Review

UCLA Department of Art Lectures: Mary Kelly

The Hammer Museum
Los Angeles
Vanessa Place

On February 25, 2010, Mary Kelly gave what she termed her “lifetime lecture” at the Hammer Museum.1 Kelly is a professor at the University of California, and each faculty member of the department of art presents a public lecture as part of an ongoing series. Kelly reckoned that, given the numbers, it would be “a lifetime” by the time her turn came around again. And so she used her turn to talk about her work as a body of work: an artist’s statement of the big-picture variety. But as Kelly spoke, it occurred to me that what I was watching was not a faculty presentation, or public lecture, or artist’s statement-even one writ large-but rather a performance of a performance of an artist’s statement, one that engaged the apparatus of auditorium, audience, museum, oeuvre, slide show, microphone, lighting (bright and dimmed), and full-time tenured faculty position to form a tensile engagement with temporality, narrativity, and the particularly plastic form of attention the public grants its more iconic members. And in this, the body of the work became the body of the artist, and, as discourse would have it, vice versathe artist being finally the work of the work itself.2

Kelly divided her talk into a detailed discussion of several major pieces, beginning with a close read of her now-fundamental Post-Partum Document (1973-1979) through to her Flashing Nipple Happening, Documenta XII (2007), a reworking of her Flashing Nipple Remix (2005), including, inter alia, Interim (1984-1989), Gloria Patri (1992), Circa 1968 (2004), and Multi-Story House (2007). Although her exegesis of each was an admirable exercise in concision and amplification, it was the broader remark that resounded. For, while Kelly described her work as “project based,” what emerged from her talk was a projet-a plan, an outline, something necessarily involving labor and premeditation. There was the primary labor of the birth of a consciousness alongside the birth of a specifically female consciousness, and there was the one (not one) that is always aware of labor as (gendered) consciousness, and, throughout, there was a studied consciousness of labor as language in the sense of the structuring exchange. I am because of the currency of me, vis-a-vis.

All works by Mary Kelly. Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

All works by Mary Kelly. Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

Taking these precepts in the order presented in the lecture, Post-Partum Document (1973-1979), is an installation in six installments. Each installment is a combination of documentation and design: physical objects, such as fecal-stained diaper liners and scraps of baby’s comforter, act as proof of developmental stages, such as weaning and the transitional object. These small body-objects are combined with large thought-objects, such as graphs, grids, and diagrams. Ultimately, body and mind come together in the final installment, in the form of the segregate self of the child who signs his own name (a signature set in stone).3 Born of Lacanian psychoanalysis; 1970s British, collectivist feminism, and 1970s conceptual art practices,4Post-Partum Document served to critique each by way of the other. Moving from the direct orality of nursing and weaning to the sublimated orality of speech and writing, Post-Partum Document famously chronicled the emergence of the consciousness of the child as subject as well as the consciousness of the mother as Mother.5 Post-Partum Document provided proof of a specifically “female fetishism (the various substitutes in which the mother invests in order to disavow separation from the child).”6And thus the Mother is shown as Mother, barred that is, in the Lacanian sense of systemic or constitutional incompleteness: the thing that will always-must always- separate the signifier from the signified. It occurred to me while listening to Kelly thatonce the child acquires the ability to sign his (mother’s) name, language serves not only as the child’s introduction to the symbolic order and the mother’s castration, as explicated by Kelly herself,7 but also as the mother’s re-instantiation as signatory of that order-the “thing” that throws order itself into being.8 In other words, “thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee.”9 The labor of the child is to come into language, i.e., to come into being. And the labor of the mother is not the birth of the child, but the birth of herself as one who bears another into being. Put another way: the labor of the child is language; the labor of the mother is image.

All works by Mary Kelly. Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

All works by Mary Kelly. Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

Like the several selves it is to serve, female consciousness is revealed by Kelly as necessarily multiple, necessarily lingual. This was most directly represented in Kelly’s lecture by Multi-Story House (with Ray Barrie, 2007), a greenhouse structure where various statements made by younger women (“My mother was a feminist”) appear on exterior walls while statements made by the preceding generation are inscribed inside (“Everyone had a voice”). Though one may enter the structure to see the interior script, one may also look through the clear cursive writing on the otherwise opaque acrylic panels. Elegance, I thought, disguised as simplicity. Again, the materiality of language (the hand in the handwriting) betrays its signification: while the statements appear plain and to their points, the clouded space around them forces the reader/viewer to literally see through each, turning each reading/viewing into not just an encounter with history or ancestry, but with the transparency of subjectivity and the necessary constriction of perspective that Erwin Panofsky noted was (symbolically) required for a stable point of view. Within dynamism, stasis. Within language, image. With one, always another.

In the beginning of Jacques Lacan’s seminar on the concept of analysis, Mme. Aubry says that while she understands that hate lies at the conjunction of the imaginary and the real, “what I don’t understand quite so well is finding love at the conjunction of the symbolic and the imaginary.”10 Lacan responds by invoking “the structuration of speech in search of truth on the model of those allegorical paintings which proliferated in the romantic era, like virtue pursing crime, aided by remorse.11And allegory is everywhere in Kelly’s work, although it’s not truth she’s after but the structuring search itself.12 For, as I have written elsewhere, it is allegory that animates conceptualism: not the cogent injunction referenced by Lacan in his seminar, nor the shattered narrative adored by Benjamin, who knew that ruins are better than castles, but the allegory of the narrative impulse, that which churns consciousness in all its forms, including the ostensibly eschewed.13 For the allegory manifest in conceptualism is the allegory of the allegory: “The search of truth” is the profound and trivial desire for sense-making, for schemas of relationships between things, for causes and effects, call and response, in this order. What the best conceptual work does is refuse to prescribe specific content to the concept as container. The point is not to answer the question what is the work about, but to question the work as another question. As much as Kelly interrogates the feminine, in all its fabricated forms, her interrogation is more fundamentally about interrogation; at the real risk of de minimis collapse, Kelly repeatedly asks the famous Lacanian question che vuoi (“What do you want?”). But hers is a question marked by its hook: Just as Lacan posited Oedipus as the effect, not the cause of symbolic castration, Kelly’s work returns again and again to the question of the question- What’s it to you? Meaning, what’s it to?

All works by Mary Kelly. Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

All works by Mary Kelly. Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

But I’ve jumped ahead. In real time and in lecture-time, Multi-Story House (2007) followed Interim (1984-1989), an exhibition containing thirty panels set in triptychs, arranged in four parts, each part a part of feminist discourse (Corpus, Pecunia, Historia, Potestas).14 In her Hammer discussion, Kelly confirmed that Interim gives the question mark precedence, noting that she has always believed in the absolute right to speak, contingent upon the speech being an interrogation. Parveen Adams has written about the act of interpretation and transference love in Interim and “the question” as the pivot-point of discourse between work and viewer.15 In her 1991 essay, Adams concluded that Kelly had succeeded in Interim in emptying out the object for the subject of the viewer: in short, succeeded in performing the discursive role of the analyst in clearing a space that the subject may fill with its own desire. But I didn’t see Interim at the Hammer—I saw Mary Kelly and a series of images of Interim, a discourse enveloping another discourse about discourse, the thing around the thing being talked about which, like the object of desire, is put in front of us as a point of attention, not as a means of resolution. So I saw a story of making. And in this story of making, Kelly returned by way of the prepositional caption (the “what’s it to“) to something Adams touched on in 1991: the ekphratic moment.16 Adams compared Kelly’s refusal to supply the viewer with answers to Virgil’s description of Aeneas weeping upon seeing a wall frieze of the Trojan War. For Adams, the significance of this ekphratic moment is “in” Aeneas “as subject of the signifier…There is a subject supposed to know and there is signification.”17 But two additional points need to be made. First, Aeneas appears to misread the wall-classical ekphrasis was notoriously about point of view and the subjective imperative-i.e., part of the work of the narrative pause in epic poetry was to show that the subject didn’t know.18 Second, the representation of representation is fundamental to any written representation of the subject. The mother markers of Post-Partum Document become, in their retelling, less fetish objects than icons of a kind of cultural performance. In that case, they act as icons attesting to an iconic and (now) i-canonical (figurally unrepresented / linguistically re-presented) female body. And in the Hammer, they became the iconic representation of the female artist.

This leads me to Flashing Nipple Happening, Documenta XII (2007), Kelly’s Situationist-inflected reimaging of the flashing nipple street theater protest during the Miss World 1971 pageant in London. In the world of the female nipple, one is medical (the breast exam) or maternal, two are sexual, and those that come in multiples and blink electronically signal an airport strip club. The clip played by Kelly at the Hammer showed the performance’s female participants suiting up in all black, strapping on their female apparatus (suggesting-how could it not?-that it’s not the unity of the phallus that’s wanting, but the three-in-one of the mammaries + vagina), and hollering up and down a hill to dash, dance, and generally play banshee in the deep dark of a Documenta night. So the nipple (and cunt) flash flesh as esse, or spirit, and spirit as the trans-subjective, multiple “I am” that Woman has played as “im/age.” Thus serving up the female image as the con-textual “shield” that heroes look at that shields them from the brutal fact of their absolute negativity. L’homme n’existe pas. At the Hammer, Kelly said that when Post-Partum Document debuted, Rosalind Krauss told her: “This would have been fine if you had only done it as a book.” In this, Krauss forgot that books are not bound by their covers, or rather, that the book unbound and put in a frieze or set in a shield is still a book, and the writing on the wall is always text and context.

All works by Mary Kelly. Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

All works by Mary Kelly. Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery.

In a 1984 essay, Kelly asked: “How is a radical, critical and pleasurable positioning of the woman as spectator to be accomplished?”19 The question lies in its passive voice: “to be” betrays the allegorical gag (gag as in the thing stuffed in the mouths of many hostages and some sex partners. For in my Hammer experience of Kelly, she was articulating the narrative caesura inhabited by the work rather than exhibiting it. She became, in her retelling, that which so much of her work gestures towards but refuses to be: the blinking signifier of the signifying order. Not the master, because the master is nominally veiled in the cloak of mastery, the invisible cloak of the apparatus, but the more interesting overseer, the one (not one) who administers both apparatus and signification, who is responsible for and instantiates signification, but who is clearly working within an overt apparatus, meaning that the frame is overtly seen, and once seen, overtly capable of misconstruction. The multiple-in-one whose signature is everywhere in the sense of as-creation, but whose creations are up for grabs. Ready for dissembly. For mastery is not by nature, but by trade.20 In this, Kelly conjures the original Kantian Subjekt, the combined subjectus, a political or “legal” self, and subjectum, a private/interior self, which makes the possibility of a transcendent subject less romantic and (arguably) more imperative as a form of ethical and aesthetic exchange.21 If one is, one has an obligation to be.

Thus, inasmuch as Kelly’s work has masked, erased, rendered immaterial, linguistically conjured, and legerdemained the female figure, the female figure that stood before us at the Hammer, the female figure finally made by Mary Kelly, was Mary Kelly, icon and index. In the original English translation of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953), the “Childhood” section begins with the iconic line: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” In the book’s new translation, the line reads: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” Kelly has made of herself that missing, yet ever present, misreadable “a.” Or, in her words: “Well, language is culture, right?”22

Vanessa Place is a writer and lawyer, and co-director of Les Figues Press.

Footnotes

  1. Mary Kelly’s lecture is available as a podcast on the Hammer Museum’s website, http:// hammer.ucla.edu/watchlisten/watchlisten/show_id/272979/ show_type/video?browse= none&category=0&search= (accessed May 14, 2010).
  2. As a prefatory matter, Kelly did not present her lecture as a performance. This is my unsolicited interpretation. By treating her talk indexically, I am about to commit the sin of reductivism and collapse, a sin inherent in iconism, and integral to the public lecture.
  3. The signature, it should be noted, being that physical mark that identifies its maker as a legally cognizable subject, and authenticates the document to which it is consciously appended. It should also be noted that Kelly’s fusion of mind and body (what French philosopher Christine Buci-Glucksman calls “the senti-mental”) was particularly prescient. While at the time Post-Partum Document was made, Kelly might have been signaling a specifically female situation with this mind/body combination, we now know that all we are is a discreet corpus, and that consciousness is but one of its discharges.
  4. Juli Carson, “(Re)Viewing Mary Kelly’s ‘Post-Partum Document,'”Documents 13 (1998): 41-60 (emphasis in the original). In critic Carson’s reading of Post-Partum Document, Kelly was theorizing “the subject’s heterogeneous desire within the site of domestic labor…within the Conceptualist terms of a ‘system’s analysis.'” Carson’s essay on the work addresses the specific historical factors informing Kelly’s deployment of socialist feminist, Lacanian psychoanalytic, and Conceptualist practice that “mandated the piece’s very existence as an inquiry into” those arenas. Carson’s word choice is apt, for this “inquiry” is perhaps formally less confrontational than Kelly’s later self-described “interrogations.”
  5. Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 1. As Kelly has written: “In the Post-Partum Document, I am trying to show the reciprocity of the process of socialization in the first few years of life. It is not only the infant whose future personality is formed at this crucial moment, but also the mother whose ‘feminine psychology’ is sealed by the sexual division of labor in childcare.” In this, Kelly seems to be somewhat anticipating Bracha Ettinger’s work on matrixial transsubjectivity, which critiques Lacan for overlooking the prenatal subject: the necessarily intersubjective state when the fetus, fused with the mother, experiences a sense of jointness, or besideness. The infant then, in Ettinger’s terms, can be an “I wit(h)ness,” an I “borderlinking” to a non-I. According to Ettinger, this primal inseparability between the I/non-I, the “one with-in the other,” makes future subjectivizing processes possible-i.e, subjectivity is thus an aesthetic/ethical encounter with another (m/) Other. Bracha Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Ettinger, “Copoiesis,” ephemera 5 (X) (2005), 703-713.
  6. Craig Owens, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), 173; see also, Emily Apter, “Fetishism and Visual Seduction in Mary Kelly’s ‘Interim,'” October 58, (1991): 97-108.
  7. Post-Partum Document, 188-189; note that Kelly’s son is artist Kelly Barrie.
  8. Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things (New York: Zone, 2009), 33-80. Agamben writes about the signature as an absolute mark of mimetic fidelity/ indexicality; quoting Aquinas on the sacraments: the sign effects what it expresses (efficiunt quad figurant).
  9. A willful misreading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet III. But see also, “The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face.” Donald W. Winnicott, “Mirror Role of Mother” (1967), Playing and Reality (London: Routledge, 1999), 111.
  10. Jenny Aubry, Psychanalyse des enfants separes: Etudes cliniques 1952-1986 (Denoel, 2003). Aubry was a physician/ psychoanalyst and friend of Lacan. She conducted a series of clinical studies on the effects on the child of lack of maternal care. Lacan’s “Note on the child,” in which he states explicitly that the mother’s subjectivity is fulfilled by the child, was addressed to Aubry. Jacques Lacan, “Note on the child,” trans. Russell Grigg, Analysis, No. 2, 1990: 7-8.
  11. Jacques Lacan, Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-1954: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I, ed. Jacques-Alain Millar, trans. John Forrester (New York: Norton, 1991), 273.
  12. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the search is where the symbolic and the imaginary would precisely seem to lie, with love lying beside.
  13. Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualism (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009).
  14. Each section engages icon and graph. For example, Corpus features photographs of a black leather jacket anointed in red and torqued in various folds atop a white plane with diagrammatic annotation, encaptioned “Menace.” and handwritten in white on black, highlighted in red. Historia, by comparison, presents generic newspaper/magazine layouts set as large stainless steel pages; text and images are inscribed on oxide panels (more durable, one imagines, than history set in stone).
  15. Parveen Adams, “The Art of Analysis: Mary Kelly’s Interim and the Discourse of the Analyst,” October 58 (1991), 81-96. The four feminist discourses immediately also suggest all four Lacanian discourses (master, university, hysteric, analyst), and a surplus of recombinant ontological fun can be had here in playing matchmaker.
  16. Ekphrasis was originally used by the Greeks to mean any experiential description rendered poetically in an effort to win the audience via its rhetorical illumination. The term now more properly refers to writing that renders another work of art, usually a visual work. Although ekphrasis is overtly inter-medium, it maintains bragging rights for the art that purports to capture and convey the other art: per Homer, the poem bests the picture.
  17. Adams, 90.
  18. D. P. Fowler, “Narrate and Describe: The Problem of Ekphrasis,” The Journal of Roman Studies 81 (1991): 25-35. Note that Virgil also describes Aeneas’s shield, thus inverting Homer’s ekphratic moment in describing the shield of Achilles. Both shields were gifts from divinities to mortal heroes, but Achilles will (and must) fall, just as his shield shows a whole cosmos-there is a larger order in play. Aeneas, by comparison, signifies the solely Roman universe: there is no telos greater than the imperium.
  19. Mary Kelly, “Desiring Images/Imaging Desire,” Wedge 6 (1984), 9
  20. Agamben, What is an Apparatus? (Stanford: Stanford University of Press, 2009), 10-11. Agamben, for example, describes the oikonomia as an apparatus, a governing economy that “must produce [its] subject.”
  21. In my reductivism, I’ve also inexcusably omitted other works presented by Kelly at the Hammer. For example, the flat-out brilliant Circa 1968 (2004), features Jean Pierre Rey’s iconic Life photograph of a young female soixante-huitard, greatly enlarged and reproduced on panels of compressed drier lint. Like the diaper liners in Post-Partum Document, the domestic site is anything but, and the kids’ speech is the very image of a radically violent new order (including the radical conceptual violence of feminism).
  22. “Matilde Digmann talks to Mary Kelly,” NY Arts (January-February 2008). Available online: http://www.nyartsmagazine. com/index.php?Ite mid=714&id=66807&option=c om_content&task=view”http:// www.nyartsmagazine.com/index. php?Itemid=714&id=66807&o ption=com_content&task=view (accessed May 11, 2010).