top of page
  • Divya Sharma

Iconic feminist artist Mary Kelly's recent interview with South London Gallery's REcreative

Mary Kelly Interview for the South London Gallery exhibition ‘Went to work Came back’

MK: ‘Lets start with how I came to London from the middle east and had lived in Beirut and had really been introduced to objects there through the left which was more connected to France and through working with newly formed magazines and in those early days when I read Sartre and Fanon it really transformed my way of thinking that was predominantly about national struggles. So when I came to London it was the beginnings of the independence movement and I brought the baggage with me and the so called male left. The first thing I wrote was for the Shoe magazine, which was a publication for the women’s lib workshop. So one of the legacies of that position, the group that I belonged to called the history group had the idea that the women’s liberation movement could be separate but not autonomous. The national liberation movements especially the anti war (Vietnam) movement and importantly the trade union movement which were really the high point of power and contestation of that time that we think had to be involved in that time. In our early local groups we became involved in organizing low paid women workers who were in the night cleaning business which led to the making of the film. That kind of contact with the union also led to thinking about artists.

SLG: How did the Nightcleaners – Berwick St Collective (1975) project come about?

MK: What we discovered with Nightcleaners was ..of course they would work at night because they were busy..because they were looking after the children during the day. This was compounded by the research that we did for women in work about the behavior of men and women at work. Though both worked at the factories, for men, they always talked about everything they did at work and not one thing about what they do at home and the women don’t talk about work at all and only talk about what they do at home. So it was certainly supporting an idea that social/sexual division of labour was supported by a division of labour in the home.

SLG: Could you tell us something about the Wages for Housework movement?

MK: What we discovered was that there was something else going on that made the division of labour seem natural and expedient. It was rationalized that was deeply psychological. So that’s how I started thinking about it, not just as a set of social relations to the industry itself or the work place but an intersubjective relation between her husband and her partner and her children and that made me compelled to do the ‘Post Partum Document’. In the women’s work at that time there was a debate about Selma James’ work – at the time it was a subject about domestic labour and the idea of paying for it..having recognized as having wages for housework ..that was their agenda. But the tendency that I was part of in The History Group and with Juliet Mitchel just starting to write about ‘Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) and Laura Mulvey writing the very first thing that she wrote on Miss World (Why Freud? Miss World, Shaw 1970) and all of us and all of us recognizing that it was not just as simple as getting wages for housework. It was trying to understand much more about what that relationship entailed. But of course there’s pleasure and there’s affection. Its not that you can give your child to someone and say ‘take care of him’ or ‘pay me for doing this’ it was I think a point of recognizing the degree of consciousness raising that was necessary to transform those sexual relations. It was never over. They try to tell you it was post-feminist and it was different now but lot on things stayed the same because that doesn’t end. Of course even with the legislation it was a great surprise that things could be whittled away. But that’s atleast more tangible and the way that the educational institutions and corporations were able to legislate for sexual harassment. That actually is something that is tangible and exemplary in trying to fight for something that is more encompassing in scope.

SLG: Can you elaborate on the Artists Union and equal pay Act 1970?

MK: in our early local groups we became involved in organizing low paid women workers who are in the night cleaning business. In the artists union, because I was elected as the first chairperson by accident because there were two men! So we made women’s issues a priority and we set up a women’s workshop. Then in the women’s workshop I came in contact with Kay and Harrison and we decided to do the project on women in work. So we had already done the work with trying to unionise the paid union workers but there was going to be a case study of an industry – the metal box industry – and the way they had dealt with the implementation of equal pay while the bill was becoming an act because legally it didn’t have to be consummated until 1974. That was basically my entry into the women’s movement and then unionization and the ‘Women in Work’ project.

SLG: Why choose a metal box as a case study?

MK: Well that was selected by Kay Hunt who had a family history – her working class mother worked maybe not specifically in that industry but in that area and she wanted to work on that.

SLG: Can you comment on representation in your work?

MK: in a certain form of representation things are very simplified, very black and white and this is how it was in the beginning of the 70s. then the more complicated questions kind of emerged after people though through the first round and got to talk about the so called anti-essentialist thing about biology is not a destiny and all that. In terms of race with Stuart Hall it was the same thing that had happened in the women’s movement. With Stuart’s writing and things around that it was moved to the question of representation of against positive representation of women or against positive representation of black and thinking about the system of representation as ideological but not a reflection of what is out there but an actual process of changing them. You make meaning so it matters and there was still an optimism in the 80s that you could intervene in those representations those systems which was one reason I didn’t use women’s image. It became very controversial. Those questions became dominant in the more anti-essentialist moment of the movement.

SLG: How did you decide on how you wanted to portray the workers?

MK: We didn’t tell the employers that we were doing a kind of expose so a lot of the documents we got were on false pretenses and we couldn’t be too frank with the women because we didn’t want to get them in trouble. So it was much more straight forward as a documentary procedure than ‘nightcleaners’ (1975) because that was a total involvement in a personal level with the organization of the cleaners May Hobbs actually supporting her financially. We practically lioved with people, it was all day and all night. Some people became more central like Jean Moment and May Hobbs but when we did the factory project we were not trying to unionise them (like the night cleaners) but when we put all the research together we invited them to the exhibition and many of them came and of course when the employers found out what it was they did threaten them. The best thing was that the trade union organisers in this case were able to use our material from the exhibition! In the aesthetic strategies for Women and Work we didn’t want to picture the women so when you see the work its their hands you see, which actually is an interesting study because most of the machines men work with that are documented need the whole body. You had to show the whole body as they use the whole body. But the grade 2, which is where they could put women and then say their work was different so it wasn’t subject to equal pay. There was also an aesthetic decision of not photographing the women except as people, as personalities. That’s why we gave them all a portrait, which is a separate work and is a kind of acknowledgement of them in a different way. Of course to use the face is to encourage identification

SLG What was the impact of the exhibition?

MK What I know is that the employers were very upset about it. But of course the trade union organisers told us they made use of it, that it was very helpful. What the outcome of their work was, I don’t think has been documented. What we know is that the legislation went through but I think the grades in some way remain.

SLG The role of documentation for this exhibition

MG That’s a well established trajectory in the history of avant-garde art and conceptualism. As an aesthetic it was linked to the notion that it was the idea, not the object. What Richard Cork at the time called ‘Social Purpose’;That you would change the focus in terms of content. Like Hans Haacke we started out doing systems pieces in terms of conceptualism. It didn’t have a political content, it was more about the structure of ideas or a kind of limited idea of documentation. So it was an import of those ideas to work on something that seemed to be more pressing. It was so exciting to get the documents in the factory, like the pay-slips, with the stamps on them, because there was something about the look of the stamp- this is a document, this is a moment in time. It is a kind of aesthetic of documentation as much as it is a collection of facts.

SLG How was the installation as a concept conceived?

MK Everyone was a cinephile in the ‘68 movement because it was assumed that this was the most progressive medium. Like Barthes said, the still, like the photograph was brushed with death, it doesn’t go anywhere, but the cinema- that is the here and now, its moving, so it sounded great. Actually, it was even a sort of move back to think about how anything in the form of a still installation could be as exciting as film at the time. Where you are pulled in a narrative. It’s a different kind of diegetic space as opposed to just duration which was the conventional conceptual preoccupation. To have something that evolves over time- that was very motivating. As archaic as it has become, it sill has this unique feature of simultaneity in time and is very self-reflexive. So if you go into the women and work installation do you go to the films, do you read the stories first? When do you go to the research? You kind of build your own signifying system if you like and find a meaning for the piece.

bottom of page