Michael Kenna

The Genius Loci and the Enchantment of the World

History and myth linked to a place support the prestige of the genius loci, its ideal and affective content, its mysteriousness, its invitation to a fictional construction. The concept has become vague with misuse, yet it seems right for the series on places made mythical by sacred or literary works.
Kenna, talking about his stays on Easter Island, noted “an odd sensation of tragic absence and lingering unresolved presence pervades this singular place. In those first few days I found myself constantly looking over my shoulders. I never felt alone. Some very big and important events took place there and the memories still seem to inhabit every inch of its rocky surface.... [The statues] seem to look back to a time when anything was possible. Their stories, and those of the island, stay trapped securely inside.” Elsewhere, he added: “In all of my work, though, there is a certain prevailing theme which has something to do with memory, with time, with change, with an atmosphere that seems to reside in these places. I apply myself to many different subjects using that same theme.”

A « dark presence »

The silence and melancholy peculiar to places charged with telluric forces, haloed with legend and sometimes devoid of history which is still to be written… A haunting. This has to be the signature of the genius loci. It seems singular in the continuous substance of space, like a closure which makes it a pivot or nodal point. The dimensions of time and space, itineraries and roads radiate from it; early stories and founding myths originate here. Real or metaphorical, and therefore an island.
These singular characters drive Kenna’s endless quest and draw him back to the same places over and over again. An atmosphere, the form and substance of the elements, the texture of the terrain, the restless sky, the consistency, brilliance or flow of the light: a place where formal articulations enter into resonance with the silence and power of the sacred and the buried, a place which completes, symbolizes and assembles, and finally unveils the meaning of the space. The place where a “dark presence” is experienced as if this entity were present and absent, appearing and disappearing at the same time.

When places drop their mask as tourist sites

Standing before these photographs of Easter Island, Mont-Saint-Michel, the Pyramids of Giza, we are filled with astonishment. We hardly recognize these sites, usually invaded by sightseers in sneakers and shorts busy “doing” Egypt or Normandy. But Kenna works alone, often at night, when the real place drops its mask as a tourist site. He then offers us stunning portraits of Moais, or a bird’s —or daemon’s— eye view of Mont-Saint-Michel espying the shadowy subductions of the mediaeval Mont Tombebeneath the “listed monument.” The pyramids are reduced in a flash to geometrical diagrams or reliquaries. “Perhaps it is because they no longer bore the marks of the Divine that the Divine still spoke with such persistence and purity … but silently, discreetly, without proof, as if diffused.”
A pathetic but consenting victim of the genius loci, Don Quixote arouses pity and amusement. Everybody agrees that he is completely crazy. But Kenna’s perspicacity knocks conventional wisdom for a six. The windmills in Quixote’s Giants look like mills at first glance, but the mischievous spirit that dwells in them floats in a threatening cloud around their pointed hats. The photographic space flushes out their strategic movements as malevolent sentinels. “The affairs of war, more than anything else, are subject to change; how much more so, as I believe, nay am certain, that the sage Freston, who stole my library and books, has converted those giants into mills, in order to rob me of the honour of their overthrow...” Kenna’s world is also an enchanted world of confusion in which “each object and each character may signify another.”
haut de page