Old Texts



Through to our protoplasm there is objectification... while theory fluctuates and changes according to our desires

I want to start with the problem which Mary Kelly's artwork: "Post-Partum Document" significantly exposed in 1976. She effectively deconstructed:

"The relationship between the work of an artist and the theoretical position which informs that work." [1]

Post-Partum Document showed this relationship to be highly problematic, due to the incorporation of the theories of others, e.g. Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, etc... Both for the 'exclusivity' of these theories as well as their questionable place in the representation of an individual's 'natural' experience - that of mother and artist.

Kelly attempted to show the inter-relation between theory and art by showing the inter-relation of theory and motherhood. The re-presentation of theory and documentary evidence - residuum of the experience of childcare - enable Kelly to analyse and fetishize the experience. Laura Mulvey writes :

"Mary Kelly's exhibition reduces the passion involved in this process to a minimum, her aim is to distance the emotion by putting the dilemma into a wider context; the way women's unconcious is shaped by the patriarchy. ... she organises this material in an attempt to turn the most unspoken and culturally repressed [my italics]of every-day experiences (mother-child relationship) into an art-work inspired by feminism and psychoanalysis." [2]

Kelly is therefore controlling her feelings or emotions in order to express them. She is 'reducing' the passion in order to express the experience - repressed by assumptions of its 'naturalness' and 'truth'. The fetishization of desires and emotions - giving a "place to the mother's phantasies of possession and loss" allows them to be expressed - re-directed to a substitute object of desire, and through this control it is hoped that the desires may change.

One of the main objectives in Post-Partum Document is the analysis of the :

"...impact that producing a child has on women whose unconcious desires are formed within the confines of the castration complex." [3]

The feeling of loss at the infant's gradual socialization and removal of dependancy on the mother, is comparable, she feels, to the first psychological occurence of the Oedipal drama - "undergoing castration for the second time" and "re-learning the fact of her negative place in the symbolic order".

Rebellion against, rather than acceptance of, this positioning, takes the form of fetishization of the child. The obsessive detail of Post-Partum Document is Kelly's fetishization of her son - however she is using art to replace the child as potential receiver of her needs.

The highly theoretical nature of the work is in stark contrast to the stereotype of feminine 'intuitive' creativity. This deconstruction of motherhood is also a claim for individual identity apart from the child.

Many other women artists have staged similar constructive rebellions in their desire for individual identity. Few have used motherhood however, especially in such a clinical way. Instead of motherhood as source of identity, other women artists have tended to replace themselves as fetish in their work. There tends to be a concentration on bodily functions and experience of herself. This kind of practice rebels against accepting a secondary place in art practice and art history.

The art work - replacing the self as fetish - is very significant and has characterised women's art work at least since the seventies. Helen Chadwick's 'Ego Geometria Sum' for example, is characteristic of all the women who have tried to express the significance of their experience as artists, by analysing their own bodies as residue. i.e. as shell, vestigial object, documentary evidence, record, etc...

The body not just as beautiful, sensual, flesh but as part of a whole, meaningful in an intellectual and contradictory way. By deconstructing a constructed meaning of motherhood - and relating this to her activity as an artist, Mary Kelly inevitably drew attention to the constructed meaning of 'artist'.

"It is the form of the exhibition, its emphasis on work rather than art-object-for-critical-evaluation that causes so much outrage." [4]

By representing the residue of her experience in such a literal way, Kelly attempts to demythify her activity. To emphasise its relativity. Critics fear a destruction of meaning altogether or 'implausible' interpretations. But it is really fear of what might be expressed through the control of her 'intense' feelings.

The conciousness is no longer of the 'art object' as the most important thing to possess. The object itself becomes simply residue or representation of residue. It is just so much of a record, trace, result, empty shell, memory, relic, excrement, vestige.

The Minimalist artist Eva Hesse's work was described as 'vestigial' by Robert Smithson, the 'Earthworks' artist of the 70's who became fascinated by theories of entropy, death and remains as well as the hidden processes of ecological consumption. The fluidity of the context - its relation to a wider context is something we are at last beginning to apprehend, to begin to notice the whole process of constant flux.

That is why entropy, housework and maintenance have so much in common:

"Housework made me aware that there are things going on all the time that we are unaware of - an invisible rate of consumption that I saw in the mountain of dust (it's mostly skin) which is cast off everyday." [5]

The re-presentation of residuum is fetishistic. Re-presentation of rubbish is significant, especially in the context of art magazines. Re-presentation of art is a widespread necessity today. But the presenters of art are actually co-presenters - accomplices linked to the artist.

The magazine is a fetish. It does the vital job of merging visual representations (often linking disparate elements together via the photograph) with theories which help to position the work. Kelly's work which took almost large-scale book-like form is a clear indication of this activity developing greater significance. The page = The confines of a gallery, a room etc... Within a context nothing can be discounted.

The social relations surrounding art-work have changed, and therefore the 'psychic forces' (desires) involved have changed too. The fluidity of the context - its relation to a wider context has to be taken into account today. The art object is conciously perceived as part of a broader fetishistic activity.

Similarly the social relations between men and women have changed, educated and sexually liberated women are undermining the structure of society, breaking down the ideal of the 'conflicting' relationship between the sexes to one of resemblance. Meanwhile:

"Passion is heading for extinction and so is sensual ecstasy, in our analgesic ethic, there is no room for the risks of suffering... the conditions for passion no longer exist, either from the social or psychological point of view." [6]

We are denying ourselves intense feelings because we know it results in extremes of destruction. 'Passion' is controlled and participation of women in broader areas of society has lead to profound changes of desires, relations and effects.

The body as object, 'embodyment' of truth and certainty has been deconstructed or complexified by science and social behaviour:

"Our firmest anchorage seems to be our bodies. A man's body is designed to penetrate , to exert his strength etc; a woman's body is designed to receive to bear children. Is this not the origin of our psychological and social destiny? Nevertheless it seems that for some time now, our apprehension of the body has been evolving. The importance we attribute to it is no longer of the same order. The reasons for our interest in it have changed." [7]

The conception of the art object, and similarly the body, as some kind of anchor, is evolving into a different conciousness of objectification. This new apprehension of materiality, extends through everything, right through to protoplasm. Helen Chadwick's recent Enfleshings relate the membranes of meat to the 'membranes' of photography, and other 'artificial' materials. The old conflicting relationship between photographic 'faithful' representation and the natural 'organic', exploited, abstractions, is continuing to be broken down.

We are now seeking to deconstruct art practice even further, to bring art closer to 'mummificatory' practices, symbolic and yet stained with residue - artificial and yet faithful.

Sarah Thompson







[6]Elizabeth Badinter