Shannon Kennedy

Franklin Art Works

FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, Shannon Kennedy's work has focused on the body, scrutinizing its surfaces in search of the secret logic of identity embodied in flesh. In the mid-'90s, Polaroid self-portraits featuring abstracted images of the artist's face gave way to sprawling collages pieced together from repeated photographs of a single body part—an ear, armpit, forearm, and so forth. For a 1999 piece, Building 4 (soap factory), Kennedy used a tiny video camera, designed to enable examination of the digestive tract, to explore the cracks, crevices, and dusty comers of an aging building. Here she uncovered a fascinating landscape of gritty minutiae that serves as proxy for the body but is invisible to the naked eye.

Kennedy's current installation at Franklin Art Works, Untitled #3, 2000, is a tightly crafted seven-minute video loop of footage culled from hours of data gathered as she rode the trains and walked the platforms of the New York subway system. With no clear narrative binding the scenes together, each of the short slow-motion segments has its own lyrical beauty, inviting the viewer's subjective reading. Accompanied by an eerie sound track of ambient noises, the piece opens with dusky shots of the side of a slowly moving subway train. As the images advance, the viewer is presented with a luminous interior seen through the window of the train. Inside, anonymous passengers stand idly, bathed in brilliant artificial light. Like Walker Evans's surreptitious shots of passengers on the same subway system in the '30s, many of the images that follow linger over the solitude of passengers who stare blankly forward, wrapped up in their own interior worlds, unaware that they are being filmed. In one scene featuring a woman who stares at the ground as she stands waiting for her stop, Kennedy poignantly captures an urban self-preservation strategy well known to anyone who has ever used mass transit. The segments in which Kennedy defamiliarizes the most commonplace sights are especially striking, as when she plays footage of people walking through a subway corridor in reverse, turning the banal crowd into an uncanny army of awkward automatons.

The most fascinating segments in Untitled #3 are those Kennedy recorded while carrying her video camera under her arm as if it were turned off. Avoiding eye contact with other passengers, the artist allows each of them the opportunity to observe her. The unguided video camera captures the idle glances and curious stares, as well as the occasional predatory gaze, directed at her outside her range of vision. Though we imagine that we are able to see everything that takes place in our immediate environment, Kennedy's footage reveals the way that from moment to moment our vision is anchored in and limited by the narrow physical parameters of our bodies, the way our line of sight is narrowly proscribed by the degree of the tilt or slight turn of the head. And Kennedy's handling of the camera in these sequences disrupts the viewer's usual perspective: Whereas the lens normally corresponds to the human eye, which surveys the world as an extension of the subject's mind or consciousness, Kennedy's images dislodge vision from the mind, embedding it instead in the body, where it can “see” what the eye cannot. Besides wreaking havoc with the terms of the mind/body split, this unusual vantage point also interrupts the normative logic of the gaze and the objectifying subjectivity it is often said to imply.

Patricia Briggs