‘Words are things’: Mary Kelly’s Multi-Story house

 

IMG_20150226_133142 mary kelly

Mary Kelly: Multi-Story House

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.

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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.

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Mary Kelly: Mea Culpa 1997 from marykellyartist.com

Reference

Paula McCloskey, in conversation with Mary Kelly, Studies in the Maternal, 4(1), 2012, http://www.mamsie.bbk.ac.uk

Christine Kowal Post

I want to draw attention to this sculptor because she asks questions about identity, representation and our place in the world through her work with wood, where I ask similar ones through my work with words.

You can see her sculptures and installations on her website www.christinekowalpost.com.

Twelve Witches by Christine Kowal Post. Photograph by Jane Dickinson

Twelve Witches by Christine Kowal Post.
Photograph by Jane Dickinson

This photo is from her 2003-2004 installation ‘Twelve Witches’.  In this work she is asking questions about identity and difference.  As she says on her website:

My witches explore ideas about ‘the other’, insiders and outsiders, the familiar and the unfamiliar.

She also says that they are ‘an effort towards understanding‘.  I like that way of thinking about the creative and theoretical work we produce, the research we do, the blogs we write.

A lot of her work explores gendered representations of female identity, such as in ‘Amazons’ and ‘Strong Women’.  These sculptures give me another way of thinking about myself as a woman, as a self that is a particular human body.  Her sculptures embrace aspects of womanhood that are mostly hidden away from daily images of what it is to be a woman.

In her more recent work ‘They think they are fallen angels’ (see website) she is asking questions about our place in this world, about our relations with the other species we share this planet with, and our views of ourselves as a ‘noble’ species. Taking Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as one of her starting points she has created an installation that invites us to see ourselves from a fresh perspective.

from 'Twelve Witches' by Christine Kowal Post. Photograph by Jane Dickinson

from ‘Twelve Witches’ by Christine Kowal Post.
Photograph by Jane Dickinson