In preparation for the imminent birth of our baby, I’m revisiting Mary Kelly’s work and thinking about what it does and doesn’t do.

Would be great to hear what you think.


About Eti

I am an artist and academic teaching Photography at the University of West London.
My visual art practice is a personal investigation of the limits of maternal subjectivity expressed through photography and video and I also write about the maternal in contemporary art practice.
I am a…Read more


More posts by Eti

4 Responses to “Does Mary Kelly’s work convey early maternal care well?”

  1. Frances Earnshaw

    Interesting you say “In preparation for the birth” you are revisiting the work of this artist. I experienced some similar needs to place things in my head, in preparation. I read Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, I listened to Patti Smith’s Horses, at the onset of labour pains. Touching the extreme, touching where other artists have been. It is about what these things do and don’t do for you, at this time of preparation and imminent change. It will seem a strange preparation to some, but we artists are strange! There is a need as well to hold hands with the concerns of the head, in preparation for letting go of that for a while. You are about to plunge into the unknown. I wish I could go there again.

  2. Helen Sargeant

    Naoise has started to write. This week he wrote his first word at home Rusphi – Rubbish onto an empty carton of Lidls apple juice. I was thrilled by this, and amused that this developmental leap was marked by the word Rubbish.

    He is totally excited about grappling with, decoding and understanding the written word. He draws an object, a person and tries to write the name of it inside or beside it. He sounds the letters of words out by using phonetics, then with glee sticks them together by clapping his hands.

    The lidls carton with its ingredients of Multivitamin Fruit & Carrot juice together with his writing “rusphi” are a memorial to this time. His language developments made me think of Mary Kelly’s work- of Documentation IV.

    “The form of the units refers back to writing slates, the Rosetta Stone with its triple register and, what has been noted, tomb stones, monuments to a loved one who is absent, that has gone to infant school These are memorials to the trauma of castration or separation. In this Document, Kelly makes a critique of the sort of linguistics that drains language of its graphic medium-the mark as signifier and its unconscious, pictographic, associations (the little person ‘i’, the snake ‘s’).”

    Visualizing the Unconcious: Mary Kelly’s Installations, Margaret Iverson.

    Ok so Naoise is now AWAKE and yelling at the top of his voice demanding my attention. Luckily for me Patrick has gone to attend to his needs.

    I don’t think her work captures the interruptions of mothering, the constant rupturing of thoughts, the messiness and chaotic nature of maternal care. Although containing faecal stains from gossamer nappy liners, it is baby wiped clean of some of the complexities of emotions that take place when caring for a young child. The voice of the mother seems lost within the theory. Or perhaps I am lost in the theory ?

  3. Eti

    I’ve been asked twice if I’m close to giving birth, I suppose I was referring to the project coming close to full term and thought about how first time mothers are always so preoccupied with the birth itself, sometimes completely forgetting that there’s a lifetime of a new person about to start. I was looking at Mary Kelly’s work thinking if I know of any other art work out there that talks about very early motherhood and couldn’t think of any. Kelly’s work strikes me as absolutely heroic, maybe another ideal mother but in an art context, how the hell did she manage childcare and Lacan? I’m so inadequate!

  4. Helen Sargeant

    Agreed her work is both intellectually rigorous and heroic, a meticulous document of early maternal care.

    I have a folder of forms that they used to hand me at the end of the day when Naoise was attending nursery. The forms recorded information about what he had eaten, drunk, how many nappy changes he had had, at what time these took place, any observations about his development and progress. These forms always reminded me of Mary Kelly’s work, the difference being at a nursery you have a whole team of people working together to care for a child and make these records. What she achieved alone is amazing. Kelly’s work not only captures the everyday gestures of care and the developing relationship between mother and child, it also combines psychoanalysis. I feel completely inadequate too.


Leave a Reply