John Kessler - P.S. 1/MoMA, Long Island City

kessler.jpgJon Kessler’s new installation at P.S. 1 collects the detritus of a culture saturated by images of war to make a stunning statement on what it means to live in history. The exhibit incorporates video, sculpture, photography, and various forms of gadgetry too weird to imagine and too complex to name; the central focus of the exhibit, however, is the viewer, who is ineluctably drawn to participate in Kessler’s project. “The Palace at 4 AM” is a site-specific exhibit, dependent upon a specific place and time. It can’t be separated from its moment, because it is its moment. It includes and implicates everyone who sees it.

The ostensible subject of “The Palace at 4 A.M.” is the media coverage of war. It includes a monitor which shows false explosions over a real Manhattan skyline, and another which displays a sculpted face superimposed over various photographs – an image of gathered soldiers, an image of a stump speech, an image of a bombed and burnt-out city – pointing to the fact that these images have become familiar without our conscious knowledge or consent. Participants are surrounded by a constant clang and rattle of mechanical paraphernalia, which gives the impression of a world gone mad with noise, distracted and raked raw by nervous tension. Almost in the manner of a dream, Kessler’s work reflects the iconography of our time; his images are instantly recognizable, intimate as family members, yet also alien.

“The Palace at 4 A.M.” looks back at its participants, forcing us to recognize ourselves as a part of the global context. Video cameras peek through sculptures of shattered supermodels, and toy bomber planes circle manically overhead, capturing images of their audience, which they deliver to a bank of monitors on the floor. Television is a distancing medium: when staged car bombings and hurricanes play on the same screen as actual catastrophes, it’s easy to view them all with the same detachment. When your own image appears on the screen, next to images of shock, awe, and atrocity, the distance between viewer and spectacle is annihilated.

The installation also seems to point an accusing finger at the entertainment media. One of the most memorable pieces is a wall of TV screens, surrounded by mirrors so that it seems literally infinite, wheeling with an abstract, hypnotic array of colors and shapes. When one steps behind that wall, one sees that the kaleidoscope is in fact a live feed from a mobile of colored gels and G.I. Joe dolls dangling from nooses. Each wall of the exhibit is covered in a single enormous photograph, including a centerfold that makes for an unforgettable entrance -- suffice it to say that you enter Kessler’s installation the same way you enter life, and the gaping maw of Bush (capitalized) on the opposite wall makes for a sinister exit.

“The Palace at 4 A.M.” is an ephemeral, topical work, one that blurs the distinction between theater and art, creator and consumer, the seeing and the seen. Because it is so very much of the moment, its existence will be brief – but then, that’s all the more reason to visit it while you still can. - Sady O.

“The Palace at 4 A.M.” is at P.S. 1 until February 6, 2006. For more information, visit www.ps1.org.

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Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.

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