New York

Mary Kelly

A diverse group of people—mostly, but not all, women—link arms in sodality to form a human barricade. They are clad in the sort of androgynous late-’60s and early-’70s accoutrements that now boast a certain second-generation vogue. Low-slung belted pants and peasant tunics abound, though there’s not a skirt in sight. The proceedings have a discernible gravity: One woman’s mouth is open in a yell while her associates stand by stoically. A sign held by another of the participants sets the scene: UNITE FOR WOMAN'S EMANCIPATION, its hand-lettered words read, accompanied by three vehement slashes of underlining.

Perhaps it hardly needs stating that this is a historical image, one plucked from the pages of Life magazine and documenting a 1970 Women’s Liberation demonstration, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. And yet, under Mary Kelly’s care, the photograph takes on a life of its own, refusing to keep its decorous place in the past. Indeed, the photograph has been made into a ninety-second film loop titled WLM Demo Remix (all works 2005), and as suggested by that designation, the imagery is one part archival and one part recreation—a kind of sampling and remaking of history that lends it a new authority. The older image never fully comes into focus, its blurry edges instead merging with and subtly giving way to a crisply defined new image that re-creates the first. Enlisting the help and the bodies of various young people (many of them her own students at UCLA) interested in the philosophies and legacies of the women’s movement, Kelly restaged the photograph some thirty-five years after it was taken. The clothes, poses, races, and faces are just approximate enough to allow for real differences between the versions, just similar enough to suggest literal and metaphorical continuities.

Perhaps the single largest discrepancy between the “then” and the “now” as one slips almost seamlessly into the other is a prop change. The signage moves from overtly political to out-and-out poetic, its new incarnation reading FROM STONE TO CLOUD. The phrase is a line from Sylvia Plath’s 1960 poem “Love Letter,” which likens the epiphanic effects of romance to gravity-defying ascension. Kelly playfully borrows and recasts such hyperbole throughout the exhibition, as in Seemed Right, three laser-cut, backlit acrylic sheets whose scored letters spell out three simple but telling phrases the artist has heard women using again and again to describe the effects of the solidarity movement upon them: SEEMED RIGHT, JUST MADE SENSE . . . , and LIKE A LIGHTNING BOLT.

A second, much longer laser-cut-acrylic narrative, titled Sisterhood is POW, snaked around the larger gallery. A seventy-two-foot-long epic poem of Eros-laden protest, it is based on Kelly’s recollections of her own participation in the 1970 Miss World protest. The artist’s thoughts wander from the pageant’s emphasis on “teeth and leg-length” to the activities outside the Royal Albert Hall, which hosted the event, where demonstrators—described cheekily by Kelly as “women with abnormal finger-length”—gathered, protested, and performed. Flashing Nipple Remix, three black-and-white transparencies in light boxes, presents another take on that day in London: Reperforming a piece of street theater executed at the protest, several young women with flashing lights affixed to their breasts and crotches gyrate wildly enough that, when captured by the camera, their motions produce starry, glittering abstractions.

Nowhere in the press release for Kelly’s show does the word “feminism” appear, but not because it doesn’t loom large in the exhibition. The artist once suggested, “[P]erhaps we shouldn’t maintain this formulation ‘feminist art,’ because an ideology doesn’t constitute a style. Rather, I would say ‘art informed by feminism.’” Kelly’s “Love Songs” (the show’s title borrows and alters that of Plath’s poem) are, taken together, irreverent hymns to those self-selecting (and it would seem relatively few) members of today’s generation at once deeply invested in and yet necessarily distanced from the feminisms (there are many) that preceded them. These are ideas and histories that, as Kelly suggests, allow us to produce powerful remixes of our own.

Johanna Burton