Antwerp-based Jan Kempenaers has been photographing architecture and urban and natural landscapes for over two decades. His third solo exhibition with Breese Little introduces a new, unseen body of work, which is also the subject of his most recent collaboration with Roma Publications, titled Composite, 2016.
Evocative of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s devotion to the 1920s New Objectivity movement, and the influential Dusseldorf School of Photography that developed from their students in the 1970s, Kempenaers applies the formal, removed language of documentary style to his work. Since his much lauded series Spomenik, 2006-9, which recorded the war memorials of the same name commissioned by President Tito in former Yugoslavia to commemorate sites where WWII battles took place or concentration camps stood, Kempenaers has offered an intriguing and detached view of the concrete monuments and ruins that haunt landscapes across the world. Although imbued with cultural trauma and political significance, Kempenaers leaves these histories latent.
The Brutalist building style used to create these monuments results in an inherent level of abstraction, but it is Kempenaers’ use of ambiguity and inaccessibility that differentiates these sites, these monuments, from memorials. Throughout history, certain cities, icons, or ruins have been aestheticised and politicised as emblematic of the perils of warfare, of revolt, of certain social movements. Think about the status of a city like Hiroshima, for example. Memorials are designed to create constitutive narratives and a sense of a shared past. Whereas a monument, as James E Young writes in his book The Texture of Memory, 1993, ‘becomes a point of reference amid other parts of the landscape’. It is about their context; they are open to interpretation. In a sense, Kempenaers’ visual language, of denying the viewer the background to these locations, and abstracting them into pure interactions of form, line, even colour (these aren’t black and white photographs, but ditone-prints) mimics Young’s vision of the ‘counter monument’. The counter monument ‘flouts any number of cherished memorial conventions … its aim is not to console but to provoke … to demand interaction … not to accept graciously the burden of memory’.
The quality of the buildings, the clash of brute concrete and their often collapsing, ruinous form, creates a feeling of strangeness. They are suggestive of relics. This notion of the relic draws on the institution of museology, and thus of memory, of monuments, but also alludes to the rhetoric of the sacred. Religious relics, the remains of sacred persons or objects, were believed to retain some of the original individual’s qualities and were thus of sufficient value to sanctify a place. These monuments have been petrified by the history that physically and theoretically shaped them. Their embodiment of the past tense, in addition to their implication and appearance in the present moment, can also be considered in tandem with Roland Barthes’ illogical conjunction of photography as a ‘real unreality’. The temporal contradiction inherent to photography is its condition of concurrently being of the past yet appearing in the present. Kempenaers manages to capture this melancholic and uncanny aura, not through divulging their location, their symbolism, but through a devotion to the power of the camera and the arresting power of the image.