Artist Presentation
Angela Kelly: A Fanatic Heart

 

 

Synopsis by Stacey McCarroll

 

 

In her presentation, Angela Kelly set-up a context for reading her photography projects. Her introduction outlined some of the broader issues underlying her more recent work, including ideas about cultural identity, family, relationships, and social memory. Kelly explained that she hopes to enact an intervention into the conventions of family photography, in order to bring history into the present. She showed images relating to her work on the family, that she would return to later in her lecture. Her work in this genre is informed by writings in British cultural studies and feminism, including the work of British cultural historian Annette Kuhn as outlined in her book, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (New York: Verso, 1995). By using the digital mode and digital imagery in these recent projects, Kelly hopes to further open up questions about the potential for new strategies beyond the ‘realist’ versus the ‘idealist’ tendencies of much documentary practice.

As Kelly described, her photographic practice is rooted in a need to question the assumptions underlying documentary conventions. She said that we must examine the motivations of documentary work and the photographers who create it. She encourages us to ask whose interest is being served by any documentary project. Kelly outlined how her own conception of photographic practice developed out of several key photography debates in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s including the 1979 Hayward Gallery exhibit Three Perspectives on Photography. This exhibit was co-curated by Paul Hill, John Tagg and Kelly herself. Kelly's selection, ‘Feminism and Photography,’ which included ‘Beyond the Family Album’ a crucial work by the late Jo Spence, addresses a multiplicity of photographic strategies from realist to deconstructive as employed by feminist photographic practitioners at that time. This curatorial project, along with her involvement in feminist politics, opened up a critical dialogue about the relationship between language and image that formed the foundation of Kelly's critical perspective. In her work at this time, Kelly focused on a critique of identity --especially female identity-- through a consideration of topics such as family, children, domestic abuse, and the family album. For Kelly, the dominant practice of formalist art photography, as well as the gritty realist documentary work in 70s Britain were limiting. In response, Kelly argues in her curatorial selection for Three Perspectives on Photography that documentary work need not be fixed, or tied to binary oppositions, but may be critically reframed through an engagement with theory. She believes that critical documentary photography can function as a radical critique from within.

In 1980, Kelly, a native of Northern Ireland, left her full-time teaching position in Manchester, England to accept a teaching position as a Visiting Artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She described how, inspired by Alan Sekula's arguments, she took his ideas about re-inventing documentary practice as a challenge in her work. Although extremely influential for her, Kelly argued that as an artist who takes pleasure in the process of making work, Sekula's writings on photography created a critical orthodoxy that elicits a division between thought and process. The discussions of realism and the political implications of photographic practice that have been generated by his work, while critical to her own formative understanding of the politics of representation, needed further explication. This theoretical simplification, as she describes it, does not make contradictory ideas more comfortable. In Kelly's opinion, there is no one single concept of realism. She wanted to open up a space where visual pleasure and criticality are not at odds. Her ideas on this subject are informed by the writings of British cultural studies critic, Stuart Hall. As Kelly summarized, for writers like Hall and photographers like Jo Spence, photography is a political tool of intervention and action and a form of articulation.

One of her first moves at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1980 was to teach a theme course that linked feminist theory and photography practice. Kelly discovered that it was the first time that such a theory/practice course was offered within a studio program at the school. She was initially surprised to discover that the concept of merging feminist theory and photographic practice at the studio level seemed inconceivable or novel to the students, even in a department and school highly regarded for experimentation in the arts. Her own work now took on a more obvious political dimension, as she turned to community based projects. She told us that her perspective in these projects developed out of her experience as a recent immigrant to the United States and her experience of growing up under siege in Belfast.

Kelly showed images from her first major community-based project at the Chrysalis Alternative School for girls. This large body of work was generated after two years of photographing the girls at the school. Kelly used a medium format camera often set up on a tripod. Although the images may appear somewhat spontaneous, Kelly wanted to be very present as the photographer. She stated that she was attempting a collaborative work with this project, particularly because the girls needed to make themselves available to be photographed. Kelly had no desire to take the girls' voices away from them. In many ways, this project developed specifically as a dialogue with dominant 1980s photo documentary work, at a time when all realist work in photography was suspect in the art world. Kelly argued that it is the photographer's responsibility to anchor and contextualize the work to ensure that the viewer will not misread it. In her work, Kelly attempts to balance out power. To do so, text by the girls pictured in the school is interspersed with texts by contemporary feminist authors.

Kelly showed several portraits of the young girls in their environment. The images depict the girls in the bathroom, in stairwells, and in other sites at the school. Kelly photographed about seven of the girls at home. In many of these images, their family members were peripheral. Kelly wanted the girls themselves to be the focus of the images. She detailed aspects of their everyday lives. She said that this project is about young women growing up, seeking their identities, and it forced her to consider who she was, and what her role was there.

Kelly discussed two other community projects completed at about this time. For the three-person exhibition, On the Edge of Shelter held at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, she choose to focus on homeless women who were victims of domestic abuse. Kelly photographed at Rainbow House, a shelter in the city that provides services and a refuge for women and children who were made homeless through domestic violence. Kelly explained that she had become acutely aware of each woman's lack of privacy. Homeless children in particular lack the psychological space to just be children. Kelly also said there was much waiting around at these shelters. In her photographs, she wanted to capture some of these elements, as well as make the issues more complex, by addressing homelessness through the issue of domestic violence. Kelly was playing with the viewer's expectations. In her opinion, nowhere in the work is domestic violence or homelessness turned into a spectacle for easy consumption. Through her choice of color she attempts to seduce and at the same time distance the viewer, to create an imaginary refuge from the repertoire of historical images which portray the homeless and the abused without agency, as documentary tropes.

Kelly also created Grandparents for The Children's Museum in Chicago. This project consisted of photographs of different families, donated photographs and various public and private artifacts. With this work, Kelly explored how children can play an active role in defining who they are and how their family is constructed.

In her most recent projects, like Domestic Discomfort and Sundays at Sea, Kelly described how her work is circulating back around the locus of family and politics that she has been considering over the past two decades. In these groups of images, she presents the family album as a political site where, as an Irish immigrant and a feminist, multiple meanings of home emerge. The series Domestic Discomfort deals with the death of Kelly's father, mother, and niece in a fire at her family home. By manipulating, re-photographing, and enlarging family photographs, Kelly hopes to open up the family album as a space for scrutiny. She also re-inserts these family photographs and the events they represent into her current life. The same day as Kelly's personal tragedy, the Irish media and public were focused on the very public and political funeral for three members of the IRA, from her neighborhood. These two events coalesce in the series that reflects on grief, sorrow, and the preservation of memories.

The Sundays at Sea series is built up around images and artifacts of Kelly's father. In this work in progress, she combines maps, letters, documents, passports, and photographs--various items found in a family trunk and in her father's notebooks. For Kelly, these articles are not just signs, but are the material ephemera of a life lived. They also document specific aspects and experiences from her father's life. The maps, for example, represent ideas about locating, dislocating, and the scientific use of maps. In some ways, Kelly feels she is mapping the periphery in this project in its expression of the everyday. For her, the work becomes an archive of memory that functions on social, political, and autobiographical levels.

In her concluding remarks and in response to questions posed by the audience, Kelly discussed her desire to merge theory and practice. She stated that she had a particular distrust of photographers who, in discussing their work, talk only about themselves. She is generally frustrated with documentary photographers that uncritically regurgitate cultural stereotypes. Documentary, she argued, is not about style. It is about having an engaged photographic process. According to Kelly, this kind of practice can come from developing an understanding of the politics of representation and one's own location within it. She wants to open things up, and not allow the debate about documentary photography to be immovable.

 

 

Analysis by Joseph Sweeney

 

 

Angela Kelly’s critical documentary work gives a broad vision of what the word ‘documentary’ can mean to an artist. In her Chrysalis series, an image text-installation, she employs documentary conventions to explore the lives of young women at an alternative school in Chicago. The images are, as Kelly described them, ‘visually compelling photographs of the everyday, the banal.’ They are quiet environmental portraits of young women growing up, sometimes battling against harsh circumstances. One young woman was homeless and suffering from leukemia. From the slides shown, I did not sense that the girls were extraordinarily different from those who would attend a more conventional public school. Maybe the point of the documents is to show that these women are no different in their complexity than many others in their peer group, and that the events that brought them to be at the school do not define them as the ‘other.’ In fact, Kelly recalled that memories of her teen years resurfaced while doing this project. For her, the theme of growing up female is both personal and political.

The next body of work discussed was that of photographing women in a Chicago shelter who were made homeless through domestic violence . Serving as a dialog in opposition to familiar timeless black and white representations of the homeless, domestic violence ‘victim’ associated with concerned photography, these large color images address the specificity of maintaining one’s sense of self whilst living in a temporary shelter .

This followed with a discussion of the hands-on installation project, Grandparents, a permanent display at the Children’s Museum, Chicago. Here the photographic document is displayed in the form of the family snapshot along with artifacts from each culturally diverse family. The audience was invited to contribute their own pictures of grandparents, which caused the scope of the show to grow, and allowed the audience a more immediate access to this artistic and social endeavor.

The next work, large scale mural photographs, Domestic Discomfort examines the relationship between history and memory in the family album, and serves as precursor to her current work, Sundays at Sea.

The work-in-progress, Sundays at Sea, is again rooted in the family snapshot. After the tragic fire that claimed the lives of Kelly's parents and a niece, the only thing found to have survived the fire were old family photos, personal detritus and work-related documents locked away in a metal sea trunk that had belonged to her father. The content of the trunk --snapshots, letters, notebooks, passports, shipping data-- are combined digitally with geographical and astronomical charts and maps to create maps of Kelly’s life, or perhaps the periphery or fading memories of her life. Maps, as Kelly explained, have many uses. They are scientific tools as well as images that can give one a sense of location, a sense of place in the world. The presentation of the photographs and maps contain few layers so that each image, the map and the photo(s) and letters, still maintain much of their original look, as they are layered upon each other in order to interact with, but not to interfere with, one another. We are shown memories of a childhood through the photos, and evidence of a father’s absence and travels in the maps, which speaks to the desire of the daughter to connect to the father. In the work, the daughter and father are reunited spatially, bridging the gaps created by what were temporary absences, and what is now a more permanent one.

Questions: Will the second half of the Sundays at Sea project continue in the same fashion as the first part of the project?