Sheridan Kennedy

The specious voyages
Museum of Brisbane
9 December 2005 – 19 March 2006

While it was a particularly small exhibition, Sheridan Kennedy’s The Specious Voyages nevertheless required the viewer to spend time with it. This was partly because one had to ‘find’ the objects themselves—they are small and often camouflaged in their environments—and partly to unravel the fascinating tale that was being spun before us.

The exhibition was set around a glorious romp of Kennedy’s alter ego Dr D.N. Keynes pictured as a frumpish natural scientist working in the field in the continent of Terra Recognita. Dr Keynes journey to the New Hybridies was filled with self doubt—’when we get there will we recognise that we are here?’, she asks. And while Dr Keynes had hoped to build her scientific reputation on the work of others, she recognises that it is the phenomena that has escaped previous investigations (‘the free roaming facts that may be considered renegade or delinquent…’), where the greatest attention should be placed. Here we are very close to Kennedy’s own interest in sensations that cannot be seen or measured but nevertheless imagined in the reactions of the body to precious metals and stones and crystals used in adornment.

Dr Keynes fortunately brings with her instruments ‘attuned to such determinations’. She is alerted to the problems of deciphering fact from truth and recognises that all instruments will only deliver ‘what one already knows but doesn’t know one knows’. Dr Keynes speculates and recreates environments in her laboratories to try to solve questions about unique adaptations of species to their environments. Particularly at issue are the questions of decorative adaptations for the sake of it, rampant hybridisation and the development of new functionalities like the samurai fish, which creates a symbiotic relationship with another creature to become a wearable pet. How could this happen? puzzles Dr Keynes. Is this natural selection at work, she muses, or a glimpse of a ‘fashion for accelerated evolution through a cultural manipulation of favourable characteristics’. Here we jump a hundred years or so from the publishing of Darwin’s Origin of the Species to developments in genetic manipulation.

In the 1990s Kennedy made Original Forecasting Ring, Turbine Forecasting Ring, Astromancer, Hand-Held Theodolite, Geomancer as devices that might be able to read bodily sensations or navigate the ‘psychosphere’. They appear mysteriously functional with swivelling and rotating components and inscribed symbols and cryptic signs. Later, when Kennedy was researching new work in the United Kingdom, she saw an exhibition about Darwin’s Beagle. This inspired her to link her earlier ‘instruments’ with ideas of discoveries in new worlds.

 Origin of the Species was published in 1859. It became a popular and a widely read book and along with the opening of trade with Japan and India and the rapid growth of natural history museums in the United States and Europe, it spawned a climate of fascination with Nature. Popular periodicals, for instance, encouraged collection and preservation of specimens in the home along with instructions for creating vivariums for butterflies, moths, beetles and dragonflies.1 The interest in nature was quickly taken up in fashion, particularly in women’s hat designs. Realistic habitats were created often using stuffed birds for authenticity. Beetles and butterflies as well as jewelled insects were desired additions. Michael Carter in his study on ornament and nature asks ‘what was the drama being played out … and why such an excess of decoration on the eve of … modernisation?’.2 Carter argues that in the dramatic melee of these hats, there were significant cultural shifts taking place. The ‘natural’ and the ‘unnatural’ were changing places, as was the ‘animate’ and the ‘inanimate’ and the ‘organic and ‘inorganic’.3 In Origin of the Species Darwin establishes the grounds for natural selection of species. No species were uniquely created but had developed from other species over millions of years. Every living thing shared an ancestry. Dr Keynes notes in her fieldwork journal that she had recognised a certain flux between previously believed demarcations of animal, vegetable and mineral. This then, is the drama of mimicry, displacement and cross-breeding that Kennedy takes up in her work. Jewellery and ornament become highly charged and animate. It is hard to say whether they, the jewelled insects and creatures, are on their way to becoming human or whether human wearers are part way to becoming them.4 This exhibition is not so much a display of taste or wealth but an essay in the games that jewels might play with wearers. The Boulder Beetle, Gembackbugs, the Fancy Flying Tickler, the Gondwana creature, the Camouflage Moth and the Feathered Dandy Fly all participate in the deception of display. However for the Feathered Dandy Fly, the very means of attraction to a mate is the means to its own demise. Its predator feathers its own nest with the beauty of its catch.

Kennedy’s project is a gutsy parody. Through the mysteries and excitement of camouflage she causes us to look more closely at the hypnotic enticement of adornment. Is it protective or predatory or a tactic for survival or is our desire for it something that Dr Keynes would say makes no sense?

notes: 

1. M. Tolini, ‘Beetle Abominations’ and Birds on Bonnets: Zoological Fantasy in Late-Nineteenth Century Dress, http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring02/85-spring02/spring02article/206-qbeetle-abominationsq-and-birds-on-bonnets-zoological-fantasy-in-late-nineteenth-century-dress sourced 19/3/06.

2. Carter, M, Putting a Face on Things, Power Publications, Sydney, 1997, p.116.

3. Ibid. p.145.

4. Ibid. p. 146.

 

Dr. D.N. Keynes thoughts are derived from an Adapted Extract from The Origins of the Specious, (hardcover, full colour illustrations, forthcoming in 2006).