The maternal abject and the works of Mary Kelly
By: Mireille Astore
Post-Partum Document, 1973-79
Installation in six parts
Installation View, Generali Foundation, Vienna
Post-Partum Document: Introduction, 1973
Perpsex units, white card, wool vests, pencil, ink
4 units, 20 x 25.5 cm each
Collection, Eileen Norton, Santa Monica
Perpsex units, white card, diaper linings, plastic sheeting, paper,ink
31 units, 28 x 35.5 cm each
I will now look at the work of Mary Kelly of 1985: Post-Partum Document . In this work, Kelly constructs an archive of her mothering experience using a linear device. The work is presented primarily in the form of verbal language with traces of maternal memorabilia such as nappies, clay imprints of a child’s hand, specimens of plants the child collected, his name written by himself etc…. The work is in five sections following the processes by which the child separates from the mother. This traverses the child’s development from stains of shit on nappies and the child’s daily dietary charts to documents of the child’s induction into the written language.
The visual absence of the mother in the work however, is quite striking given that the work is about the author/artist as mother. This is best illustrated in section three where the mother’s diary of her private thoughts and feelings is erased or rubbed over by the oval crayon patterns of her child. It is as if the act of rearing, nurturing and separating is in effect an abject performance by Kelly as a mother. This is an act of expelling from herself that, which is within herself. An intellectual and emotional birthing process takes place, in slow motion where the child emerges from Kelly the mother as separate and independent, but not without effacing his mother. Kelly is also abjecting the self in section four where her interpretation of her child becoming difficult, is overridden by the father’s last word on the subject, “on the contrary he said, it’s because we’re on top of him too much” .
Indeed, I feel as if Kelly’s extraordinary work is a narrative, not only of the mechanics of rearing a child but also of abject processes such as surrender and loss of self, guilt, separation and contradictions. Freda Freiberg’s reading of Kelly’s work suggests that motherhood is a psychological and social construction based on two contradictory criteria:
Perpsex unit, white card, wood, paper, ink, rubber
1 of the 26 units, 20 x 25.5 cm
Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario
“…on the one hand, total commitment of time, effort and emotion to the welfare of the child; on the other hand, total relinquishment of the child to society, the domain of the Father. Whether we hold on to the child, or relinquish it, we are made to feel guilty of inadequate mothering, and judged as such.” 1
The total construction of the Post-Partum Document is tedious, lacking beauty symbols and instant gratification, requiring careful reading and close examination. Through the multi-layered media Kelly chose in her work, she succeeded in fragmenting the visual and aesthetic process, and in expelling that which is comfortable and familiar. She merges the abject through imageries, which disturb our social space. Here I refer to the shitty nappies, the scribbles over heart-felt diary writings, the reversed rubber stamps and so on.
Central to the maternal abject and the aesthetic process are the inherent conflicts which Kelly illustrates both intentionally through the absence of the mother and child figures and the use of text in a visual context, and unintentionally through the effacement of the mother.
I explore three major areas in the construction of my work which Kelly chose not to. Firstly, the visual presence of the mother is more pronounced in my work than in Kelly’s. This is primarily due to the fact that apart from the Madonna and Child icon, women as mothers are very rarely seen in art. I note their absence and crave their presence and so decided to saturate my work with the mother’s presence with the abject.
Secondly, I incorporate the naked body of the mother in all images in order to highlight the vulnerability and strength of her body and to focus on the physical nature of mother’s work. This was a conscious, deliberate and laboured decision given the widespread presence of images of the female nude in art and the subsequent objectification of the woman’s body. Danielle Knafo points out how the shift, to a new female aesthetic has taken place in the last decade precisely because female artists have chosen to use the female body to signify their own experience.
In essence, I use the nude as an encoded message to extract the voyeur in the viewer but only to reflect and subvert his or her voyeurism. In order to do this, I merge with the body threatening structures such as spikes, metallic constructions, and rocky surfaces. At times, I strip the skin and attempt to expose what lies beneath, such as veins and organs. In doing so, I aim to construct a performance of pain.
Paradoxically, these painful inflictions serve a different purpose. The hard labour a woman faces right from the beginning of her journey into motherhood, at the onset of the birthing process, through to the time the child is walking, talking and is toilet trained, is often hugely underestimated. Except for the birthing process, the toll on her body is very rarely acknowledged. Through the use of these threatening objects, I attempt to give to these ephemeral intruders a material presence which then act on the naked and vulnerable body.
This is also the reason behind the use of thousands of pearl-headed metallic pins protruding through the outer layer of the bassinet. It is a vessel for the most fragile and precious being, the newborn infant. It is also the site of much anxiety, torment and sleep deprivation for the mother. The walls of the bassinet then become a metaphor for the mother’s skin, which has been perforated by the pins. The pearls on the inside of the bassinet signify the preciousness of the woman’s experience while the outer layer’s pin tips signify the aggression and pain she feels through that experience. I invoke the abject in the viewer through the schism and contradiction of the pierced object. The jewelled inner layer of the bassinet contrasts with the harsh and aggressive outer layer.
Finally, I use aesthetic processes such as a glossy and delicate surface of rich colours in a darkened background. I do this in order to draw the viewer inside the work rather than adopt Kelly’s approach of letting the viewer physically walk along with the various components of the work. This way, the images are denser and they offer the viewer a visual complexity as opposed to a linear narrative. I further intensify the viewer’s experience by placing the pin-pricked bassinet in close proximity to the delicate surfaces of the images.
1.Freiberg, Freda. The Post-Partum Document; Maternal Archeology. In LIP, a Feminist Arts Journal. 1982/3 Issue number 7.