Jon Kessler

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terrorism, war
Visual Arts (sculpture, video art)
America, North
United States of America
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September 6, 2007
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The Ghost in the Machine

Jon Kessler’s recent work is indebted to both the Korean video artist Nam June Paik and the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely from Basel. His kinetic sculpture ‘The Palace at 4 a.m.’ contains flickering monitors, red surveillance cameras, perforated sheeting, plastic figures, postcards and photographs on self-made pieces of seemingly improvised apparatus. These interact to show on the various monitors the serious consequences of events on the 11th September and of the US war against terror.
The title, ‘The Palace at 4 a.m.’, is borrowed from one of Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures, a work ghostly and theatrical. Kessler found its title and surrealism fitting, since ghostly and surreal images of Saddam Hussein’s ruined palaces were accompanying daily news of the war in Iraq while Kessler was preparing his work for exhibition in the MoMa subsidiary PS 1 in New York.

Born in Yonkers, New York, in 1957, Kessler made a name for himself with sculpture in which samples of US pop-culture are set in motion. He has been influenced by various genres of art and periods of art history, including modern art, architecture and photography, film and drama. He has used a whole range of materials like wood, steel, glass, synthetics, Plexiglas, aluminium and brass, and items like parts of interior decoration, clothing, stuffed animals, toys and television soap operas. ‘Kesseler is known for his innovative use of materials,’ wrote a critic about Kessler’s Hall of Birds, an atrium which he populated with overgrown parrots made by the Japanese art of folding paper (origami). ‘He thereby manages to capture and keep viewers’ attention.’

In the wake of the events of the 11th of September, Kessler extended his mechanical world of images by including video and by aping the Bush administration’s image-processing. Like some Dadaists he wished to react with artistry to the madness of war and destruction. ‘With these deeply comic, deadly earnest and fully anarchic picture-machines, Kessler samples the spectacle of the Bush government to illustrate its authoritarian policies, terrorist warfare and cultural stupidity. His machines ingest them only to throw them up. The effect is a calculated rage against the mechanics of presently imperialist America,’ writes the critic Hal Foster in his article about The Palace at 4 a.m.

Since its first appearance in PS 1 ‘The Palace at 4 A.M.’ has been slightly modified. This walk-through sculpture can be entered in Berlin through a hole in a mirror, where images are seen flickering garishly on a monitor wall. Inside it, there is a labyrinth of deliberately raw components rattling on interacting. Ravelled cables, jutting screws and the like are shown openly, to prompt visitors to look more critically behind the scenes. Here are the crude means of fashioning and doctoring images in the real and virtual worlds.

A surveillance camera mounted on a kind of Maltese cross films a postcard of a Lufthansa plane, cuts suddenly to a shaky view from a cockpit then again to a view of the main building at Munich airport. The resulting sequence of images on a monitor suggests that a plane now taking off is due to crash into this airport with a huge loss of life, as on the 11th of September.

Even viewers become part of the media spectacle provided by Jon Kessler, since they too are photographed by the cameras and fed into the stream of images, where they then appear with fluttering military helicopters, newsreels, slaughter and adverts, dolls and postcards and parts of model buildings. The surveillance cameras keep on providing several monitors simultaneously with motley images. Visitors experience this already in the first exhibition room, where they themselves appear as images in Swans, ‘based on the synonymous US television program showing women before and after metamorphosing into current ideals,’ said Kessler in an interview with the curator Shaheen Merali. ‘They are based on a rather simple premise, quite like the Dadaist strategy of photo collage, where photographs are taken and the faces are then manipulated. In this case I have pasted them onto aluminium and then – like a plastic surgeon – processed them with a compass saw.’

Even his earlier works, Heaven’s Gate and Global Village Idiot, are implicitly or explicitly part of the Berlin exhibition in being parts or forerunners of ‘The Palace at 4 a.m’. Kessler’s earlier works are based on the theories of Marshall McLuhan and Paul Virilio. According to McLuhan the media change the world into a global village, and according to Kessler their endless infotainment changes viewers into village idiots. The speed with which this happens does not, according to Paul Virilio, remain without effects on society. In ‘The Palace at 4 A.M.’ visitors are given a preview.

Author: Harald Olkus


Born 1957 in Yonkers, NY


Group Exhibitions (Selected)

2000 Superpredators, CRP Gallery, Brooklyn American Bricolage, Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York, USA Do You Have Time, Liebman Magnin Gallery, New York, USA 2003 The Commodification of Buddha, Bronx Museum, New York, USA 2004 Future Noir, Gorney, Bravin Lee Gallery, New York, USA Sexy Beasts, Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, New York, USA Yesterday Begins Tomorrow, Deste Foundation Centre for Contemporary Art, Athens, Greece Ambush, Van Brunt Gallery, New York, USA Floorplay, The Brooklyn College Art Gallery, Brooklyn, USA Emoticons, Guild and Greyshkul, New York, USA 2005 Overhead/Underfoot: The Topographical Perspective in Photography, Whitney Museum of Art, New York, USA Dreaming of a More Better Future, Rheinberger Gallery, The Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland, USA Light Art from Artificial Light, ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany 2006 Video-Rama, Clifford Gallery, Hamilton, New York, USA The Expanded Eye, Kunsthaus Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland The Golden Hour, Gigantic Art Space, New York, USA Faster! Bigger! Better!, ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany 2007 New York State of Mind, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany; Queens Museum of Art, New York, USA Fit to Print, Gagosian Gallery, New York, USA Ensemble, ICA, Philadelphia, USA Art Machines-Machine Art, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Germany; Museum Tinguely, Basel, Switzerland Miroir mon beau miroir, Maison Guerlain, Paris, France Paul Thek in the context of today´s contemporary art, ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany Apocalypse Now, the Theater of War, CA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, USA Fortunate Objects, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection, Miami, USA

Solo Exhibitions (Selected)

Exhibition / Installation
1986 Jon Kessler, (travelling exhibition) Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Cincinnati Art Center, Cincinnati, USA 1987 Jon Kessler, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas, USA 1990 Jon Kessler (Collaboration with Robert Longo), Centre d´Art Contemporain d´Ivry, Ivry-sur-Seine, France 1991 Jon Kessler, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, USA 1992 Jon Kessler, Nanba City Hall, Osaka Jon Kessler, Spiral Garden, Tokyo, Japan 1993 Jon Kessler, Kunstverein, Hamburg, Germany 1994 Jon Kessler´s Asia, Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover, Germany Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria Jon Kessler, Salzburger Kunstverein, Salzburg, Austria Jon Kessler, Puerto de Santander, Santander, Spain 1996 Jon Kessler, The Augustus Saint Gardens Memorial, Cornish, New Hampshire, UK 1997 Jon Kessler, The University of the Arts, Philadelphia, USA 2002 Hermes, Tokyo, Japan 2003 Hermes, Tokyo, Japan 2004 Hermes, Forum Gallery, Tokyo, Japan 2005 Hermes, Tokyo, Japan P.S. 1, New York, USA 2006 The Palace at 4 AM, Phoenix Kulturstiftung/Sammlung Falckenberg, Hamburg, Germany 2007 The Drawing Center, New York, USA 2008 Reg Vardy Gallery,University of Sunderland, UK Louisiana Museum of Moderne Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark


Foundation for the Performing Arts, 2001
Guggenheim Fellowship, 1996
St. Gaudens Memorial, 1995
National Endowment for the Arts, 1985
National Endowment for the Arts, 1983


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.


Summer Open Air Festival

(10 July 08 - 27 July 08)

New York

Exhibition, Film Programme, Music, Conferences

(23 August 07 - 04 November 07)


Homepage of the artist

The Palace at 4 AM
The Drunken Boat #2
The Drunken Boat #2
The Drunken Boat #2
The Drunken Boat #2