touch the real while the artist’s fingertips remain emphatically on the material surface of the screen in an embodied relation to a depicted event forever out of reach.

That ends that matter developed out of a residency at Delfina Foundation in 2015, during which Kelly regularly visited the City of London Magistrates’ Court, where the recording of sound or image—including illustration—is prohibited, and only note-taking is allowed. The installation consists of multiple linked but ultimately incompatible ways of giving form to Kelly’s memories of the proceedings. The selection and combination of digitally circulated images is one oblique translation; in a second projection, a reenactment of the courtroom proceedings resurrects only disconnected moments, with many glances at the camera-observer and no narratives of criminality. In the third projection, Kelly turns once more to abstract animation, generated by the movement of his hands on the photographs, with the drone of an optical sound track buzzing in time with his taps and touches. Three varieties and intensities of mediation are generated from a single reality.

Today the affirmative mimesis typical of so-called post-internet art is so pervasive as to suggest that there is no other way for artists to effectively confront the promiscuous digital circulation of images. By turns gentle, rigorous, and brazen, Kelly reminds us that this is not the case. In insisting on the variable constructions of documentary form, he leads us not into a relativistic realm beyond fact but to an ethics of attunement that must be the starting point for any production of truth.

Erika Balsom, a senior lecturer in film studies and liberal arts at King’s College London, is the author, most recently, of After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation (Columbia University Press, 2017).