New York

Mary Kelly

New Museum

Remarkable both in its ambition and in its radicalness, Mary Kelly’s gallery-size installation Interim is divided into four parts: Corpus, Pecunia, Historia and Potestas. The first section, Corpus (Body, 1984-85), consists of a series of coupled panels. One half of each pair features white handwritten text on a black background with occasional red highlighting. Phrases like “a presence much like hers” or “Look at my body” highlight an individual woman’s physical transformation over the years. The other half of each diptych consists of a silk-screened photograph of articles of clothing arranged in positions of stylized and fashionable disarray. The pieces look slick but the words themselves, much like the corresponding images, belie the presumed authority suggested by the high-tech finish. There are many different stories, many different points of view. Instead of assimilating themselves to an ideal authority, each subjective voice maintains its own autonomy, its own partial version of the truth.

The section entitled Pecunia (Money, 1987), is a series of 20 wall-mounted steel plates, folded down the middle to simulate open books. The silk-screened copy inside each of these physically ominous tomes alternates various experiences of the female consumer, culled from greeting-card slogans or commercial ad copy. Caught in the centrifuge of consumption, in one moment the female protagonist compulsively consumes and in the next she is consumed.

Historia (History, 1987), is a humorous play on the grand narrative. Very large stainless-steel pages, positioned on pedestals, are opened like the village bible; one can almost hear the graveled tenor-bass intonations of Authority, a voice that brooks no possibility of disagreement. Upon closer inspection, however, the texts are actually conversations between women discussing their shifting societal positions, and relative powerlessness resulting from their aging. It is the kind of anecdotal approach that reminds one of fiction writers who focus on the encapsulated profundity of the incidental conversation: writers like Henry James or Marguerite Duras who never formulate the final conclusion, but instead spin a roulette wheel of intersecting perspectives. Kelly’s project is antiauthoritarian in its very structure.

The final section, Potestas (Power, 1987), is a visually electrifying presentation of a bar graph, which like Historia is writ absurdly large, proving that sometimes a big cigar is just a big cigar. It is a graph of a 1985 United Nations Report which stated: “[Women], by virtue of an accident of birth, perform two-thirds of the [world’s] work, receive one-tenth of its income, and own less than one-hundredth of its property.” While making a serious factual point, the piece also simultaneously suggests a pun on the (male) obsession with measurement, and also makes a surprisingly good minimalist sculpture.

Mary Kelly’s Interim, even more than her Post-Partum Document, 1973-79, dissects and unravels the presumed authority of the singular objective voice. The conversations and points of view issue from many different women examining their position in the world. Their loss of desirability as they enter middle age is in direct proportion to their increased invisibility. Like Dora’s mother, to whom Freud refers but never bothered meeting, she is the locus of frivolity and neurotic ineffectualness. Lacking the virility attributed to the aging male, she grows grey but does not wield increasing power. With empty womb, the aging female is no longer the passive object of another’s gaze, yet she is denied the power accruing to the possessor of the active gaze.

Mary Kelly examines the issue of authorial voice not from the steamroller position of the Great Spokesman, but from the guerilla position of those who have for too long felt the imprint of the Platonic boot in the face. Kelly refuses to respond with univocal enunciations of Truth. The insistence on a multivocal subjectivity—on a flux of potentially reversible or contradictory positions—is exactly the kind of cultural investigation that is needed to promote a continuing feminist radicality.

Dena Shottenkirk