Michael Kenna

City and Industry

If we consider the singularity of the point of view, the description of the landscape can only be particular and subjective, because the observable and in fact observed features do not have the same impact and meaning for all viewers, and incentives and circuits are linked to personal experience and a subjective agenda. This idea needs to be nuanced by recourse to our common experience, which bears witness to our vision of the world and to the fact that, slight differences notwithstanding, when we name what we see hills, paths, streets, houses or trees, we are all talking of the same thing. The elements that we notice in the landscape draw the contours of iconic groups and sketch in particular cultural features; we can draw up typologies of the buildings and list the component parts. Needless to say we easily distinguish the urban from the rural, less easily perhaps modern Eastern space from Western. In identifying these differences, we rank a given landscape on a scale of values, which may be aesthetic, ecological or, more intimately, emotional, for we desire landscapes just as we desire human beings. Kenna’s landscapes stand deliberately apart from this attempt to evaluate content; they concentrate on expression and its challenges and take into account all visible and figurable aspects and themes.

Kenna’s early works, strongly influenced by Bill Brandt, to whom he pays vibrant homage and dedicates a photograph, takes us into the “black” industrial cities of north-west England. We recognize the somber, sooty, coal black iconographic vocabulary used before him by Whistler, Monet, or Turner. The misery of the working class in the nineteenth century haunts these views of narrow, insalubrious alleys, factory chimneys, feeble streetlamps, sooty skies and faint sunshine.

A rhetoric of tension

Not yet a systematic approach, not yet a series, but isolated views. Kenna developed another strategy of figurative space in his work on huge industrial sites of The Rouge (U.S.A.) and Ratcliffe (England). We see a rhetoric of tension develop, governed by masses and graphics, combining structure, sculpture, line and volume. We sometimes wonder where the notion of the Sublime has gone, not in the inane sense of “really pretty,” but in the original Kantian sense of terrible, stupefying. It reappears right here, in lucid modern way, in Kenna’s industrial landscapes. No matter how objectively beautiful the monumental cooling towers of Ratcliffe power station might be, when they rise up in the gloom of the night, they stir fears of imminent apocalypse.
The principle of long-term projects and series, involving hundreds of exposures, was consolidated with these photographs. “The first time, I usually skim off the outer layer and end up with photographs that are fairly obvious. The second time, I have to look a little deeper. The images get more interesting. The third time it is even more challenging and on each subsequent occasion, the images should get stronger, but it takes more effort to get them.” Kenna shows us the landscape as a moment in time, when aesthetic forces are at work in that place. (It would probably be useful to hone the idea of place.) The principle of the project or series connects each set of images like a narrative, if not the great story of History, at least the less ambitious story of the artist’s own adventure.
For an artist who prefers solitude and silence, photographing New York and the great metropolises in the process of construction must border on masochism. But Kenna wants to show us what is appropriately called the urban tissue: warp and weft, material, moiré effects, sheen, lines, fringes, patterns, seams, holes … Sensual and tactile, organic.

Photographing Skylines, he makes intelligible the choice of openness in architecture that is characteristic of modern cities. The horizon belongs to neither the sky nor the land, it is no more than the imaginary line where they meet, but here it is suddenly materialized, the sky no longer touches the sea but bumps against the crenellated bar of buildings. New York, photographed from the top of a skyscraper, looks like a set of building blocks and Kenna, subtly playing with the uneven heights of the buildings, discerns the constraining horizontal pattern of the urban grid within the vertical structures. Photographed from a high or low angle, the modern city no longer has a human dimension but is geared to the flow of traffic and speed, regulated by economic functions, not the natural rhythm. A troubling pile of towers of Babel and a constant threat of arterial thrombosis.


Why is he so determined to show us bridges? Prague, Paris, New York, San Francisco, all have a bridge… the theme crops up too often not to be significant. We find an obvious answer in Heidegger’s analysis: “The bridge connects not only pre-existing banks.... The bridge brings not only the two shores together but, one way or another, it brings the hinterland behind the shores to the stream. The bridge brings river, bank, and land together in multi-layered reciprocal proximity. The bridge gathers the land like a region around the river.... So it is not the bridge which is built in a place to be attached to it, but only from the bridge itself that a place is born.” To borrow Heidegger’s words, it is the “relationship of the place to the man who settles there,” which underpins the theme of the bridge and the city in Kenna’s work.

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