words Ellie Brown
What makes art, art? Perhaps, on one level, it is its ability to reflect the past and the present into the future: mimicking the current, in order to move forward. Such is the case with Mary Kelly, a pioneer of conceptual art in the 1970s: whilst her early work remains instrumental today, she has continued to develop and adapt her practise as time goes on. A solo exhibition of her work, Post-Partum Document (1973-9) at the ICA, London, in 1976 was met with outrage that an artist dared display soiled nappies on the wall in the name of art. Kelly was responding to the conceptual art movement in a way she, as a mother, knew how. Alongside the film Nightcleaners (1972-5), made by the Berwick Street Collective, of which Kelly was a part, Kelly’s work captures a particular moment in time. Since the late 1990s, Kelly has turned to compressed lint as a reoccurring material in her work, literally using the lint screen of a dryer to produce fuzzy reliefs. These lint works relay the resonance of personal experiences of war and trauma, in Mea Culpa (1999), and recall momentous events in the Circa Trilogy (2004-16); the Blitz in London, 1940; the protests in France, 1968; and the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square, 2011. Interwoven into the fabric of Kelly’s work is an astute pairing of the political and the personal, and an importance placed upon both the mundane and the monumental.
NR: Seminal works like Post-Partum Document continue to influence and shape feminist thought to this day, but is it important to you that you are labelled as a ‘feminist artist’ by future generations?
Mary Kelly: What is important to me is to be known as an artist whose work is informed by feminism. I don’t think there is such a thing as feminist art that can be defined in terms of a certain style or content.
NR: With regards to the emergence of conceptual art, did you ever feel that, by having your work labelled as feminist, it was approached differently to the work of your male conceptual counterparts?
MK: In the 1970s, being a feminist took over from being a woman as the representative of a marginalized other. So, yes, my work was approached differently by most of the conceptual artists who were men. Referring to 'the nappies’ in Post-Partum Document, for example, they would say things like, “the idea’s okay, but why do you have to include that stuff?”
NR: When I watch Nightcleaners in 2018, the issues it raises are especially pertinent in the gig economy. Did you anticipate that these issues would still be relevant forty years?
MK: No, of course not, we were convinced that things would go our way, that equal pay and anti-discrimination legislation would be enacted and that future governments would be progressive enough to make it effective.
NR: In an interview on Mea Culpa (for Art Journal, 1999), you spoke of your use of lint as a material that was ‘archaic in relation to dominate cultural forms’ of the time; does this still figure in a digital age?
MK: That’s also an interesting question in relation to predicting the future, but it’s one I did think about when I started making work in the lint medium. Walter Benjamin said that there are times in history when the outmoded can be redemptive. In the 1990s, during the digital transformation of the entertainment industry, which includes exhibitions as well as dominant cultural forms such as cinema, something peculiar was happening to museums and galleries. They were becoming archaic. At the same time, this outmoded experience of encountering objects, physically, phenomenologically, in real space was unique in the way it conjured the reappearance of the past in the present, and I thought this was potentially a very good thing.
NR: How does the physicality of the compressed lint works change the meaning of the image you depict from its photographic origins?
MK: It’s a performative act of remembering. Physically making the work takes thousands of pounds of washing over many months. So, I would say, the labour process as well as the accumulation of units that mark the work’s duration significantly change the meaning of the original image, which, as a photograph, is associated with instantaneous perception.
NR: Is there particular significance in the tactility of the lint that you hope for the viewer to pick up on?
MK: The tactile, or what I might call haptic, quality of the work is a means of making affect pass into visual form, a kind of emotional residue, analogous to the experience of music, that lingers as an afterimage.
NR: Your earlier lint works such as Mea Culpa and The Ballard of Kastriot Rexhepi have a certain rhythm in their linearity. Has this changed in subsequent compressed lint works, that seem to take on the shape of the ‘traditional’ canvas?
MK: The Ballad actually incorporated music. Using my text as the libretto, Michael Nyman composed a score for soprano and string quartet that was performed at the exhibition openings in Los Angeles, New York and Mexico City. The installation consisted of linear panels of compressed lint, extending over 200 feet, that looked like a transverse sound wave with the text, or the voice, running through it as a rest line. The viewers could walk around and read it while the quartet played. A time-based, immersive relation to the narrative (the story of a boy abandoned during the war in Kosovo) was central to my understanding of trauma, the role of witnessing and the means of working through.
On the other hand, my recent installation, The Practical Past, was not about events that are traumatic, but ones that change your life in other ways, particularly your world view. Here, I was acting as a witness to the women’s movement of a certain era, trying to put the intimate personal account in the context of the big historical picture. So, yes, in the Circa Trilogy, I presented large-scale panels of compressed lint, based on iconic representations: May ‘68; Tahrir Square, 2011; The Blitz, 1940; in the shape of traditional canvases, but I projected lint noise onto the lint surface and this made people second guess what they were looking at, and hopefully, how they see the past.
NR: Do you think large-scale narrative installations allow for greater subtleties?
MK: I might say large-scale narrative installations offer more complexity by incorporating looking as a form of listening. But, I think all exhibitions in general allow greater subtleties because they involve simultaneity in time–seeing many things at once, including objects in your peripheral vision, in separate spaces and so on, and this experience often transgresses the curatorial directive in an interesting way. Which brings me back to your question about what cultural forms will figure in the future: it would be my guess that we’ll still want this kind of access to self-reflexive inquiry as a refuge from the algorithmic certainty of the digital world.