Jan Kempenaers / Reviewed by Alastair Levy / 22.04.17
There is a Paul Nash painting titled Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) which depicts a group of large geometric forms set in an agricultural landscape. It is a fantastical imagining, a clash of the organic undulations of fields and hills with highly futuristic objects completely at odds with their surroundings. It predates 3D computer-aided design by about thirty years but is heavily imbued with a sense of this impending technology of grids and wireframes.
The photographs of Jan Kempenaers, currently showing at Breese | Little’s space in Bethnal Green, have a great deal in common with this painting. The monuments, memorials and public buildings depicted in these black and white prints are predominantly abstract, concrete structures. They sit awkwardly in their mostly natural environments and occupy a strange, liminal space somewhere between sculpture and architecture. What they represent in terms of politics, war or loss is perhaps not more important than this less deadly conflict between form and setting.
There is an aesthetic continuity in the style of most of the structures chosen – post-war and brutalist – and this is undoubtedly significant. One monument takes the form of a tick symbol holding a disc and is reminiscent of an Olympic Games logo from the 1980s. An electric power station, in the neighbouring image, makes manifest its purpose through its design. In conversation with Kempenaers, he describes the aura that these places have and his attempts to capture this by finding an optimal perspective and distance from which to shoot. He is extremely decisive in this respect and makes perhaps only one or two images at each site.
The actual locations however, are withheld from the viewer in this body of work, with each image simply Untitled and accompanied by a number. This decision not to share the exact geography of places across Europe and further afield lends a quiet mystery to the series as a whole. We do not really need to know in any case as the impulse that leads to the creation of these constructions, the memorials at least, is evidently universal. It is to do with memory and honouring sacrifice as well as with nationhood and propaganda. The relative simplicity of their abstract forms belies the complexity of their meaning.
In what might be viewed as the final image in the show, the one viewed last in a clockwise walk around the space, an oval concrete frame sits nestled among trees on a hillside. It transpires that this was the base structure for a huge bust of the former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos built in the style of Mount Rushmore. It was destroyed in 2002 by treasure hunters believing that the Yamashita gold, allegedly looted by Japanese forces during the Second World War, was hidden inside. This literal de-facing leaves an abstract shell, something closer to the forms depicted by Nash than a figurative reminder of oppression. Unlike actual megalithic structures however, which can survive for thousands of years, these newer concrete versions seem less stable. They may have been built to aid memory but for how long will they survive to fulfil their intended function?
– reviewed by Alastair Levy
Jan Kempenaers contiues at Breese | Little until 20th May 2017
Breese | Little
Unit 1, 249-253 Cambridge Heath Road, London, E2 6JY