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In Praise of Older Women
Catherine Elwes examines the video work of Kate Meynell for MAKE magazine. No 78, Dec 97 - Feb 98.

While we all speculate as to how young and how bad a woman artist needs to be to succeed these days, it is heartening and instructive to see very different shows by two mature artists.

Rose Finn-Kelcey has worked in performance, and installation since the early 1970s. She was a central figure in the performance fringe and the emerging feminist community of artists through organisations like the Women Artists Collective. Since those heady days of counter-cultural optimism, Rose has gone on to establish herself as one of the most rigorous and challenging artists of her generation.

I first experienced her work in a performance she gave in 1978 at the Space Studios in Covent Garden. The Boilermaker's Assistant revealed the artists in a darkened room sitting on a park bench whispering readings from the eponymous manual into a microphone. She should have been talking about some female secrets and lies or as is currently fashionable, giving a detailed description of her adolescent sexual fantasies, but instead we heard about "...C as a coefficient whose values are given, both for lapped joints and for double-butt strapped joints." She remained perfectly poised and controlled throughout and I remember feeling both enthralled at the beauty of the spectacle and disturbed by the thought that she might be parodying the then feminist emphasis on autobiography, on the personal as political. But although Rose's work is often predicated on an ironic use of cultural icons, her work has address the tricky issue of how a woman migh find a voice within the male culture and take up a masculine position of visible skill and mastery without renouncing her gender.

As Guy Brett has written, Rose Finn- Kelcey does not propose a feminine mythology to replace the male one she is questioning. By harnessing an early feminist tradition of a floating femininity, she has at times borrowed the voice of the thieving magpie, or taken shape as a "small being" as in her 1978 installation ,em>Book and PiIIow. This little humunculous embedded in a book became her alter ego who "forces me to look at myself from the outside, to be a spectator to my actions".(1) Whether present in her performances or represented by her own pre-recorded voice, or her "surrogate performers", Rose creates a sense of a femininity in the process of its own invention. She may take on the transgressive image of the outlawed bird as in her 1977 performance Her Mistresse's Voice, but her magpie-self speaks Shakespeare, nay but she shrieks it in an unladylike fashion to the limits of her vocal capacity. The shapes she takes on are never an easy fit, her costume is only every borrowed, and its wearing is as absurdly contradictory as lived experience itself. She does not hide behind her personae in the way that Cindy Sherman draws veils of mystery over her identity. Each work that Rose Finn-Kelcey creates reflects a truth of that moment as it was lived and a sense of what Rose is and what her work is about is acquired cumulatively with a knowledge of her activities spanning two decades.

At the Camden Arts Centre, Rose has created three installations, all substantially different from each other but linked in the perfection of their execution and the Alice effect of scaling-up familiar objects. In Pearly Gate (1997) the viewer encounters a massive white rural gate, standing alone at the far end of the gallery. The gate is slightly open but the formica-white perfection of the object discourages any attempt to either touch or push the barrier further open. In the same space at a slight distance stand grouped sacks of grain made of equally unpleasant to touch silicone. They bear an uncanny similarity to pop-up toast or thin cornish pasties, but they are decidedly unappetising. Both are scaled-up toys. Inevitably, one is reminded of Charles Ray's gigantesque business woman and his outsize toy engine at Saatchi's that teased its audience with art as child's play. But with Rose Finn-Kelcey this play on scale is altogether more chilling. The title itself refers to death and the return to childhood :hat one experiences in the face of the apparently insurmountable gate that leads into the gendered world which in some senses costs her her neuter status, what Joan Key calls "a space of rest from the endless vying for position of male/female organisation. "(3) That loss is a kind of death or closure. In this context, the perfection of the objects themselves, the pristine cleanliness of the finish conjures up the prime virginal intactness and domestic destiny of conventional femininity. These images of almost sacred female purity become all the more strained when the rural references of the piece remind us how impossible it would have been to remain clean down on the childhood farm.

Mary Douglas wrote in Purity and Danger that "Dirt offends against order."(4) Dirt is also significantly absent from the second world at Camden. Souls (1997) is an immaculate carpet, displayed on a ramp which would be impossible to sully at that angle. Woven into it is the blown-up image of a Vatican Stamp. The Pope sports a jaunty pirate's eye patch. He holds the key to transgression while the artist dutifully wove.

Join up the Dots (1997) in the last gallery announces itself with a wonderfully rural smell - the space is a foot deep in straw. The windows are blocked with bales of hay and the one clean wall is neatly painted with large black dots like a monochrome Damien Hirst. Even here there is a distinct absence of shit. Rose herself has spoken about the artistic process which demands a descent into chaos but which remains hidden in the final product:

”.....there's a part of me that thinks, 'Con I make this about chaos?' or have some aspects of the chaos in front of the scenes. The rest of the work has been through so many processes of refinement and has had so much attention that there's part of me that wants, in the third room, a space for another way of relating to the work. Less about something looking finished, and about, not chaos, but something messy."(5)

It was magnificently impossible. The arrangement of the straw and the apparent randomness of the dots remained as fine-tuned and considered as the gate and carpet. The tension between the immutable perfection of objects and the unpredictability of the human presence that was so much a feature of Rose Finn-Kelcey's performances gives way in these installations to the appearance of total control. The viewer may loll in the hay, or set fire to the room and so provide a moment of disruption, but the child in the artist is compelled to neatly join up the dots, tidily present her toys and not stain the carpet. The mess in her room and the turmoil of her unconscious desires is evident only in the measure of mastery and adult sophistication that it takes to keep them safely hidden.

Where Rose Finn-Kelcey's work conjures up the girl-child's socialisation towards order and cleanliness, Katharine Meynell embraces disorder and the messy business of the body and human relations in her videos and installations. Her early video Hannah's Songs (1986) luxuriates in the sensual image of her baby daughter as she re-enacts the Lacanian confrontation with a new, separate self returned to her in a mirror. In other works, Meynell has drawn on the unstable, permissive image of the enchantress, the fairy godmother who makes all things possible. In her installation Lost and Found (1994) a projected video image of the artist, barefoot and brazen in a virginal white dress stands "holding up" an actual recess in the wall. Inside, a real pair of red girl's shoes sit tidily immobile, heavy with nostalgia and hope for the future. In a number of works made with and about her daughter Hannah Kates Morgan, there is a sense of timelessness, in the interchangeability of mother and daughter or rather a confusion of memory and time scales that Rose Finn-Kelcey also achieves with her play on physical scale.

The body and its functions have always been a feature of Katharine Meynell's art. There is a kind of innocence and childlike directness in the way she plays with the restrictions and mandatory concealments that mark our western conventions of the body. In Vampires eat (1992), a tiny monitor is set into the upholstered seat of an ordinary chair. Where Rose's gate discourages you from climbing, Kate's chair repels the viewer with the diminutive video image of a lascivious tongue hungrily licking the internal screen. This mockery of male desire aims straight for the crux of castration fears. It would be hard to trust that seering tongue however much pleasure it promises. A woman spectator might enjoy the dangerous power of the Vagina Dentata, or the image of the Vampire which Kate Meynell describes as " .....woman disordered and out of order, unspeaking and unspeakable".(6) But as with so much of Kate Meynell's work, the humour and playfulness turn what might read as contemporary bad girl provocation or an oppositional feminist stance into a means of making contact, a gentle tease in the playground by way of an invitation to enter her world. As John Stezaker has written, "...the work of this artist is brave not because it accesses the 'powers of horror' but because it finds in this territory a point of contact with an other".(7)

But that contact is not always a harmonious one as Katharine Meynell discovered when she installed her most recent work Light, Water and Power (1997) in the foyer of the new Lux cinema in Hoxton Square. Working in collaboration with Alistair Skinner, Kate created a video installation inspired by the history of sanitation and the supply of water and electricity within the Shoreditch Metropolitan Borough. Three monitors set into the floor of the foyer showed the slow progression from pierced tarmac to mess and mud as council workers dug the proverbial hole in the road. Above the ticket office three corresponding video screens displayed a combination of street scenes and site plans culled from the borough archives. But the work did not end there. The civic system of utilities is designed to facilitate the needs and digestive behaviours of the human animal. So within the dictates of their subject, Kate and Alistair chose to intersperse the maps and street scenes with playful imagery of related activities such as dialling a phone, switching the light on and taking a shit. They viewed the piece as a collective performance and invited spectators to join in by drinking water and excreting it into the public sewer system. All very hygienic, but the London Film-maker's Co-op who commissioned the piece didn't see it that way. The offending shit shot was relegated to the floor monitors while the more acceptable images of a muddy hole in the road lost their conceptual edge by being projected onto the wall screens.

The reaction of the Lux administration is perhaps understandable given that the work formed part of the grand opening of the centre which also incorporates the London Electronic Arts gallery and post-production facilities. Public protest at this stage would not have set the venture off to a good start. But the censorship of the piece seems a little absurd given the long history of artists involvement with the body and its products. In the early 1960s, Piero Manzoni was selling his Merde d'Artiste to the highest bidder; by the mid-60s the Viennese Aktionists were rubbing their audience's faces in every human excretion and with the recent revival of interest in body products, Michael Curran made an elegant video of a man repeatedly spitting into the mouth of another. But John Stezaker pointed out, Kate Meynell does not set out to shock. Her images of the body and its functions are never isolated and always firmly integrated within the social and in this case within the historical base of the work.

After many years of artistic activity, both Rose Finn-Kelcey and Katharine Meynell have found ways of speaking through their work that relate to historical and contemporary trends but are never subject to them. It becomes important to consider the whole of an artists' output rather than the brief moments when her work corresponds to a current fashion. Women artists' work then takes on significance in relation to other women's practice as well as the cultural mainstream of each age.

Rose Finn-Kelcey has spoken about the ageism operating in the art world and the difficulties of making contemporary art when one is associated with what was central in the 1970s and 1980s. But it would be unthinkable to submit to the hegemony of the Yba syndrome and its economic base within the Saatchi empire. Historically, women artists are used to speaking when the establishment would have them stay silent. For women over 40, the current scene may look all too familiar. The suggestion that mature artists should retire into teaching is defied by these two exhibitions. I intend to be writing about Rose Finn-Kelcey and Katharine Meynell when we are all well into our 60s.

(1) Rose Finn-Kelcey quote by Guy Brett Rose Finn-Kelcey: Vacating the Premises, Chisenhale Gallery publication, 1993
(2) For a comprehensive survey of Rose Finn-Kelcey's work see Guy Brett, ibid
(3) Joan Key, "Neuter: Susana Solano and Kiki Smith" in make, the magazine of women's art, no.76 June-July 1997
(4) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, Routledge & Kegon Paul, 1978
(5) Rose Finn-Kelcey in conversation with Hermione Wiltshire, Camden Arts Centre publication, 1997
(6) Katharine Meynell quoted by Catherine Elwes in "The artist which is not One", Stains, exhibition catalogue, Middlesex University, 1994
(7) John Stezaker writing in Stains, ibid


Catherine Elwes is a videomaker and head of Lens Media at Camberwell College of Arts.

Rose Finn-Kelcey's solo exhibition is on at the Camden Arts Centre until 21 December 1997

Kate Meynell and Alistair Skinner were at the Lux Centre from 19 September - 26 October 1997

Catherine Elwes
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