Progression of Art
Documentation V (1977) is one element of Post-Partum Document (1973-79), the landmark interdisciplinary installation that took Kelly six years to make and caused a media sensation when it was first exhibited. Its central subject is the time-honored theme of motherhood. In tracing the growth and development of her son's life from a newborn baby to a six-year-old child and her own experiences of this dynamic process over time, this work examines various aspects of the mother-child relationship, uniting them in one large-scale presentation as opposed to focusing on a single moment staged in a discrete form.
In Documentation V, Kelly presents three scientific displays - two moths on the left and center panels and a side view of a woman's vagina on the right. In the central panel, she includes an excerpt from an intimate conversation between her and her son, Kelly, in which she explains to him the facts of life: "Son: do babies come from bottoms? Mother: No ... from vaginas. Girls have three holes, one for poops, one for wees, and one where babies come out - that's the vagina."
Kelly's image and text exploration of human reproduction with her son can be traced to her fascination with Lacanian psychoanalysis, specifically to the idea that the unconscious mind is structured like a language. In explaining the genesis of this project, she has said: "He [Kelly] would bring me a snail and say, 'Do you have a hole in your tummy?' I couldn't figure it out. What did they have to do with each other? Finally, I juxtaposed the questions and specimens with a kind of non-answer in the form of a diagram representing a full-term pregnancy and a list of medical terms."
Kelly's blending of image and text in this jarring way is characteristic of Conceptual art, inviting comparisons between seemingly disparate elements. At the same time, though, her complex, private subject matter challenges the simplified forms and de-personalized content of Conceptual art, marking a paradigm shift within the overall Conceptual movement. If Feminist artists like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro were intent on revising history to include the feminine in their response to Minimalism, Kelly was committed to challenging the constraints of Conceptualism by introducing Feminist themes seen from her first-hand perspective.
Post-Partum Documentation is Kelly's most significant early work because it deploys many of the theories and methods for which she became well-known as a contemporary artist. While the work generated controversy among the public for its inclusion of her son's dirty diapers, it advanced the artistic discourse by being rooted in an idea that was extensively researched and then executed with a clean, scientific precision that belied the intensely personal thoughts and feelings animating it.
Classified specimens, proportional diagrams, statistical tables, research data and index - Australian National Gallery, Canberra Collection
Nightcleaners Part I
Kelly's Nightcleaners (1975) is a black-and-white video belonging to her collaborative film work of the 1970s. Made with the Berwick Street Film Collective in London, this video documents a series of young mothers forced to take on "invisible labour," cleaning office blocks at night in order to care for their children during the day and support their families. As a new mother herself, Kelly empathized with the plight of these young women, who were being underpaid and overworked. "They couldn't work in the day," she lamented, "because they had to look after their children, but they didn't have enough money without working. So, they had to work at night. It's what we called the social sexual division of labour."
This image is a still photo taken from the documentary video, showing working women at a protest rally fighting for fairer employment conditions. The film was initially intended as a campaign piece, an early expression of postmodernist Agit-prop, if you will, to raise awareness about gender pay gaps and other inequalities women suffered in the workplace. In spirit, it echoes the contemporaneous work of fellow Feminist and Conceptual artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who similarly focused on the themes of motherhood and domestic labor. Since its making, Nightcleaners has taken on iconic status, and, now, it is widely recognized as a landmark in experimental British cinema of the 1970s.
The video's epochal importance has been noted by film critic Tony Rayns: "[This is] a film that places the nightcleaners' campaign within a series of broader political discussions formulated as an `open text' which asks as many questions about its own status as a film as it does about the socio-political issues that are its subject. No engaged person should overlook its challenge."
Black-and-white video with sound - Lux Film Archive
Interim (1984-89) followed Post-Partum Document as Kelly's second large-scale installation.
Divided into four sections and requiring five years to complete, this monumental work, refers, as its title implies, to the in-between stage in life a woman faces after maternity and before old age, the period writer Liza Buzytsky refers to as "the provisional time of a woman's mid-life, after her visibility as a procreator has waned." Kelly herself says of the work, "The question I want to raise is, 'What is a woman?'"
Each part is comprised of six panels named after the passionate attitudes that the then-famous psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot attributed to hysterical women in the late-nineteenth century, from ecstasy and eroticism to menace and supplication. Photo silkscreened images of clothing items appear like disembodied ghosts, designating each part of the installation and offering alternative viewpoints on dress and fashion as symbols of self and status.
Like Post-Partum Document, Interim creates an interwoven platform for representing modern female identity, which is complex and multifaceted, constructed from the past, yet continuing to evolve in the present and change into the future.
Deliberately ambiguous and open ended, Interim firmly established Kelly as a leading Conceptual installation artist, motivated by socio-political ideas and the effective use of textual information and unusual juxtapositions to create an alternative form of potent storytelling.
Laminated photo positives, silkscreens, acrylic on Pexiglas panels, Dimensions variable - Installation view, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York
Comprised of three series of related metal sculptures - shields, trophies, and insignia - Gloria Patri spreads out across dramatically lit gallery walls, forming a multi-faceted work that encourages viewers to look up, down, and all around. Above the shields, in the center row, six aluminium trophies appear, each attached with a heroic male figure that carries one letter, together spelling out the word GLORIA. This refers to the work's title "Gloria Patri," which means "Glory to the Father" in English and alludes to the well-known Latin hymn that is widely used in various Christian liturgies.
In characteristic Kelly fashion, Gloria Patri presents a highly loaded theme in a clean and studied manner that seems entirely objective on the surface. Underneath her veneer of precision, though, she addresses her subject as anything but neat and tidy. After all, Kelly had a military-age son at the time of the Persian Gulf War (the conflict happening at the time), a personal, biographical fact that cannot be ignored, just as her having attended Catholic school must be taken into account when considering the influences behind Gloria Patri.
In using military, heraldic, and competitive motifs, Kelly suggests how society shapes the male gender, gearing it not only toward achievement and success but also toward the glory of patriotism. The real-life quotations on the trophies (the real-life stories from the war in Iraq), however, undercut any hint of idealism, as do the broken logos above them. "When you get up close to the shields and enter into the individual stories," Kelly writes, "the scenario of mastery and control fails."
At the same time, by contrast, Gloria Patri implies how female stereotypes are generated and perpetuated by social norms. This kind of questioning of gender stereotypes by Kelly, from the dawn of her career to the present, has been instrumental in the development of postmodern art, opening up a wider discourse on the complexities of modern identity.
Etched and polished aluminium, Dimensions variable - Installation view, Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles
Made in 2004, Circa 1968 looks back in time, marking a shift in Kelly's work to a reflective glance at the radical social changes proposed by the student movement and progressive Left of the 1960s.
At the centerpiece of this less complex but no less potent installation by Kelly is her appropriation of an iconic image taken by Jean-Pierre Rey in 1968 for Life Magazine. It is from Rey's documentary series on the student demonstrations that shook the streets of Paris during that watershed year, protests in which Kelly participated after first leaving Beirut and before settling in London. In this image of Caroline de Bendern - later dubbed "Marianne of May 68," after the allegorical figure representing republicanism - she sits on the shoulders of Jean-Jacques Lebel, holding a raised Vietcong flag, resembling the heroine in Eugene Delacroix's famous painting of the French Revolution, Liberty Leading the People (1830).
By skillfully printing this historical photograph onto lint gathered from her home dryer, Kelly deliberately makes the image appear fuzzy and indistinct, a visual characteristic that she enhances by subtly animating it with projected light noise. In this way, Kelly collapses personal and collective memory, giving Circa 1968 both autobiographical and cultural significance. At the same time, she questions the accuracy of our recollections of the past.
In a contemplative work like Circa 1968, made almost forty years after the event to which it refers, Kelly also begins to wonder about waning idealism. For her, the revolutionary events of 1968 represented here did not turn out to be as life-altering as she and many other radicals had hoped. Beyond politics, she likens her sceptical sentiment to the plight of Feminism, which has been thwarted, as she sees, its utopian dreams dashed and its battles for equal rights still playing out around the world today.
Detail of installation view, Compressed lint and projected light noise, Dimensions of this central image: 100 X 105 X 1.25 inches
As part of her continuing retrospective assessment of Feminism, Love Songs is a complex, large-scale installation that examines the political and ideological legacies of the early Anglo and American women's movement of the 1970s. It marks an important turning point in Kelly's career and in Feminist art, reading like an elegiac ode to the movement.
First exhibited at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, in 2007, the project observes ideas from two generations of Feminism - firstly, those who came of age in the 1960s, which would include Kelly, and, secondly, those who were born afterwards. In her musings about the activities and conflicts of two eras of Feminist activism, specifically, and the fate of Feminism, generally, Kelly describes her aims with this project, to express what is left "after the specific demands of the moment have faded, and what, if anything, is passed on from one generation to the next."
This installation at Documenta in Kassel was presented in four parts. Within a large rectangular space, its centrepiece appeared, almost magically. Made with her husband, the sculptor Ray Barrie, and called the Multi-Story House, this one-room structure glowed warmly, luring visitors in to peruse archival material that addresses Feminist activism and its place in an intergenerational dialogue. Installed on each of the surrounding gallery walls, respectively, were three supporting component parts describing different important protests and celebrations of the women's movement.
Another retrospective look at Feminism, Love Songs invites us not to forget and raises awareness about the gains of the women's movement by one of the preeminent artists who lead its charge. Yet, Kelly also highlights the ongoing problems that continue to persist. The gender gap has narrowed, but it is still not closed. "Rather than a nostalgic evocation of the 70s," she writes, "this work synthesizes past and present, exploring the ongoing investment of the artist and performers in both the history and current relevance of sexual politics."
Laser cut cast acrylic panels etched with text, wooden frame architectural structure, fluorescent light, glass floor, black-and white film loops, black-and-white transparencies in light boxes, color video