19th February 2011 — 12th June 2011
A retrospective of the major American artist Mary Kelly on these shores, where she spent twenty years and produced her early masterpiece Post-Partum Document (1973-79), is long overdue. This seminal work lies at the heart of the exhibition and the issues it addresses so provocatively are more pertinent than ever. PPD is a rigorous analysis of the mother-child relationship, which Kelly asserts as a valid subject for art. She explores the contradictions for a woman artist between her creative and procreative roles. Its presentation is a timely reminder of how little cultural attitudes to working mothers have changed over the last forty years.
During this moving and visceral progression through the stages of a child’s early development, a young personality emerges as society gradually penetrates the exclusive mother-child relationship. Kelly demonstrates the emotional and physical labour involved in motherhood. Through the feeding charts and soiled nappy liners, which caused such a ruckus when exhibited at the ICA in 1976, to her analysis of her son’s first words, Kelly addresses intriguing philosophical questions about how we meditate our experience of the world. Casts of the boy’s fist are juxtaposed with journal notes telling of Kelly’s guilt over her career and the psychological battles of separation anxiety. Insects discovered on walks are labeled scientifically as her son becomes aware of sexual difference. In the last cycle, Kelly records her son’s acquisition of written language alongside her anxieties about his education in Rosetta Stone style panels.
The show opens and closes with works from Kelly’s Love Songs (2005-7) series, addressing the relationship of women today with their feminist ‘mothers’ of the 70s. The illuminated Multi-story House (2007) invites us in to read extracts from conversations with women of different generations about feminism, cut into its panels. Such works are at once optimistic and nostalgic for a missed moment of clarity, collective action and shared goals.
Kelly gives conceptual art a personal and political content in Interim Part I: Corpus (1984-85), which runs throughout the exhibition. These fifteen pairs of panels contain photographs of an item of women’s clothing captioned with one of Charcot’s Hysteric’s Attitudes Passionelles alongside a text in silver cursive. Representations of the female body are eschewed in favour of compelling accounts of the lived experience and performance of female bodies in middle age. The subjects’ feelings of invisibility or desirability are caught reflected in the eyes of their students, partners, children or friends.
The text in the show, of which there is much, always requires effort to read. In Habitus (2010), an Anderson shelter incised with childhood memories of the Second World War, the text can only be read in a mirror. In Gloria Patri (1992) you are reminded of your own subjectivity, which is reflected in the polished shields of text interrogating the masculine culture of war and sport. Meanwhile, the lyrics of The Ballad Of Kastriot Rexhepi (2001), telling the story of the separation and eventual reunion of a baby and his family during the Balkan war of the 90s, are painstakingly picked out in lint from the back of a tumble drier. Kelly points up the difficulty inherent in sharing experience and reminds us of the partial nature of any view.