Saturday, 11 June 2011

World Exclusive. 'A Secret Agreement': Mary Kelly and Kelly Barrie.

Words and photographs by Ruth Skilbeck.

This essay based on my interview with prominent 1970s feminist artist Mary Kelly and her artist son Kelly Barrie, on their collaborative installation at the 2008 Sydney Biennale, was set to be published in Art World, a sadly short-lived global contemporary art publication, that folded just as the story was going to press in July 2009. Such things happen in the media and the past couple of years turbulence in the mainstream press is no more keenly felt than in the arts media; yet as the doors of the old publishing model close, new doors to communication open in fresh forms of digital media. Celebrating the spirit of re-invention and re-birth, I have decided to publish the essay on my personal Blog, to coincide with the launch of The M Word- Real Mothers in Contemporary Art (Demeter Press, 2011), a collection which includes extracts from a conversation held between Mary, Kelly and myself at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. Also included here are original photographs I took of the artists in their collaborative installation at the 2008 Biennale of Sydney at the MCA. The title term 'A Secret Agreement' is a reference to a quote from Walter Benjamin, "There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one' in his  'On the Concept of History' (1940); a term that Kelly and Barrie used in their next collaborative exhibition at Queens Nails Projects in San Francisco as part of the 2008 California Biennale.  Ruth Skilbeck

'A secret agreement':
Mary Kelly and Kelly Barrie

In the 1970s the American artist Mary Kelly – a leading figure in the women’s art movement – gained international prominence with her groundbreaking conceptual work Post-Partum Document (1973–79). With its references to psychoanalysis (particularly the work of Jacques Lacan) and the mother–child relationship, Post-Partum Document explores, as the artist describes it, the “intricacies of maternal desire.”

Figure 2: Mary Kelly and Kelly Barry photographed by Ruth Skilbeck with Kelly’s Antepartum, 1973. Video loop transferred from Super 8 film, black-and-white, silent, 1:30mins projected dimensions 170 x 220cm.                                                 Photograph © Copyright Ruth Skilbeck.

 For six years Kelly ritualistically documented, in a series of text-based works and collage, the relationship between herself and her young son. The resulting large-scale installation – comprising graphs, drawings, recordings, scribbles, handprints and even dirty diaper-liners – records the boy’s development from infancy through to the age of five. The series is also a record of the mother’s thoughts and feelings, with each new record functioning like an act of text-based semiotic liberation. An extraordinary monumental work, Post-Partum Document inscribes a process of “becoming” – of Kelly becoming a mother, and of her baby becoming a child.

Feminist Conceptual Self-based Art

Although Post-Partum Document has long since entered the canon of contemporary art, when its first sections were exhibited at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1976 the work sparked outrage. This was due to its subject matter (the tabloid media, in particular, sensationalised the elevation of babies’ nappies as “art”) and to Kelly having brought together two forms of artmaking that were conventionally seen as separate, even antithetical: conceptual art and self-based narrative art. This is precisely the legacy of Kelly’s work, and why it continues to inspire debate more than 30 years after its creation: it uses the cognitive approach of conceptual art and the subjectivity of feminism to produce a work which fuses “aesthetics, politics, psychoanalysis and radical formalism”.  At what point did Kelly decide her mammoth sequential installation was complete? “When [my son] wrote his name, I saw it as the end of the work because it was like ‘he’s the author of his own text now and I’d better not go further than that’.”


In 2008 Mary Kelly was in Sydney as a participating artist in the 2008 Biennale of Sydney. She was there at the behest of the Biennale’s Artistic Director, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who invited Kelly to make a collaborative work with her son, Kelly Barrie – an artist in his own right as well as the subject/object of Post-Partum Document. “I never had any intention of doing anything with [Kelly] again,” laughed Mary Kelly when I spoke with her in Sydney, “I was going to keep my distance! But [the collaborative work for the Biennale] was an interesting way to reconsider certain things; a personal as well as political history.

Kelly Barrie, now aged 35, is based in Los Angeles. His photomedia art work, which in recent years has been exhibited in Los Angeles and New York, blurs the boundaries between photography and drawing. His very large (12’ by 12’) composite digital C prints – such as Tree of Tenere (2008) and Mustang Willow (2008) are made from 100s of stitched-together digital photographs taken by Kelly of drawings he makes with his feet  of  ‘lost’ images - such as car crash fatalities -  that he finds on the internet. For Kelly, drawing  is an immersive performative ritual: dancing in his bare feet, through photo-luminescent  ‘glo’ powder spread across the floor of his studio, “using a series of improvisational slides, sweeps, toe-rakes as well as c-walks and snake walks taken from local hip-hop forms”. He then takes digital photographs of the swirled traces of light powder, that he stitches together; using his studio as a dark room, the blinds functioning as an ‘aperture’ to control the light.

In Tree of Tenéré (2008), a light-jet print mounted on aluminum, the title alludes to a mythologised tree of the same name in the Sahara Desert. The tree – the only remnant of a long-dead ancient forest and once considered the most isolated tree on earth – no longer exists, after being knocked down and destroyed by a truck in 1973, the year of Kelly Barrie’s birth. He explained: “I  was knocked out by the strangeness of this lone figure standing in a desert landscape with no other trees within 250 miles. When I learned about it's accidental demise…I started to imagine past travelers scanning the horizon for it as they were entering or leaving this extreme desert region.  For me, it seemed to articulate the end of a political climate of isolationism, the end of the cold war and the beginning of the social movements that have defined the present generation.”

For their collaborative work for the Biennale of Sydney, Mary Kelly and Kelly Barrie made a luminous and profound video installation combining two works. On one wall Mary Kelly’s Antepartum (1973) was projected in a continuous loop. The grainy black-and-white Super 8 footage transferred to video showed the belly of a pregnant woman (the artist herself, pregnant with her son Kelly), full as a moon and caressed by maternal hands. Opposite this was Kelly Barrie’s video projection – Astralfields and Other Manifestations (2008) – showing a field of pink- and dark-coloured lights resembling scattering galactic implosions of energy in an expanding spatial universe. Rather than existing as entirely separate works, the small movements of the unborn child and mother’s hands in Antepartum were coordinated with the light-rays pulsing from Astral Fields, with the intersecting light beams from both works performing an ancient convergence between the creative energies of life and art, and the rhythmic pre-linguistic exchange of mother and child.

Figure 2: Mary Kelly and Kelly Barrie photographed by Ruth Skilbeck with Barrie’s, Astralfields and Other Manifestations 2008. Video, endless loop, black-and-white, silent, 1:30 mins
                                                         Photograph © Copyright Ruth Skilbeck.

For both Mary Kelly and Kelly Barrie, the idea of being “collaborators” is still novel. When I ask how long they have been collaborating as artists Mary laughs and says, “Well, consciously we haven’t been collaborating at all! But what [the Biennale’s Artistic Director] Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev made us recognise is that of course we had collaborated on one of my first and perhaps most well-known works, Post-Partum Document… Carolyn thought it would be interesting to return to the work now, with Kelly being an artist, and for him to respond to it. At first we thought ‘well, that’s a little weird, can we do it?’ [laughs] but then it generated a lot of really interesting conversations. It was actually Kelly who came up with the installation plan; I thought it was really interesting and decided to go ahead with the project."

Kelly Barrie says of his collaboration with his mother: “When I looked at both images together [Antepartum and Astral Fields], the aspect of Mary’s work that I wanted to respond to directly was the sort of ‘live action’ of the movements within the womb which appear like intermittent bumps on the surface of a sphere. At the same time, I wanted to retain a strong presence of my own practice within that, so taking a still and animating it was one way of reactivating that space with Mary’s."  

Since Post Partum Document, Mary Kelly has made major series including Interim (1984-89) exploring constructions of feminine identity beyond motherhood and middle age, and Gloria Patri (1992 )– a series of inscribed aluminum shields made in response to the first Gulf War.

Her recent works include a collaborative installation with her partner, Kelly’s father, Ray Barrie:Love Songs: Multi-Story House” (2007), shown at Documenta 2007. Intergenerational texts by women around the world are laser-cut into acrylic panes set into a garden house; a four- piece light-work, enacting a dialogue between Mary Kelly’s generation  – with a younger generation. 

Artist Son of a Feminist Artist 

As the child of one of the world’s most prominent female conceptual artists and the subject/object of her most famous work, I asked Kelly Barry about the influence of feminism on his own practice. “Well, certainly in terms of trying to occupy the symbolic space of both the object and the subject, it does become a sort of examination of the power relations within the visual hierarchy. Taking a picture and being conscious of my position when I am using that apparatus certainly informs my work. I’m constantly interrogating the graphic practice in terms of how it works itself out and, specifically, since I’m using myself as a subject, how one creates a sort of visual system of language within that... I do feel that it’s important to consciously deconstruct these relationships within my own practice.”

Thirty years, the length of a generation, has now elapsed since the end of the 1970s, the defining decade of the international women’s art movement. Reviews have recently begun into the long term impacts and significance of 1970s feminism on art and culture. (Witness the two feminism-related exhibitions in the United States in 2007 – Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Global Feminisms at Brooklyn Museum, New York.). Perhaps there is no more concrete way to see the legacy of the mantra of second wave feminism, ‘the personal is political’  than in the realm of art making. Stirring in the pre-linguistic dreamtime, pushing into conscious realms of self-awareness, in the secret agreement between mother and child and the desire to hold on and the need to let go – a process of becoming oneself.

Words and Photographs © Copyright Ruth Skilbeck  

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