Blankets on the seashore
"Search nothing beyond the phenomena, they themselves are the theory."
A woman in a one-piece swimming suit walks down a dark street, where the main source of light is a solarium bed. We have seen the solarium in various parts of the dark city, always outside buildings, in the open. Now, the female figure sits down, plugs her ears, covers her eyes, reclines, and in this state of self-imposed deafness and blindness, lets the cover of the solarium close down on her, exposing herself to the rays of the artificial sun, which would be blinding without the eye-cover, and now caress – but could also burn – her body.
In Kai Rennes' Solarium project (2001), performed and recorded on video in several versions, the act is repeated by other personae, male and female. The versions are fully consistent but various elements in the project's wide array of connotations gain dominance each time. The version described above serves as a very convenient starting point for a discussion of Rennes works. The performers of the project are artists, and, according to Rennes himself, the work is "an aesthetic play that reminds of the conditions in which we artists show our works, and imitates the communication lag between the artist and the spectator." As if it were the realization of the semantics of the terms exhibition and exposition - at a distinguished, shining spot, in a locus cut out of darkness by light, cut off from the rest of the world by not seeing and not hearing it, in the focus of attention, the artists strip, expose themselves to the audience, to the world, in a most intimate, at the same time exhibitionistic act. In its manner of reflecting to the artists position, this project may bring its viewers to remember one at the 1999 Venice Biennale, where, a group of Slovakian artists set up a tattoo parlor in their country's pavilion, and offered the audience a lasting experience of the artists position by making real tattoos of patterns made by some fifty fellow artists on any volunteering visitors. At the beginning of Rennes video, the audiences position is represented by a few people, fully dressed, passing the solarium bed casting some casual glances at the spot where the artists would expose themselves.'
Rennes self-reflexive work described above is specific to himself in its subtle formulation and fine irony, and generically relevant in its demonstration of artists position. And this kind of self-reflexion, an awareness of the artists social, psychological, theoretical, ethical, cognitive and perceptual situation and also of the characteristics, specifics and peculiarities of the medium, is one of the interrelated aspects that provide consistency and coherence throughout this artists works, be it photography, painting, video or performance. In Red Eyes (2010), the human eye itself is portrayed in the work. In fact, what we see is the organ of our perception, the one through which we perceive art, and visual stimuli general. Here, arts self-reflexion and the artists media awareness are carried to the point where the work basically performs the act of the very subject that it portrays: the C print on plexi glass hangs in the exhibition space, it is lit with strong, pointed light, and the actual image is created on the wall. Since the red eye, as Rennes describes it, is an effect in photography that is a result of flash-light hitting the retina and rendering it visible, in the work, the image of the red eye on the wall becomes a visualization of the otherwise invisible object itself, also directing attention to the optical and physiological aspects involved in viewing art - and in perceiving the world.
Of the many of connotations in philosophy and the theory of art that Red Eyes involve, let me refer to two here. By reducing the theme of the work to the very organ of perception, Rennes seems to perform his version of the phenomenological reduction in the Husserlian sense: in order to establish a firm ground for observation and exploration, at first we must be aware of the fact that the only valid statement we can initially make about the subject of the inquirer is that it acts. What cogito means for Husserl, (rejecting Descartes conclusion -"ergo sum"), I see means for Rennes here. The starting point of valid artistic inquiry is this kind of most fundamental self-awareness. Any inquiry may unfold from this. At the same time, Red Eyes raises the theme of the error. Rennes makes the theme of his work an effect that photographers regard as a technical glitch. Ironically, however, this glitch becomes the phenomenon inspiring the birth of a work of art, a new phenomenon, and a new (aesthetic) quality - whereby it also presents an analogy with the world in general, considering that evolution is a series of "faults" or errors. Novelty is a result of deviation from the ordinary working of an established system - a result of errors.
This glitch is also the technical starting point of Andromeda (2005 - 2011), a work composed of self-portraits of men they posted of themselves on the internet. However, as they took the photos standing in front of a mirror, the flashlight hides their faces, the most evident and common markers - or features (as of a face) - in one's identification. This paradoxical situation can be seen as ironical or tragic, depending on your actual state of mind or predisposition. Rennes subject of inquiry is the individual here, the identification through action, the body, gender, sex, through belonging to a particular part of the universe. Do you gain or lose your identity in a community like the ones in the digital reality of the internet - in this constellation of flashlight-stars? Are you visible or lost in Andromeda - which means, among others, "mindful of men","ruling over men"?
From the perceptory organ of visual arts, the emphasis shifts to the brain, in Gray Matter (2010). In one of the two C prints, three gray heaps of cloth resembling brains are nested in the landscape. From the description of the technique, we find out that thee pieces of cloth are military blankets, which also evokes the association of hiding, being camouflaged in nature. These brains blend in the scenery, not only through their color - the gray of the brain is the same tone as the grain of the rocks and the sea here - but also due to the fact that the brains with their sulci are like scale models of the landscape with its curves and lines. Several analogies of the cognitive process and, related to that, of artistic inquiry are at work here, including that of spying and observation, the presence of the universal in the particular, model and original, natural-unreflected versus abstract-theoretical. All this may sound grave and heavy, but one of the many remarkable merits of Rennes art is that although thematically it is subtle and complex, a kind of lightness, natural elegance, soft touch and delicate humor are also present.
Obviously, his education in architecture, philosophy, semantics and aesthetics are determining factors in Rennes art. However, it would be unfortunate if the same background were required of everyone in order to appreciate his work. If I had to single out just one quality of his oeuvre, it would be that with all his erudition and fine artistic sensitivity at work, his art pleases and inspires thought through its genuine aesthetic an intellectual quality, speaking a language of its own to many.
Zsolt Kosma, curator