David Kemp

“I make things out of things, big things, little things, old things and new things. I like to recycle things, and find new uses for things that have been thrown away. Some things say something about their surroundings, and other things become something else.”

For more than 20 years, David Kemp has lived and worked on the exposed Atlantic coast of West Cornwall – inspired by the natural landscape, and by the remains of the tin-mining industry carried out there since medieval times. Living among the ruins, he collects fragments, piecing together curious connections between past and emergent mythologies and technologies.

Kemp lives and works on the far western coast of Cornwall, among the old mine workings near Botallack. He finds material for his work in rich seams of junk, appearing here and there at boot fairs, but adding up, in the imagination, to something like that mysterious productive heap of dust in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. In fact there is an almost Dickensian breadth of vision, richness of character and sharpness of observation in Kemp’s work. David Kemp’s work is serious fun: serious, because his intention is to tackle our folly and or materialist excesses and fun because he is a master of life-enhancing humour. Driven by his own apocalyptic and subversive vision, he makes sculpture from the disregarded bits and pieces left by successive consumer boom. These remains point out the awful truth – that we value trash and are seduced again and again by the trumped-up new. Technology that is phoney, or only half understood, is grasped at for answers to our needs. In pursuit of the largest thing, it becomes impossible to tell real technological advances from the dead-ends. This point is made for this exhibition particularly by reference to electricity. The rush to harness the power of frog’s legs, to make hair stand on end or capture lightning were all so far beside the point – of course we know now, but in Kemp’s alternative world they have a different and more telling relevance. By making what might have been, or should have been, invented he mirrors universal human weaknes.

Kemp’s Uncertain Instruments sound notes of warning to the unwary and the complacent. Their Nearly Parallel World is one in which we feel at home, but somehow more thoughtful. A seed of doubt is planted, form which the consideration of serious issues can grow. Here at Newlyn Art Gallery, his work fills two galleries built to show the contemporary art of the 1890’s. His references to hallowed Victoriana are therefore particularly sharp, cutting through nostalgia to the underlying reality of life in a materialistic society where culture is merely gloss. The apparent danger of electricity, the apparent function of his constructions, lead us in to a world where perceptions can be changed, where the big issues of technology, consumerism and ecology can be tackled, before it is too late.