The spiritual eye
The art of Kendal Kennedy: Appearing, disappearing and reappearing
By Sharon L. Parker
August 1, 2002
Iranian American artist Kendal Kennedy derives artistic inspiration for her installation,
entitled Common Grounds, from classical Persian literary and philosophical
texts, collective cultural memory, and specific references to historical events through
the writing and re-writing of epic tales, mystical treatises and lyric poetry.
Common Grounds is comprised of three bodies of interconnected works, including
two calligraphic series, titled The End of Shahnameh and Epilogue,
which can either be placed together as a group or viewed independently. Kennedy describes
the three parts as "siblings who share the same house, and remember some of
the same stories, but who also have unique experiences."
Kennedy's artwork, rooted in her cultural heritage, is mediated and transformed
through an aesthetic of elemental minimalist forms. These are so abstract and elemental,
reducing yet magnifying the issues related to each work, that she describes them
as a form of "language [which] itself disappears."
The aspect of appearing, disappearing and reappearing
is situated within the rich structure of her native Persian language, which can move
fluidly among and between multi - variant meanings. While her art may appear to be
located within the liminal space situated between past and present, the complexity
of these interconnected works place them on a different level; that of intertextuality.
Common Grounds, The End of Shahnameh and Epilogue refer to
works that are themselves held within a structure of interconnected references to
literature and philosophy as well as to the writing and rewriting of history and
the construction of cultural memory.
Although Kennedy's installation Common Grounds is the glue that binds all
of the parts of the exhibition together, the first body of work to greet the viewer's
eye are three calligraphic images from a series of ten entitled The End of Shahnameh.
These artworks depict Persian letters, which appear to dance upon pale gray backgrounds.
Each image contains one letter, of a slightly darker hue, which is repeated over
and over again on the surface of the paper.
While gray is the primary color used some letters are depicted in muted shades
of ochre, umber and burnt sienna. Through the rendering of calligraphic forms, and
the title of this body of work, The End of Shahnameh, Kennedy pays homage
to Iranian cultural production. Both the classical past and the contemporary present
are intertwined in the reference to the classical Persian text Shahnameh,
composed by Ferdowsi (d. 1020 CE), considered the father of Persian language, and
a contemporary poem titled The Ending of Shahnameh, written by Iranian poet
Mehdi Akhavan-Saless (b. 1928), whose work joins Persian epic poetry with folk tales.
Whereas The End of Shahnameh is based on the Persian epic tradition, Common
Grounds is rooted in mystical Sufi traditions and the writings of Rumi (1207-1273).
Known as one of the great mystics of this tradition, he combined spiritual teachings
with Sufi tales. Rumi's work, entitled the Mathnawi, is considered one of
the "treasures of the Persian-speaking world." Rumi's abstract philosophy
holds the key to Kennedy's installation Common Grounds, as it is the common
ground of Persian culture, philosophy and memory that supports all of the works in
Kendal Kennedy's installation is made up of numerous
mirrors, lit by carefully positioned overhead spotlights. Each mirror hovers slightly
above the flat surface of the floor. Layers of light and shadow are reflected on
the surface of three walls, behind and on each side of the installation and serve
to point towards the metaphysical idea of reflection and self / reflection. These
three walls function as a metaphor of inter-connection through the literal depiction
of a half circle.
The interplay of light and shadow point to the metaphysical idea of reflection
/ self-reflection thereby illuminating the Sufi ideal of the three domains of body,
tongue, and the depths of heart. These are the domains of right doing, right thinking,
and right seeing. The last is an inner awareness of the reality of things that is
inseparable from our mode of being in the world. The three realms can also be called
perfection of acts, perfection of understanding, and perfection of self.
Two benches, which invite the viewer to sit and contemplate the mystical rendition
of light and shadow on the walls, are strategically placed in front of the installation.
The body of the observer becomes part of the installation by changing the representation
of the half circle, formed by the reflections on the three walls, to that of a full
circle. Therefore, the viewer becomes part of the link that envelops this work as
well as a part of the collective memory that completes this circle.
Andrea Giacomuzzi describes Common Grounds as illuminating the Sufi mystical
ideal because it serves to:
Make visual the phenomenon that mysticism tries to capture on an experiential
playing field: union with the divine, loss of self ñ self-annihilation. Reflections
of shadows and light float in an inchoate awareness of the self's divine nature.
The reflection of the beloved is a blank until you experience the beloved; each reflection
refracts another nuance of the self and lets us almost touch the divine presence.
We realize this the moment [we recognize] that we are but the shadow of the light,
the beloved, the all... When we look at shadows -- our selves -- and their reflections
-- the other -- we are often unaware of the world beyond. Concentrating on reflection
is also a barrier to the outside, it keeps you contained within our own familiar
This is the choice Rumi faced, should he stay contained within his spiritual world,
or move past the shadows and light and partake of the world? Where will this artwork
choose to go?
In reality, the artwork does not move. Rather, the viewer moves and is dynamically
transformed by the process of traveling across the concentric pathway made up of
these works: The End of Shahnameh, Common Grounds, and Epilogue.
In a poem Kennedy considers an important foundation for Common Grounds
Love rests on no foundation it is an endless ocean,
with no beginning or end
a suspended ocean,
riding on a cushion of ancient secrets
All souls have drowned in it
and now dwell there
One drop of that ocean is hope
the rest is fear.
This fear may be situated on the path the seeker must travel, in the hope of finding
union with the divine, since "tribulation and painful purification" do
not infrequently accompany the "transformation of the soul" The longing
for the union with the divine is metaphorically expressed as love, both sacred and
profane, in mystical poetry.
The theme of reflection and self - reflection, which Kennedy introduces in Common
Grounds, is continued in Epilogue, which specifically refers to Hafiz
(d. 1389 CE). Kennedy's use of gray throughout these works, and the large Persian
letters which appear suspended upon the surface of the paper, recall the lessons
children learn about classical literature from their teachers.
They write with white chalk on a blackboard thereby demonstrating to the children
the mechanics of how to form letters of the alphabet in an aesthetically pleasing
way while discussing classical Persian literature. Indeed, penmanship is still very
important in Iran. Children practice copying Persian works, both to achieve the most
beautiful writing style, and to become well versed in classical Persian texts.
However the work of Hafiz is significantly different from other mystical writings
of the Sufi tradition. This poet moves away from the idea of the external divine
and instead boldly situates the divine within the self. And just as he locates the
sacred within the self so too does he position himself squarely within his text.
Hafiz ends his work by always disclosing his identity
in the last lines of his poems. Kennedy replicates the positioning of the poet by
placing this body of works, entitled Epilogue, at the end of the exhibition
But the end of the journey is not over for the viewer of these artworks as it
is necessary to turn away from Epilogue, move through the environment where
Common Grounds resides and past The End of Shahnameh. In traveling
through the exhibition space the viewer experiences the absolute abstractness of
these three bodies of works.
On this journey Kendal Kennedy's artworks appear, disappear and reappear again
as in the mystical Sufi tradition reflected in the mirrors of the soul.
Sharon L. Parker is a PhD candidate in art history and literature at University
of Arizona, Tucson.