New York

Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly’s recent installation, Gloria Patri, 1992, demands that one make a distinction between masculinity and machismo. These categories circulate in her meditations on the pathological male—the thematic of her new, polished-aluminum hardware series. On the one hand, she critiques military society in the form of 6 trophies and 20 discs, the bases of the former etched with macho sound bites from the Persian Gulf War, the latter inscribed with nonsensical montages of mismatched military insignia. On the other hand, the narratives in the five shields address crises of masculinity as the characters (four males, one female) struggle with their inability to conform to stereotypes of aggression, exacerbating their own sense of fragmentation and dislocation. As a whole, the installation is intended to map manifestations of male hysteria, in relation to Lacan’s description of the progressive phases of the Mirror Stage, in an attempt to undermine the discourse of mastery.

“CUT IT OFF AND KILL IT,” reads one trophy. “. . . . BUSTING OUR BUTTS TO GET IT RIGHT,” says another. Parodying the rhetoric of war or mocking its institutions in order to illustrate that some forms of sanctioned male behavior are symptomatic of pathological hysteria deserves a yawn. Interpreting the killer phrases on the trophies as spoken by a woman (because their maker is female) results in another sort of banality in that “her” appropriation of “his” language accomplishes little more than an exchange between warring camps. Despite their latent (and rather lame) message—yes, women as well as men identify with masculine ideals of mastery—the discs and the trophies complement Kelly’s more compelling narrative texts, each of which depicts a character in the throes of an identity crisis. A man envisions fishing as a war game and, in a classic moment of split subjectivity, perceives himself as his own enemy. An adult baseball player at bat, cracks the ball and finds himself catapulted back to age ten, back to the disapproving father, back to the tears and shame of defeat. And so the narratives go—the sudden terrified impulse of a new father to kill his male offspring; a son who fantasizes destroying his mother; a woman who does battle with an exercise machine, despising herself as she hardens her body.

Although the viewer is left feeling that Kelly has had a profound insight—something along the lines of “falsely mesmerized by the display of power, we’re all hapless victims”—it is clear that her desire is to extend her previous investigations of femininity to include masculinity, and perhaps to point out that psychoanalytic theory, while amply describing the pathological female has neglected the male. It is easy to target the heavy cultural artillery of the military as an instance of the transformation of pathological masculinity into the Law, or to reveal the defensive layers that shut down the male self, especially when it takes such benign form as a fisherman or baseball player. But then, in these metaphoric ploys, Kelly merely stalls confrontation with her own “Gloria Patri.” It seems more probable, and far more interesting, that the “ideal of mastery” that Kelly herself has so thoroughly bought into, has actually everything to do with Mr. Lacan himself. In her previous work, just as she empowered him to speak for her own experience, so she empowered herself to speak for all women. And now, perhaps it is she, after all, who unconsciously does battle with the exercise machine of psychoanalytic theory—and its bias—which she has so lovingly embraced.

Jan Avgikos