b. 1968, Sydney
Lives and works in Melbourne, Australia
Peter Hennessey was born in 1968 in Sydney, Australia. He completed a Bachelor of Architecture (First Class Honours), RMIT in 1995. Exhibitions and collaborations include My Hell’s Gate, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne (2010); My NSAT-110, Kandada, Tokyo (2007); My Voyager, PICA, Perth (2005); Anne Landa Award, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney (2004); TerrUrbanism, Australia Centre, Manila, The Philippines (with Patricia Piccinini) (1995); De Overkant, Den Haag Sculptuur, The Hague (2007).
Trained as an architect, Hennessey has established an international profile for his physically imposing, conceptually rigorous sculptures. He is inspired by the science of space exploration and comparable technological advances, and scours the Internet and other publicly available information to produce his work. The resulting sculptures are ‘re-enactments’ of objects that allow people to encounter in three-dimensions what they would otherwise only see in reproduction, or on the Web. In recreating these structures, Hennessey explores the ‘space between images and experience’ and expounds on related social, political and economic imperatives.
“For the past two years, the art of Peter Hennessey has powerfully examined the media-saturated events and phenomena that have inscribed themselves upon his (and our) memories and dreams. Deploying the most commonplace of materials (plywood, galvanised steel hinge, canvas), Hennessey has produced bold, arresting and intricate sculptures based on subject matter which is familiar, even infamous, but physically inaccessible...“
- Space Voyagers and Neonatal Nightmares: an odyssey into the Art of Peter Hennessey by Varga Hosseini, 2006
ALONE WITH THE GODS
ALONE WITH THE GODS (ARTIST STATEMENT) -
Following on from our first collaboration ‘The Shadows Calling’ at Detached in Hobart earlier this year, this exhibition continues to explore the construction of an immersive, narrative space that combines sculpture, audio, scent, video, installation and narrative.
The work will transform the gallery into a parallel world, cut off from the everyday realities of the contemporary life yet inextricably linked with it. The world will house a series of new artworks that form an environment within which a complex narrative will be deployed using spoken word and video.
Conceptually, the work will explore the nation of ‘worlds apart’; spaces and populations that self-consciously separate themselves from the everyday world, in order to create a new reality for themselves. Such worlds are mysterious but comprehensible, on the edge of familiar. They are worlds which tend to operate within the confines of their own belief systems, which are self evident to the inhabitants but make no sense to us. Yet its is precisely this disconnect that calls the status quo into question.
When the viewer enters this world it is deserted, abandoned, and they are free explore it and try to understand what went on, and why.
Patricia Piccinini + Peter Hennessey
MY BURNT FROST
MY BURNT FROST (ARTIST STATEMENT) -
My Burnt Frost continues my investigations of the space between images and experience in the contemporary world, as well as my interest in sculpture as the performance of objects. My particular concern for this show is the point at which objects cease to exist or transform themselves. The moment after which the thing can only be remembered, when the opportunity for actual experience explodes. The focus for the works in this exhibition is an event that occurred on February 21st this year, when the US Navy used a SM-3 missile to destroy a damaged spy satellite, known as USA-193. This operation, code-named ‘Operation Burnt Frost’ was justified on the basis that the satellite, which had malfunctioned shortly after deployment and was in a rapidly decaying orbit, carried 450kg of toxic hydrazine that could potentially produce a toxic gas cloud if it survived re-entry. However, many (including Russia) were sceptical of the hazard that this relatively small quantity of hydrazine presented, claiming instead that this was a de-facto testing of a US missile defence system. The US government stridently denied this claim, although six days after the event US Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates did say that the mission’s success showed that U.S. plans for a missile-defence system were realistic.
I was interested in this occurrence for a number of reasons. I have a long-standing fascination with what I call ‘inaccessible objects’, such as satellites, for both aesthetic and conceptual reasons, and USA-193 is particularly intriguing. Not only was it physically inaccessible (up in orbit) but it was even visually inaccessible, as it was classified so there are no publicly accessible images or even descriptions. We know it only in the vaguest terms, as a blurry dot in an optical telescope image or the deliberately meaningless code-names USA-193 or NROL-21. Now it has been blown up and its existence is further reduced to a series of informational echoes in the media. How could we attempt to represent this thing that we could really never see?
I see my sculptures as more like performances than representations. They attempt to physically ‘act out’ the objects that they represent. There is certainly a physical resemblance - otherwise it would be a poor performance indeed - but they do not tend towards visual equivalence. Instead they attempt to manifest the physical presence of the objects. In many ways they embody the absence of the thing rather than fabricating its presence. Therefore, instead of trying to reproduce the absent object, as I have done in much of my previous work, in this case I am looking more at the moment of its disappearance.
In the central work of the exhibition, My USA-193 (...now you don’t), I am presenting the remnants of a performance of the destruction of the spy satellite. Sealed into a toughened glass case are the remains of a scale reproduction of the spacecraft that has been destroyed in a scaled down explosion. The case itself shows signs of the damage caused by the detonation that has occurred within it, and the viewer is left to try to imagine what the scattered fragments might have been. Accompanying this work is a video of the explosion event, showing the destruction. However, at no point is the viewer ever allowed a definitive inspection of the original object. The exhibition also includes a series of small bronze sculptures titled Debris Piece #1, #2, #3. These capture collections of flying debris, reproducing moments from the process of explosive destruction that has transformed the original object.
MY NICU (ARTIST STATEMENT) -
NICU is an acronym that stands for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. My NICU is part of a sequence of works that I have prefixed 'My', where I 're-enact' - in plywood - objects and spaces at full size. In the past they have stood in for (performed) objects that we know but could not physically access. In the case of My NICU, I have turned to a space that we could possibly access but in truth would rather not. As a new father, this is my nightmare space - a space that crystalises the anxiety and even fear that comes with anything precious.
At the same time it represents an unwelcome hope; the technologies and processes that are - for some - both despised and relied upon. It is an intensely emotive space, in stark contrast to its clinical lack of character.
In creating My NICU, I have moved away a little from the sharp, wooden perfection of my previous work to something more unsteady. The surface is overlaid with hand-drawn markings and translucent, textured wax. Altogether it is not quite right - a bit wonky and over-crowded - more like a dream of an NICU than the real thing. Perhaps more like a bad dream.
EXHIBTION TEXT -
In August and September of 1977, NASA launched two Voyager probes on a journey that would take them further from the Earth than anything else has ever been, previously or subsequently. In the last twenty seven years the Voyager probes have traversed the solar system passing Saturn, Jupiter and Uranus, and will achieve so-called 'termination shock' by passing beyond our suns sphere of influence into outer space.
However, for me, what is most interesting about these two small spacecraft is the 'golden record' that each of them carries. The 'golden record' is a 12" gold-plated copper disc, much like a phonograph record, on which are encoded 118 black and white images and 90 minutes of audio. The golden record is encased in a protective aluminium cover that is inscribed with information supposed to explain to how to use it.
As a package, the golden record is intended for extra terrestrial life forms (ETs) that might come across the Voyager; attempting to represent the earth in all its complexity through pictures and sound. It extends Voyager's mission from simply the exploration of the solar system to being a component of the CETI (Communication with Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) program. It becomes a device for communicating with aliens.
My Voyager is an actual size model of Voyager 2 constructed from plywood and assorted hinges and hardware. It is the same size, shape and form as the real Voyager. In fact, it is as close to the real thing as I can make it, within the limits imposed by my very domestic palette of materials. However, my aim is not so much to reproduce the Voyager, as to physically invoke it; to summon the spirit of the Voyager so that we might apprehend it as a physical object.
I would like to say that Voyager belongs to a class of things that we can see anytime but can never see. Unfortunately however, this is a meaningless sentence because English lacks two words that distinguish between seeing something via reproduction and seeing something in the flesh. This is unfortunate because it is precisely this distinction that a thing like Voyager invokes.
Most people who see My Voyager will recognise it as a spacecraft. They may not recognise it specifically as Voyager, or may confuse it as a satellite rather than a probe, but they will see it as a spacecraft. This is not because they have ever seen one in the flesh but because they have seen so many in pictures. (Of course, I exclude visitors to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum and actual NASA rocket scientists from this generalisation.) Our understanding of these things, which we see only in pictures, lacks an experience of their physicality, their presence and scale. When Jon Lomberg put together the images for the golden record, he was faced with just this problem. He realised that the ETs would have no idea of the physical size relationship between different images, and was forced to impose a crude dimensioning scheme in an attempt to resolve this.
To a certain degree my desire to physically reconstruct Voyager came from a craving to actually find out how big it was. My Voyager is pieced together from the various, often contradictory, images that I could find in books or on the web. I don't think it is going to fool anyone, and it is probably not very accurate, but then again it is not supposed to be Voyager. It is intended to stand in for Voyager, to represent it much in the same way that Voyager represents us to the aliens.
Alongside My Voyager is an audio work, Golden Record (Fitzroy Remix), which follows the process of My Voyager in reconstructing the golden record using locally available materials. In this case, the work is assembled from recordings of greetings to the ETs, in multiple languages, spoken by people who live or work in the immediate vicinity of our studio in Melbourne.
I hope in some way that this work reproduces the inclusive and optimistic nature of the original golden record, however there is also a degree of transformation that has taken place. I have always been struck by how easy it would be for the aliens to play the record at the wrong speed or in reverse, and how different their experience of it would be as a result. This is a perfect example of the immense, inherent fragility to the whole Voyager project that, for me, only adds to its allure.
Voyager, with the golden record attached, is currently about fourteen billion kilometres from the Earth, making it the furthest distant human produced object in the universe. When Voyager's on-board power source runs out in six years time it will become little more than a very sophisticated message in a bottle. Until it inadvertently runs into something, Voyager will continue its passage through the cosmos pretty much indefinitely. In sixty thousand years it will come within ten trillion kilometres of an unremarkable star named AC +79 3888. This is the nearest it will get to anything in the next two hundred thousand years.
For me, there is something very grand about this gesture, in inverse proportion to its minuscule chances of success. Even if ETs were to find it, figure out how to build a video/audio record player for it, work out which bits to listen too and which to look at and get to it to play at the right speed, it is hard to imagine what they might make of this message from the people of Earth. Within it they would find more than fifty tiny fragments of spoken language alongside traffic sounds and diverse musical moments from Beethoven to Chuck Berry via New Guinean folk music. They would see images of embryos or a not quite built Sydney Opera House, African mud-brick houses and Chinese school children, but no images of violence or war.
Despite the scientific rigour of its conception, I see the golden record is one of the most ambitious pieces of conceptual art to come out of the 1970s. This is an idealistic, if impossible, attempt to be inclusive, to try to represent everybody and everything. It is far more sophisticated than the earlier Pioneer 10 and 11 plaques, which reduced our existence to a diagram of the solar system and a simplified but obviously caucasian couple. Unfortunately, its good intensions do not make it any less impossible, or flawed, a project. However, more interesting than its failure is the way that the scope and ambition of the golden record has transformed Voyager from a utilitarian research vehicle into nothing less than a representation of humanity; a work of art.
In the years since Voyager was launched, the place of space exploration has waned in the public imagination. It is interesting then that it is back on the political agenda. This time it takes the form of the manned exploration of Mars. While it is probably not more than a headline grabber lobed out into the media landscape by G W Bush's political staff, it is an interesting choice. Obviously, it recalls Kennedy's famous pledge to 'put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth', however without the cold war context of a superpower space race. So, in the apparently different environment of post-9/11 USA, why Mars all of a sudden?
It is pertinent to reflect on what drives, and has always driven, space exploration. Obviously, what drove the scientists and engineers at both NASA and Korolev's OKB-I is very different from what drove then to be funded. There is no doubt that the staffs of the various space agencies were on the whole impelled by as pure scientific motives as you are likely to find anywhere. However, looking at the shifting fortunes of the space agencies over the last 50 years, it is clear that it is political requirements and expediencies that engender these shifts. It is a sad irony that space exploration has never really recovered from the point at which the space 'race' became a co-operative venture, and therefore less exciting as propaganda.
To a certain extent, you can't really blame governments. In terms of how they see the world, space exploration, beyond its media value, isn't really that useful. Apart from Velcro and freeze-dried ice cream, what did going to the moon really do for us here, back on Earth?
Paradoxically, I think that it is the very uselessness of space exploration that gives it its symbolic power. In an age where most activities appear suspect or cynical, space exploration remains heroic, pure. You do not explore space for commercial or political gain, and these days there is not really even any military motive. We explore space to know more about the universe. We do it to enrich human knowledge and understanding. There is a beauty in that. Furthermore, those who travel into space to do this, do so with a certain degree of personal risk. There is heroism in that.
I think what motivated G W Bush's people to have him start talking about space is a desire to associate him with something heroic. The idea of exploring Mars is more than just a welcome break from the wars on Terra; it is something both physically and conceptually far from the calumny of Iraq, terrorism or a nose-diving dollar. It is hard to wring much heroism out of military or civilian casualties, lost in the name of weapons of mass destruction that were never there. Such losses are tragic, not heroic.
Yet we still long for heroism. There was a time, not so long ago, when to be 'imperial' was a good thing, and in those days it was easy to be heroic. Fortunately, dying or killing for your country or opening up tracts of 'legally unexplored' land and disenfranchising those who occupied it no longer constitute acceptable heroism. Space exploration however, particularly manned exploration, can provide us with a contemporary form of acceptable heroism. I believe that Voyager, with its grand yet probably futile attempt to carry a representation of the complexity of the Earth and its people to the ETs, is similarly heroic.
My Voyager reflects on the symbolic power of space travel, particularly the way that it functions as a form of representation. It is hard to believe that ETs, if they do discover Voyager, will garner an understanding of the Earth and its peoples that is in any way similar to ours. Judging it this way, the 'failure' of Voyager as an alien communication device seems almost inevitable. However, I don't believe that it ought to be judged in this way. Like all great art, we should appreciate Voyager for the scale of its ideas and its symbolic intensity, rather than its practical efficacy.