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 this exhibition.
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 � 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 assumptions.
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 Rumi observes:
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 space.
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.