October 11, 2007

Ma Kelly's Boy

A provocative and seminal artwork, Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document (1973-1979) is the archetype for the consideration of femininity defined through theory. Kelly’s clear appreciation for Jacques Lacan’s views on the social construction of subjectivity provides remarkable evidence of one female artist’s emergence from the traditional methodologies of her interpretive field - art – and her search for other possibilities of approach to art.

An expansion of the “work” across 139 objects, drawings, texts and graphs, PPD is conceptual in its scope by challenging accepted ideas concerning the “object.” Kelly’s time-based project records her son’s entry into the social order at the same time that it disrupts the artwork as singular entity. Taking her cue from linguistic theories (via Lacan) Kelly proposed that femininity is defined through its representational differences instead of essential biological differences between the sexes.(1)

Focusing on motherhood as under-recognized labor, PPD would eventually be a six-part installation which visualized Kelly’s relationship with her son (“K”) from his birth to his “socialization” when he acquires speech and writing skills. PPD would also “analyze the reciprocity of the process of socialization of mother and child.”(2) In Kelly’s analysis (Lacanian), her son defines her as much as she defines him through “mothering.”

A mother’s labor is generally ignored in Western culture since it occurs in the private realm outside of the capitalist sphere. To categorize the job of the mother “as essential and biological is to naturalize this labor, placing it outside of social conditions.”(3) Kelly’s PPD contradicts this categorization and does much to “de-naturalize” the idea of motherhood through her theoretical position.

Theoretical feminism denies that femininity is determined fully through biology but is a social construction of the subject positing instead that a woman's essence exists within the actions and language of her private world, as she (the subject) is bound within her familial and social identity as “mother.” Thus, PPD encapsulates the anti-essentialist position that would continue to gain prominence among the work of other artists and critics during the late 1970’s (Cindy Sherman, Victor Burgin, Laura Mulvey), work that would concern how gender and identity were constructed through representation.

An undertaking of genuine complexity and accomplishment, PPD yields its rewards yet individual artifacts can be perplexing and arcane. After all, it was Kelly’s absorption of Lacan that prompted her utilization of the “Lacanian algebra” as additional texts and graphs within PPD.(4) Still, faux scientific babble gives way to earnest anxieties as Ma Kelly worries about K’s unpredictable rages:

“K’s aggressiveness has resurfaced and made me feel anxious about going to work. I can’t count the number of ‘small wounds’ I’ve got as the result of his throwing, kicking, biting etc. . . I’m not the only object of his wrath but I’m probably the source. Maybe I should stay at home. . . but we need the money.”

This is a key passage that ironically interjects the public sphere of capitalism into the Kelly Household. Ma has taken a job. And where’s Papa? Again, this journal entry requires further re-assessment and a closer reading on our part. Does the introduction of Ma Kelly as public laborer negate her project’s artistic purity? And is the putative Papa complicit in this transmutation of private mother-wife to public artist-worker?

Kelly would later refer to her work as "my archaeology of the everyday."(5) It is an everyday that encompasses those two different worlds of labor – the domestic and the artistic – and a document that “interrogates the boundaries between public and private realms of experience.”(6) Moreover, taking her inspiration from Moira Gatens’ Feminism and Philosophy, Helen Molesworth has stated that Kelly’s “introduction of the problem of such labor leads, in turn, to a consideration of the relations between public and private, which emerges as a defining issue in the discussion of 1970s art and the legacy of feminism’s intervention in it.”(7)

Image: © Copyright by Mary Kelly.


1. See previous post on Kelly and PPD.

2. From the Generali Foundation site.

3. Molesworth, Helen. From “House Work and Art Work” in Art After Conceptual Art, Alexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann, eds., Vienna, 2006, 77.

4. Macey, David. Critical Theory, London, 2000, 223. [Lacan’s later work contained “quasi-mathematical formulae” that were to be used as teaching devices “designed to ensure that psychoanalytic theory can be subjected to a formalization and to guarantee its integral transmission.”]

5. Kelly, Mary. Post Partum Document, London, 1985, xvi.

6. Op. cit., 77.

7. Op. cit., 71.

1 comment:

Camplin said...

Great review of an artist. Many of the feminitist artists are so daring in their work.