Mary Kelly first came into my consciousness after I stumbled across the transcripts from Nightcleaners, her 1972 film about women forced up take up low-paid cleaning jobs at night so they could look after their families in the basement of the Women's Library. Here was an artist asking important questions about power, sex, love and the validity of women. Just like, for example, when she presented her son's shit-smeared nappy liners as art object in the ICA in 1976. The point was an important one: if wine, soup cans, fascist symbols and a man wrapped in a tent beside a coyote can be art thanks to Andy Warhol, Gilbert and George and Joseph Beuys, then why not the detritus of the maternal experience?
As a young woman in the 1960s, she travelled to Beirut to teach art, and in the early 1970s joined the Women's Liberation Movement while at art school in London. She fell in love with a fellow student, had a child, and began to use the muck and material of everyday life to create work that interrogated the world around her. The large-scale installation Interim followed in the 1980s, breaking the figure of woman down into a folded leather jackets, text and etchings; in 2005 her show Love Songs brought together artefacts of the women's movement; while in her 2014 work Dicere Kelly, she turned the satellite transmission of a drone attack in Northern Waziristan and the witness accounts given at a congressional hearing into a story, printed onto compressed washing machine fluff, of a killed grandmother. In every case the concept behind her conceptual art has been unapologetically political and intrinsically personal. She is the godmother of feminist art.
Now aged 74 and still teaching in LA, Kelly is having something of a moment in London. This week, her work will be shown at Tate Britain's new show Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-1979, her work can also be seen in the States of Mind exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, in Lesson in Sculpture with John Latham at the Henry Moore Institute, and her Early Work 1973-76 will be shown at at London's Pippy Houldsworth Gallery until June.
I caught up with her to chat about bringing up kids in communes, smearing shit on art gallery walls and the art scene in London in the 1970s.
VICE: Hi Mary. You're all over London at the moment – how does it feel to see that early work on show again?
MK: My early work has always been present. I feel like I never really left it - particularly Post-Partum Document [the shit-smeared nappy one]. Feminism made everything I did from Post-Partum Document very consistent; I was working from what I call my discursive psyche. Asking the same questions I've been asking since I joined the Women's Movement - the same questions that were being asked in lots of different fields. There is a logic to the work after that.
You studied at St Martins, your husband's British and you show a lot in the UK. Do you think there is a particularly British attitude to conceptual art?
London was absolutely formative for me. Not least because I was very young. Everything was happening then. Everything was on fire. Art schools were being occupied, people were smoking pot and discussing big ideas. There were also some very progressive people at St Martins when I was there: Gilbert and George, Richard Long and my partner Ray Barrie. I was a painter but I hung out with the sculptors, a lot of whom went into film and photography. That was, I suppose, the English route.
Your 2005 piece Flashing Nipple Remix captured the lights that blasted from a group of women's breasts and crotches as they re-enacted the 1971 protests outside Miss World. It's such a perfect meeting point of humour, art and female bodies. What was it like to make?
Oh it was euphoric. We did a live piece with 100 women at the opening of . As with all happenings, we didn't announce it so people were very surprised when we started. I wanted to do something that had been done in the past – the protest at the Albert Hall during the Miss World contest. Doing it again, I was trying to ask - what's passed on from one generation to the next? And the work sort of answered the question for me. Much has been forgotten, but the pleasure of women being together was so intense. That's what I remember from the past and I could see at the event. They were happy. In that moment.
That sense of sisterhood is clear in Nightcleaners even though, at times, the cleaners are describing terrible circumstances – working for no money, only getting three hours sleep a day, hardly seeing their children etc. And yet, some of those women are still so funny.
Yes. Nightcleaners was the first very politically engaged work that I had been involved in. It brought up all those issues you see in my other pieces - those women were doing this work because they had children. They couldn't work in the day because they had to look after their children, but they didn't have enough money without working. So they had to work at night. It's what we called the social sexual division of labour.
There are so many lovely moments in that film. One that particularly stands out to me, but that people tend to miss, is when they're in the pub, talking to the trade union organiser. There's music in the background and at a certain point you see this woman just bobbing her head to the music. I remember being there and feeling that we were all just women, the trade union guy was boring us and we all just wanted to dance. They were all so much younger than they looked. Life had worn them out.
What did you see of women's lives when you were living in Beirut in the 1960s?
It was a shockingly different world but not the one you know today. It was a very cosmopolitan place when I was there from 1964-68. It was still very patriarchal and a little like the structure of Ancient Greece, with women cooking and taking care of the children and men out in the world. But people were so knowledgeable, so highly educated. They were probably better informed than people in England were in those days. It was a very internationally well-connected place.
Your recent show, A Passage of A Few People Through A Brief Period of Time, brings us right up to the events in Tahrir Square and the war in Afghanistan. You've made bomb shelters. Do you see war as a feminist issue?
Oh, it's absolutely a women's question to ask about war. The consequences for children are unimaginable. But war also makes you think about difference that isn't based on gender; ethnicity, race and how those things are so formative in those first few moments of life. That was a logical question for me to ask in The Ballad of Kastriot Rexhepi [in which Kelly typed onto compressed lint, pulled from a tumble dryer, a newspaper report about an infant who got separated from his Kosovo-Albanian family during the Balkan war in the 1990s, who was renamed by the Serbian army, renamed again under NATO's occupation and finally reunited with his family and went back to his original name].
In the late 90s we lived in the period that marked the beginning of the War Crimes Tribunal and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. So it was part of a larger cultural conversation. Compressed lint wasn't the obvious medium but I thought it worked well for the historical idea of following the experiences of these few people.
When you do these kind of concept pieces, what comes first? The text, the idea or the form?
The questions come first. The compressed lint pieces were my first attempt to deal with questions of war crimes; of mothers and children. At first I couldn't think of a form that would suit that vulnerability, that fragility. But I often use things that come from around me, in my domestic situation. So when I came across lint, in my dryer, it presented a challenge. How do I process that into a form that will work? I never fetishise the material, I just like it to feel right for the ideas.
In the first Women's Liberation Movement conference in 1970 at Ruskin College, women demanded universal childcare and access to abortion. My generation are still calling for those things now...
Well yes. When we were talking about a new form of family back then, the context seemed very hopeful. Communal living, pre-school care; it felt that those things were imminent. My son was born in a communal situation and that was so important.
But then there was the whole period of Thatcher and things got turned back. To look at things on the ground, 40 percent of families are single mothers. So somehow the family has disintegrated but not in the progressive way that we had hoped for. Children are not really being brought up in situations that make them happy. Would you do that to a plant? Or a pet? No. It's still a very, very big issue.
Sometimes the term 'domestic' feels like a dirty word. You literally made it a dirty word - you put poo on a gallery wall. But do you think we're wrong to see the domestic sphere as inferior?
It's certainly denigrated. I didn't set out to shock. I was formed in the moment of conceptualism. My models were [the pioneering English conceptual art group] Art and Language. I was carrying out an interrogation. I wanted to deal with the stuff of life; which I felt they weren't doing. I wanted to engage people emotionally and intellectually at the same time.
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