Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly discusses her retrospective in Manchester

Left: Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie, Habitus, 2010, laser cut acrylic, mirror, and wood, 48 x 96 x 96“. Right: Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie,  Multi-Story House (detail), 2007, wooden frame, cast acrylic panels, plate glass floor, fluorescent light, 96 x 72 x 96”.

Following her recent exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the influential American artist Mary Kelly is mounting the largest and most comprehensive gathering of her work to date, at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery. The exhibition opens on February 19 and a daylong symposium at the gallery will be held on March 26. A catalogue with essays, interviews, and selections from Kelly’s notebooks will accompany the exhibition.

THERE IS A WAY OF UNDERSTANDING MY WORK in relation to film, especially when you see so many of my projects together. Although I moved away from film in the early 1970s, I took many of the medium’s aesthetic strategies about real time and duration into the installation context. A work like The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi requires a 360-degree pan, and that is quite satisfying for me because the viewer gets pulled in and has to walk around it. Those phenomenological aspects are also very important in my later pieces. I used to call this “narrativizing space,” but now I wonder whether that’s the right term to use. I’ve been thinking about this since “The Dialogic Imagination,” a workshop we had in Stockholm last October, and perhaps the title of that workshop offers a better way of thinking about this process. I’m more interested in the way a construction of dialogic space is created in the later works through fairly anecdotal writings, which you can see in much of my art.

The Moderna exhibition was thematic, not like a retrospective or a survey, but concentrated on four works in a way that interested me. When we discussed the show at the Whitworth, I knew that I wanted to include as much complete work as I could, rather than just bits and pieces. I wanted the viewer to get a sense of the major projects over my career, and to have an idea of the questions I have been addressing over time. That’s why we decided to call it “Mary Kelly Projects, 1973–2010,” and it does include nearly all of Post-Partum Document, which hasn’t been seen in the UK for over thirty years, and several of my more recent works, such as Vox Manet and Circa 1968, which explore political activism. It also has the Multi-Story House from Love Songs, works that draw upon women’s experiences. Additionally on view is Habitus, my latest work, an installation based on the Anderson bomb shelter that was mass-produced for domestic use during World War II. I hope that viewers gain an understanding of what I’ve called the “discursive site,” a support for the work that’s much broader than a specific medium, but something more like a location, or a community, or an oppositional discourse. For me, this discursive site began with the women’s movement in Britain at the end of the ’60s and the kinds of questions that emerged at that time around sexual difference and identity. Those questions carried on after Post-Partum Document, from the mother-child relationship to questions about masculinity, and those then evolved into the questions about war and ethics that underpin my later work.

What really excites me most is what’s going on in the present moment. Even in work where I’m returning to 1968 as an image, it’s not really about the past but more about how the past is appearing in the present. Quite a while ago, when I had a show at the New Museum in 1990, I began to ask if in fact this moment of feminism and psychoanalysis was really over, or if it had any meaning for people now. At the time I realized it just keeps reinventing itself in many different ways, and I think that comes out in some of the pieces. Around the same time, I began to think about generations, not anthropologically, but through the major historical events that have affected people and have cast a really wide net around them. The generations between 1965 and 1985 were very much impacted by what happened in 1968. And that made me think about the period of World War II, and wonder why the generation brought up during the cold war was so cut off from our parents. We were not curious because we thought we were going to change the world––we weren’t going to make that same mistake again!

When I looked over all the work I also realized how important voice is to me; it’s almost a found object in my practice. Although I’ve never published my notebooks before, it seemed important to include some pages from them in the catalogue. Over the years, I’ve kept conversational notes, drawings, and more theoretical notes. These are all mixed up and interconnected, but they become the material that I try to work on. So there’s always the combination of the everyday experience and an attempt to grasp the big picture at the same time, but in the notebooks you can see how organic it all really is.