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The Artist & The Viewer

By Kit Monkman

People We Love represents a dramatically new direction for KMA’s work. At first glance, the collective’s large-scale, outdoor, installations, which have transformed numerous public spaces, from London’s Trafalgar Square to Shanghai’s Bund into impromptu theatrical arenas, may seem unrelated to this new, contemplative, indoor work. Still, People We Love has more in common with these earlier works than may be immediately apparent. 

Unlikely as it may seem, the strands that illuminate People We Love’s connection to KMA’s previous work are traceable via Rembrandt’s extraordinary painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (1632).

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp; Rembrandt
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp; Rembrandt

The subject of the shared moment that Rembrandt so brilliantly recreates is clearly the cadaver, the focus of the participants’ keen attention. Their instructor, Dr Tulp, and the book in the painting’s bottom right corner are secondary. The collective audience are a distant third; each of its members so engaged in the moment of concentration that they appear unaware of one another. 

Yet the subject of the painting is undoubtedly these viewers themselves. In the act of looking, they are transformed. In their absolute engagement, Dr Tulp’s audience animates the scene. As engaged participants in a shared moment, each individual becomes a fascinating subject, full of expressive character. As our eyes flick between the wrapt faces, it’s hard not to feel that we are joining the group from behind the artist’s shoulder. By looking at them looking at the cadaver, we too have become active participants in the scene. 

The cadaver, so central to the painting’s action and, ironically, central to the animation of its living participants, acts as little more than a catalyst to the painting’s narrative. 

In 2009 KMA was commissioned by Mike Stubbs at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT) to make an interactive installation for the inaugural AND Festival. The piece called Strange Attractors; The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp was a nod to these layers within Rembrandt’s painting. It introduced a large prone figure into the centre of a public artwork, a time-based, interactive audio-video installation. The figure was intended to attract and maintain a crowd, whilst imperceptibly transforming its audience from viewers into participants. At the time, the idea that the artist(s) could withdraw, allowing the audience to become the subject of a work was central to our thinking. I still like that concept. 

The installation proved to be a success and ran for weeks. Each performance was different from the last, animated by new audiences, who, in engaging as curious individuals, transformed into a cohesive collective of performers. This piece was a forerunner to KMA’s better- known work Congregation (2010) which borrowed and refined many of the ideas we began to explore in Strange Attractors; The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. 

Rembrandt’s painting inspired KMA’s approach to large- scale outdoor works. It helped us to realise that the audience, when engaged by their own curiosity, became animated, offering the potential to turn the isolated interest of individuals into the creative bravery of crowds. 

But what interests me most now in re-reading the painting is that it suggests an even simpler transformation can be performed simply by the act of looking or being looked at. As we crowd around the cadaver to join Dr Tulp’s attentive audience, we are invited to read each individual’s gaze. Each face transitions from viewer to viewed precisely because we share the focus of their attention. We don’t necessarily know anything about these men, but we do know what they’re looking at, and, because of that, we can read their faces. In each instance, their personality jumps out, defying space and time. 

The aesthetic of KMA’s earlier works lay in the transactions between strangers, the conjoining of curious individuals into performative congregations, who became both performers and audiences of their own work. People We Love seeks to find an aesthetic – a beauty, if you like – in a more intimate transaction, one between two sets of eyes and the stories they suggest. 

In People We Love, the individual focus of each gaze that we meet is never revealed, but we DO know that those eyes are looking intently at someone they love(d). I hope that that insight proves to be a catalyst to narrative, and enough to open the door to each viewer’s empathic imagination.

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