The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday December 2nd

Q&A with sculptor Joe Kessler

Jon Kessler is a sculptor from upstate New York who uses materials such as engine motors and television monitors to create installations. He will be speaking at the Hanes Art Center Tuesday as part of the Hanes Visiting Artist Lecture series.

Staff writer Ally Levine spoke with Kessler about his influences from pop culture and politics.

The Daily Tar Heel: How would you classify your work as an artist?

Jon Kessler: I’m a sculptor, and I have been making mechanical work for 30 years. My first show was in 1983. And since 2003, I introduce video into the work. Now, they’re mechanical pieces with moving images, usually using surveillance techniques — cameras.

DTH: Could you explain one of your favorite pieces?

JK: My most recent piece is called “The Web.” We designed a phone app that you download before you go into it, and you take pictures of the piece, and your pictures become part of the work. It’s almost like under a big tent that is all made out of yarn, so you literally go inside the work.

DTH: How did technology come to be the focus of your work?

JK: I guess I was always sort of bored by things that were static, so very early on, I started putting motors in the work. I was influenced by a group of artists whose work is kinetic. I really responded to that work. It sort of grew gradually. Early on at my first show in 1983, I had mechanical pieces. Now, I’m dealing with not just the mechanisms but also the image.

DTH: What are your goals in creating your work?

JK: I’m always happy when the audience gets involved in my pieces, in my installations, when they go inside of them. They try to see how they’re made, and they try to figure out what’s happening because they’re really complicated. The mechanisms are complicated, and the effects are complicated. I really love it when people spend time in these things, in these large installations, and they take them seriously.

DTH: What do you want people to get out of it?

JK: I think there are a lot of ideas that are in the work. Specifically, “The Web” is a piece that somewhat critiques but also embodies the very contemporary phenomena, which is that we are living a lot of our life inside of our handheld devices. We are really drawn into a virtual world. We are physically there, but we’re there in the sense that we’re also somewhere else. The whole idea of being able to have your phone and all of what that means, the communication, the games, the images, the spectacles, watching movies — all of that somewhat takes you away from the present. You know, it’s 24/7. I just don’t want all of that to be taken for granted. I want to make people aware of what I would consider a very important cultural shift that is happening.

DTH: In what ways did the events of Sept. 11, 2001, influence your work?

JK: I’ve made pieces directly involving postcards of the World Trade Center. That was a piece called “One Hour Photo.” I’ve done pieces where the piece is directly related to the war in Iraq and the whole buildup into the war in Iraq. That piece I made in 2005 is called “The Palace at 4 A.M.” After the troops went into Iraq and were occupying the houses. Not all of the work is that politically charged, but I brought more content into the work when I incorporated video into the projects.

DTH: What will you be talking about at the lecture Tuesday?

JK: It’s going to be my life and work. I’m not just showing one aspect of my work but my life’s work, the whole trajectory, how the work shifted and changed. It’s nice when an artist has a long history, and they can show a lot of work. They can show the way the work has changed, the way I’ve changed and the way I think about my work has changed. When I give a lecture like this, I’m not just talking about my art; I’m also talking about my life.

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