New York

Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly’s Mea Culpa, 1999, gave the initial impression of being one long, thin gray banner extending entirely around the perimeter of the vast front gallery. In fact, like a film strip that breaks down into shorter segments, the work comprises four separate panels, one for each wall of the exhibition space. Each part is further divided into four sections and displays, against a white matte background, sixteen to twenty swags of light gray material. Uniformly shaped but tonally variegated, the draped material seems soft and ephemeral, like clouds seen through the window of an airplane. The unusual substance Kelly used to produce this effect is compressed lint, into which she embedded a narrow strip of block type. The letters form words, and the words, like exceptionally graphic news stories, narrate horrific stories of war trauma and victimization. “She watched soldiers in a rice paddy beat her daughter with the butts of their rifles until she was dead,” begins the narrative to “Phnom Penh, 1975.” “Then she had headaches and trouble with her eyes. To distract herself, she worked at the bridge of her nose with a knife. When the pain subsided, she could no longer see.”

As with Gloria Patri, 1992, Mea Culpa furthers Kelly’s interest in the phenomenological process of reading. But unlike the 1992 work, which displayed polished aluminum shields and trophies to generate a parodic spectacle of masculinity, Mea Culpa is more reminiscent of Kelly’s past focus on everyday processes and on the experience of women, both of which characterized her groundbreaking work of the ’70s, Postpartum Document. What is most impressive about her current project is the way she has integrated her narrative with the effect of a specific medium. The work has the same visual presence as the felt works of Robert Morris, for example, without compromising the critical procedures that have come to represent her particular take on and contribution to Conceptualism.

Kelly combats the reduction of atrocities to bylines and sound bites through the medium of lint, a material associated with the everyday domestic labor of women. Gleaned from four thousand pounds of clothing, this delicate substance threatens to disintegrate at any moment, representing what remains after destruction. For caught in the screen of the clothes dryer is not only the detritus from the maelstrom of the machine but also the integral substance of the fabrics being dried. Each cycle thins out those fabrics ever so slightly until, like the victims and their stories, they have become so worn as to be discarded.

This brings us to the sense of humility and guilt proposed by the title, Mea Culpa (“I am guilty”). In the end, the finger points to us as both witnesses who vicariously experience traumatic events as they are filtered through the media as well as collaborators who are complicit with the perpetrators in the way we close our eyes, turn our backs, or cast off such atrocities as someone else’s problem.

Alexander Alberro