Mary Kelly ‘If I see any hope it’s in the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of women of colour’

The Observer - The New Review - - Architecture -

Born in Iowa in 1941, artist Mary Kelly has been creat­ing works from a fem­i­nist and post­mod­ern per­spec­tive for the past 50 years, of­ten us­ing com­pressed lint from her tum­ble dryer. She has lived in Florence, Beirut and London, and now lives in Los An­ge­les, where she teaches at the Univer­sity of South­ern California. Her in­stal­la­tion Post­Par­tum Doc­u­ment, an ex­plo­ration of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween mother and child, caused furore for dis­play­ing stained nap­pies at the ICA in the mid-70s. Kelly’s lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion, Face-to-Face, is at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, from Thurs­day to 3 Novem­ber.

Tell us about your forth­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tion Face-to-Face…

This show is a lit­tle un­usual for me: it’s a sur­vey of works I’ve done re­lated to war and vi­o­lence since 1966, a 50-year pe­riod. I feel that the sub­ject has be­come more in­tensely cen­tral to how I think at the mo­ment. The ti­tle draws on Em­manuel Lev­inas, who talks about the face as the site of your eth­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing: it’s the point where you recog­nise “the other” and their vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and is also the mo­ment where it is im­pos­si­ble to kill some­one.

You’ve done a lot of work based around the protests of 1968, and the Arab spring in 2011 – do you feel sim­i­larly in­spired by the protests of the last few years?

The Mil­lion Women march was a won­der­ful and ex­cit­ing mo­ment. I haven’t done a work about that; I’m not a jour­nal­ist re­spond­ing to ev­ery is­sue. I will have to dis­til those facts and try to fil­ter them into a rather more per­sonal story. But the way we re­turn to those mo­ments, it’s not as though things are fin­ished – these is­sues are never over, you have to con­tin­u­ally ad­dress them. Why do you think lint works so well for your work?

I hap­pened upon the lint. I al­ways work in a studio that’s at home – I try to draw do­mes­tic things into the work – and I was in the kitchen. I heard a South African woman on the tele­vi­sion, tes­ti­fy­ing, de­scrib­ing how her son was shot. I was do­ing wash­ing and it just came to­gether, the voice and the idea of this very, very ephemeral ma­te­rial. I thought it had the qual­ity of rep­re­sent­ing what was left over, the residue of the trauma that’s passed on. It also re­ally ap­pealed to me be­cause of its rep­e­ti­tion – it has to be done in many units [some works can take up to 10,000 cy­cles] – in a way that car­ries these par­ti­cles of your own clothes and skin and things like that.

What’s go­ing through your mind when you’re putting on load 6,743?

Good ques­tion... “How can I get some­one else to do this for me?”

Do you think male and fe­male artists are treated dif­fer­ently?

It varies, of course, but there are dif­fer­ences. One is that – and for peo­ple of colour this would be the same – it can look like the prob­lem is be­ing ad­dressed, but it is more of a turnover at the bot­tom; at the high­est level, if you want to call the high­est level some­thing that’s en­dorsed by the mar­ket and the mu­se­ums, it’s the same. And I’ve no­ticed that the way some women have been writ­ten about, it’s al­ways about the work in ques­tion. There’s not the same riff they do for the men, which is to say where they came from, how they’re con­nected, who they in­flu­enced. They don’t give them a his­tor­i­cal pres­ence.

Are you wor­ried about how clos­ing bor­ders will af­fect artists’ minds and work?

I think it’s dev­as­tat­ing. Liv­ing all over very dif­fer­ent places gives you in­sight about how dif­fer­ent cul­tures and po­lit­i­cal sys­tems work, but it also shows you in some way how things are con­nected. I think that all bor­ders are anath­ema to art. In­ter­na­tion­al­ism is, I be­lieve, al­ways con­nected to move­ments that are pro­gres­sive and the op­po­site goes for clos­ing down.

Where do you find hope?

That is dif­fi­cult. In com­bi­na­tion with the per­pet­ual war and the rise of au­thor­i­tar­ian pop­ulism all over the place, it doesn’t look good. But there’s also so many move­ments: #MeToo and the un­be­liev­ably bril­liant stu­dents that demon­strated about gun vi­o­lence af­ter the shoot­ings. I think if I see any hope it’s in the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of women of colour: they are just on fire. If you look at most of the demon­stra­tions and or­gan­i­sa­tions that are ac­tive right now, the spokesper­son is usu­ally a young black woman, and that is hope­ful. In­ter­view by Kathryn Bromwich

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