Los Angeles

Mary Kelly

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

In a career defined by attempts to give physical form to complex language-based narratives, Mary Kelly has generally kept her work visually lean. Her installations tend to betray the aesthetic inheritance from the Minimalism and Conceptualism that defined her generation’s coming of age. As a viewer, I have found myself at times wanting more—not because I wished the work were luscious or heroic (either would seem out of sync with Kelly’s interest in psychological residue, trauma, personal history identity formation, human interactions, and social hierarchies), but because I wanted it to catch my eye and hit me in the gut as much as it got me thinking. Well, I’ve learned my lesson. With The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi, 2001, Kelly has delivered a work that got me on every level and didn’t let go.

Curiously, this sensually rich piece, made out of nothing but dryer lint, is as sparse as anything Kelly has done. Using a method she debuted in a 1999 word, Mea Culpa (two twenty-foot panels of which were simultaneously on view at Rosamund Felsen Gallery), Kelly equipped the arc-shaped lint screen of a clothes dryer with stencils and then dried numerous loads of her own black and white clothing. The result is a series of curved gray mini-blankets of lint. Running straight across each is a bit of text in black sans-serif typeface; when the sections are hutted end to end and mounted on the wall, the words connect to form a narrative. In Mea Culpa, the lint forms a kind of scalloped pattern, like the pointed waves of water in a child’s drawing, but in The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi the sections alternate between curve-up and curve-down, forming a gently snaking line that runs at eye level around the walls. The narrative cutting straight down the center through the undulations loosely follows the traditional structure of a ballad to tell the true, albeit media-filtered and now fabled stow of Kastriot, an ethnic Albanian boy who, at eighteen months, the age when he would have begun to form language skills and develop his own identity, was left for dead in a Kosovo battlefield by his mother. He was rescued by Serbs, who assumed he was one of their own. and renamed Zoran, onlv to be abandoned again during the NATO occupation and renamed Lirim by Albanian hospital nurses. Months later, the boy was reunited with his parents when the refugees returned to their homes, and the first word out of his mouth was “bab” (dad).

Even if you don’t read a word of it, the piece has a strange effect, a kind of dull turbulence generated by the oscillation that is at once disturbing and soothing. The material form draws you into the words and seems an apt accompaniment, with its suggestions of domesticity, cleansing, child rearing, and ephemerality. The sound-wave pattern invites a variety of associations—give and take, positive and negative, ebb and flow, kindness and cruelty, tragedy and miracle—that seem interchangeably appropriate.

Kelly’s ballad was set to music by composer Michael Nyman; the piece was performed for the first time at the opening by his string quartet accompanied by soprano Sarah Leonard. For the rest of the show’s run, a video documenting the performance was projected in the rear of the space. The music naturally lent drama to the installation, but no more so than Kelly’s carefully structured language and precise display. So much text-based art leaves you glassy-eyed after the first sentence, but Kelly’s piece lures you in at the start and keeps you hooked until the end, guiding you around the room, controlling your pace with its meter. For better or worse, its troubling tale stays with you long after you have left the museum.

Christopher Miles