Michael Kempson’s recent oeuvre ‘Child’s Play’ consists of a single dominant image comprising 38 stuffed animals for children, while the remaining works comprise each of these caricatured animals in an individual setting. While the animals are themselves captivatingly charming, they look more like coveted collector’s items, so detailed and imaginative are the ‘toys’. As it stands, each animal represents the nation where it is found most prolifically and at two ends of the spectrum sit the panda and the bald eagle, representing China and the US almost as sentinels of this happy universe. At once the image takes on a sinister quality and the nagging subversive element beings to erode the happy playfulness that we encountered at first glance.
Michael Kempson is an intrepid artist and not just in his practice. He has travelled to most parts of the globe in his aspiration to interact with artists and printmakers. His particular interest lies in working with artists who have not interpolated with the particulars of printmaking and the results are almost always exciting and unexpected. For this, Kempson generates printmaking research projects, in which he is a collaborative partner, in his position as Director of Cicada Press, a research group at UNSW Art & Design that functions as an educationally focused custom-printing workshop. He has worked with approximately 170
significant Australian and International artists and his curatorial experience has involved 51 exhibitions in Australia, Thailand, New Zealand, Taiwan, Pakistan, Korea, Japan, UAE, USA, Canada and China.
Born in Kapunda, South Australia in 1961, Michael Kempson has developed a broad printmaking practice in Australia and the Asia/Pacific region which envelops his roles as artist, curator, master printer and academic. Kempson is currently a Senior Lecturer and Convenor of Printmaking Studies at The University of New South Wales Art & Design in Sydney, a visiting Professor at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Art in China and the International Member at Large for the US based Southern Graphics Council International for 2014 to 2016. Kempson has had more than 26 solo exhibitions and over 200 group exhibitions nationally and internationally. He was invited to exhibit at the 22nd International Biennial of Graphic Art in Ljubljana in 1997 and his show titled Seen/Unseen – Michael Kempson/A Survey of Prints at V.M. Art Gallery in Karachi, Pakistan in 2010 was a huge success. In 2014 he was a commissioned artist for the Print Council of Australia Member Print and was curated for Kyoto Hanga 2014: Australia and Japan at the Kyoto Municipal Museum in Japan.
The source of Kempson’s inspiration for his newest oeuvre came from an artist’s residency program at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, a wonderful haven for local animals. But instead of taking inspiration from the animals themselves, Kempson in his inherently oblique manner chose instead the plush toys found in the Zoo’s souvenir shop. From there he went on to discover the many birds and animals that are representative of various countries, some of them so esoteric (consider the Xoloitzcuintli, which is a Mexican dog) that we are positively unable to decipher them all. In that sense, the images stimulate a sense of playfulness, an incitement to competitiveness; a need to outdo in the pursuit of trivia
But we realize soon enough that Kempson’s dialectic is geopolitical rather than personal or communal and the stringent balance and equilibrium that he maintains in the image that contains all 38 plush toys, is exactly antithetical to the chaos that rules the present world. In the image there is serenity and order and a lack of alliances, coalitions and hegemonies — an absolute contrast to the realities of geopolitics as we know it. On Kempson’s map, countries are not broken into categories of First and Third World units of deprivation and abundance. Also countries belonging to what have come to be universally recognized as the Axis of Evil as labelled by George W Bush are quite sardonically represented in Kempson’s image – Iran is depicted as the Persian Cat and North Korea is the Chollima or the mythical winged horse, an important symbol for North Koreans. In this way the political ramifications of the toys become intriguing narratives, some enjoyable, benign and amusing, others more complex but none sinister.
Kempson’s all encompassing satirical geopolitical stage in which countries are the players disguised in the garb of stuffed animals for children offers us the rare possibility of global thinking without the dismissiveness of reductivism or the the whimsy of generalization. Perhaps it is not the artist’s goal but Kempson’s effort to find the animal of import to each country with sensitivity and understanding leads us to believe that in the vastness of the map of the world, he is able to discover the small matters of consequence – an instinct that would do well when people of power are faced with larger issues of globalization and geopolitics.