Motherhood as art

Mary Kelly, Post-Partum Document (detail: vests, from Introduction), 1973-79

Like Susan Hiller, Mary Kelly documented her pregnant belly as art but it is the work she made after the birth of her childfor which she is better known. Post-Partum Document made between 1973 and ’79, the first years of her son’s life, is an extensive document of the mother and child relationship and of the nature of motherhood. The work is in six sections and contains over a hundred items of documentation from the vests shown above to diary notes, graphs and other data and artefacts such as stained nappy liners. The work is driven by the process of making it and clearly parts of that process aren’t pleasant.

Analysed faecal stains and feeding chart

The work documents Kelly’s monitoring of and fascination with the tiniest of details about the day to day life of her infant son and her role as a mother. I imagine many parents share elements of this obsessive monitoring; Kelly’s challenge was to turn it into art in a way that would have a wider meaning. The women’s movement of the 1970s was rooted in a shared understanding that the personal is political;Post-Partum Document puts this theory into practice and turns it into art.

Though individual elements of the work might be things we wouldn’t usually choose to look at – and shitty nappies would be right there on any list of stuff I don’t want to see, I think – as a body of work it is fascinating. For me, the most interesting elements he labels on which Kelly tries to figure out motherhood and the relationship between her, her child and her work.

Drawings overlaid with transcriptions of speech and Kelly’s notes

The power of the work lies in the extraordinary level of detail Kelly has included; this is archive as art but the archive is a highly personal one that wouldn’t normally become public. The work is highly conceptual but it’s very far from the dryness that is often associated with conceptual art and any anxiety the viewer might have about the process is also articulated by Kelly as part of the work. The inclusion of her own feelings changes the nature of the piece by making Kelly herself the subject.

Post-Partum Document is split between a number of museum collections so it’s rarely seen as a whole. Even part of the whole is worth seeing though, given the chance, and the work also exists in book form.

What Kelly’s son thinks about the work I have no idea, but I would imagine its saving grace for him may well be that it’s about the mother son relationship rather than being a portrait of either of them; indeed photographs are notably absent from the work. To an extent it is a portrait of course, but it’s one that tell us nothing about what either of its subjects look like.

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