Last month I went to the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. I enjoyed the space and light that has been opened up in the development of this old red brick building, and the way it now blurs the boundaries between the park and gardens outside and the wide, white spaces inside. I was especially struck by the way they have put together specific portraits from their permanent collection – where studies from the eighteenth century are hung next to contemporary paintings, sketches by unknown artists alongside the powerful works of Freud and Bacon. Here is the link to this exhibition on their website: Whitworth Gallery: Portraits
The majority of the works are drawings and paintings that hang on walls, but they have also included less conventional ‘portraits’ such as the mix of feminist voices in the stories that are central to Mary Kelly’s ‘Multi-Story House’ (2007). This small, warmly lit ‘glass house’ (the size of a garden shed) is what I want to focus on here.
In contrast with the images of all types of people on the surrounding walls, this bright object creates its portraits through words. Instead of responding to a representation of a specific body, reading these ‘stories’ summons up a hubbub of different voices. The words are all carved into acrylic panels in the same cursive style, all are in (or translated into) English, and all address the theme of feminism. But the words in each extract conjure up a myriad of mouths, because each speaker draws on a differing choice of words and set of contexts.
The narratives are taken from conversations with women of different generations about being a feminist, and to read them you have to move around all the sides of the house, look up at the sloping roof, go inside to read those that present their back to you from the outside. So it is a physical experience as well as a mental and emotional one, and one I felt I could ‘control’ by choosing which stories to read, by walking away to think about them, and returning later. However, the artist directs your experience of the relations between past and present by presenting all the younger women’s narratives on the outside, and the older generation of women (the same generation as the artist herself) on the inside.
Kelly said of this arrangement of time ‘you can’t be in both places‘ in a conversation with Paula McCloskey at the Whitworth in 2011. She also said that through this ‘dialogue’ between generations of women she is addressing the question of ‘what (-) you feel that you’re obliged to carry on in terms of the legacy.‘
Questions are fundamental to her work as an artist, she stated in this interview: ‘I recognised that if an artist has a brief, it’s to ask the question – so that’s where I began in my work. It’s not about the answers,’
I like that approach – it makes sense to me – and perhaps helps me work through why I find some art works so stimulating, so thought-provoking. They fill my mind with questions, they make me look again, physically or mentally.
Words are things
This is the title to a catalogue of an exhibition of her work in Warsaw in 2008. I don’t know if Kelly chose this title or not, but it caught my eye as it is so central to her work, especially in Multi-Story House, where we are in the collective presence of other feminists through their words. Words that you can see through, into the interior of the house, carved material symbols that take us on a journey into ourselves and into other selves.
In her conversation with McCloskey, Mary Kelly talked about the re-staging of a street theatre event, originally enacted in 1971, and she referred to the pleasure she remembered of being in the company of women acting together as feminists, a pleasure that re-occurred between the women involved in the re-staging in this century – the pleasure of a ‘collective presence‘. This kind of pleasure describes well how I felt as I read the stories, and walked round and peered into her Multi-Story House. I identified with the dialogue on the panels, and a felt a sense of belonging with these speakers from around the world, all actively embracing and re-affirming an identity that means so much to me too.
Paula McCloskey, in conversation with Mary Kelly, Studies in the Maternal, 4(1), 2012, http://www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk