Kelly Mark: Always Working

Kelly Mark

Kelly Mark: Always working

By Rosemary Heather

The fusion of art with everyday life has been a perennial ambition of contemporary art, but today it seems forgotten. An obvious explanation: this goal has already been achieved. The future as predicted by the avant-garde is here, in other words. The signs for this are ample, if poorly organized in the contemporary psyche; futurologist Alvin Toffler has made a career out of the insight that the rate of change in the West far outstrips our ability to adapt to it. Even if the avant-garde’s penchant for prognostication is now a thing of the past, art continues to be adept at creating the templates to help us recognize change, to see the reality of it. For a template close at hand, look no further than the work of Toronto artist, Kelly Mark; or rather look to the artist, Kelly Mark, fusion of art and life.

Tracing her history, it is easy to see how the changes undergone within Mark’s art-making parallel changes undergone within the wider culture. Starting out a hardcore conceptualist, the art she makes today has more in common with what Mark terms, “re-creativity”; this shift in thinking about her practice is in part inspired by the wholesale changes in culture being wrought by digital technologies. All the while, the work she produces retains the elegance that only the formal solutions found within art can provide.

An artist of prodigious output, Mark’s artworks bear the distinctive attributes of Canadian East Coast conceptualism. Originating at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), this is a legacy that begins with the 1967 appointment as Director of Garry Neil Kennedy, himself an inveterate conceptualist. Kennedy’s 23 year long tenure transformed the school, in part because he initiated a visiting artist program that featured leading-edge practiconers of the moment, including Vito Acconci, Dan Graham and Sol Lewitt. The rugged costal outpost of Halifax proved to be an ideal backdrop for the imagining of the spare de-materialized artworks characteristic of first generation conceptualism. This combined with the 1972 launch of NASCAD University Press, which published monographs by influential artists’ like Michael Snow and Yvonne Rainer, helped to cement the school’s reputation, one that lingers to this day.

Sol Lewitt famously described ‘the idea’, the core attribute of conceptualism, as the “machine that makes the [art]work.” In its purest form, this type of practice can consist purely of verbal statements, either written on the wall, as in the declarative sentences of Laurence Weiner, or existing as a set of instructions, as in the Fluxus-aligned work of Yoko Ono. Although seemingly easy to do, the difficulty of making artworks in this vein finds its best summation in the colloquial expression, “ideas are a dime a dozen.” Because it begins with an idea, the conceptual artwork is necessarily anchored in the person of the artist. For such an artwork to become ‘real’, the artist must be unwavering in their commitment to the concept that makes it possible, maintaining it in whatever way is necessary.

The performance-based works by the German artist, Tino Seghal, for example, are only realized in the moment of their enactment by performers hired by the artist, and are never documented. Forbidding any images to be made of his work ensures that Seghal remains the final authority of their verification; they ensue from and return to him, as it were. Seghal’s work represents one extreme of conceptualism’s contemporary legacy. Works by Kelly Mark on the other hand­ have more in common with minimalist strategies for art making, but employ a similar steely resolve in the use of self to establish their veracity.

Like a Donald Judd sculpture, many of Mark’s works’ find form through repetition. In the ongoing performance, In & Out (1997-), Mark punches a time clock installed in her studio every time she starts and finishes work since 1997.  That her studio doubles as her living space points to the fluidity the artist sustains between the two modes. The punch clock performance stands as a wry commentary on how very thin the dividing line is between the two for the artist. Adding a further dimension of self-deprecation to the piece, since 1999 it has been owned by the Toronto collector, Dr. Paul Marks, meaning that Mark, in effect, has a “boss” who pays her on a yearly basis for the work. Currently, employer and employee in this arrangement are looking for a buyer for the piece, preferably by a Canadian art institution that has the vision to match Mark’s long-term commitment to her art.

In & Out is an update on Tehching Hsieh’s Time Piece, one of a number of year-long performances enacted by the artist. Originally from Taiwan, the New York-based Hsieh punched a time clock once an hour, every hour, for a year, from April 11th, 1980 through April 11th, 1981. Each time, he documented the performance by taking a picture, resulting in a 6 minute-long stop-motion animation. Hsieh counts only six pieces in his body of work as a whole, all of them employing a combination of declaration (“I will…”) and action that often involved extraordinary feats of endurance (perhaps most famously, he spent an entire year tied to the artist Linda Montano by a rope, the two never touching.) His use of the calendar year to structure each performance gives his work a conceptual clarity, one that invites his audience to contemplate the meaning of time and the arbitrary nature of our frameworks for measuring it.

Mark has said that her own time clock piece will continue until she “retires.” Itself a work of endurance, In & Out resonates with certain conditions in the contemporary world in a way that distinguishes it from Hsieh’s Time Piece. If Hsieh’s work, in its conceptual purity, is the art world equivalent of the Great Wall of China as viewed from space, Mark approaches the goal of marking her time as an artist from a less exulted perspective. In a related performance that has been ongoing since 2003, she often wears a dark blue nylon windbreaker in public, sometimes in combination with a peaked cap each embroidered with the word, “Staff”, which is also the title of the work. For its humor and the insight it offers into Mark’s choice of art as a profession, a statement posted on her website about it is worth quoting in full:

“I tend to show up late. I usually leave early. I take long breaks. I have issues with authority. I don’t follow instructions. I don’t work well with others. I drink on the job. I complain a lot. But I’m always working…”

By her own account, she is a ‘bad’ employee, but the job requires nothing less than her full commitment. Setting herself up as an ‘art worker’, she comments on the 21st century conditions of both work and art. She is “always working” and yet, at least in the case of In & Out, faces potential job insecurity. Saving the artist from the prospect of ever experiencing real joblessness, however, is the purpose she applies to the tasks she sets herself, one that gives a whole new meaning to the term: ‘self-employment’. For Mark, art is not a job, it’s a vocation.

Mark’s refashioning of first generation conceptualist heroics into the register of mundane serves as a comment on the banal status of the object in contemporary art. This is a utilitarian approach to art making which privileges not the unique object but any ‘ready made’ substitute thought suitable for making the artist’s point. It’s a type of practice that dates back at least to Duchamp, although the use of what Clement Greenberg termed “extraneous elements” in collage, such as pieces of newspaper or graphics from commercial advertising marks perhaps the first appearance of the ‘everyday’ in art.  In an early work, Mark used a thimble to count grains of salt. Arriving at the number of approximately 52,000, she then used this figure to create Pillar: 100 Million Grains of Salt (1997). Composed of stacked identical sets of filled salt shakers, of the variety you would find in a greasy spoon, the work resonates with the readymade, minimalist practice, and the biblical story of Lot’s wife. It also demonstrates how conceptual rigor combined with the fact of sheer repetition can push meaningless activity–like counting grains of salt or punching a time clock–over an invisible line to a point where it accrues meaning within the field of art.

Early conceptual practice was often said to be engaged in a process of “dematerializing” the art object. In its immateriality and indifference to traditional forms of art-making it was thought to represent a kind of resistance to the art market. Considered thirty odd years after it began, however, conceptual art looks to have a wider ramification, that is: as a prefiguring of the very dematerialization of Western culture into the virtual world we semi-inhabit today.

Across her practice, Mark makes free use of whichever conceptual strategies she chooses, in which ever combination she finds useful. In the 20th century art parlance, such a bold repurposing of the work of one’s predecessors was given an oedipal narrative; aesthetic innovation required a certain degree of disrespect and even patricide of what had come before. Now it looks as if not only works of art, or oeuvres or traditions of art-making are under threat, but that an entire cultural order is coming to an end. The difficulty experienced by the music industry in preventing the sharing of music files on the internet is the most tangible symptom of this change; fatally undermining the argument that, although freely available digital music files should be paid for, is the ease with which new technologies abet such activity. Mark’s polyglot practice indicates the artist holds a similar viewpoint on ideas about ownership: conceptual strategies are in the ether, free for everyone to use. This is the obverse side of the readymade coin, and is an attitude given guileless expression on the button Mark occasionally wears and has been informally distributing since 2003 that says, “Everything is Interesting”.

The idea that everything is potential subject matter for art suggests that the postmodern dismantling of the dichotomy between high and low cultures has reached a point of synthesis. The culture we currently live in has a tendency towards the immersive; we are all insiders now, sophisticated manipulators within the spectrum of codes history has left to us. Many of Mark’s more recent works address this condition. Embodying the idea of the immersive is Glow House, a work that Mark has created three times in three different cities (Winnipeg, Birmingham and Toronto) since 2003. In it numerous TV sets are placed in every room of a house acquired for the project, all of them tuned to the same channel. Looking at the work from the street at night, viewers see the house gently pulsing from the collective glow of the TV monitors.  Taking her cue from the televisual flicker that emanates from residential neighborhoods every night, Mark metaphorically accumulates the ether of our communal entertainments to create a gorgeous, evanescent artwork.

Writing about the project, Toronto artist and curator Dave Dyment notes that, “we rarely think of televised images as made of light.” From this initial perception, Mark has gone on to make a number of works that use TV light as a source material. In the Glow Video Installation Series (Horror/Suspense/Romance /Porn/Kung-Fu) (2005), she records the pulse of light from different film genres as it is reflected off the wall. The films that result are then presented on monitors as sculptural works. Installed a number of different times with the monitors positioned back to back or pointing towards the ceiling, each permutation of the work is titled according to the film genre of its original light source, the different genres creating different perceptual experiences in rhythm and light. That the experience of TV is no less seductive with its content removed, speaks to a mass cultural preference for to live in a netherworld made up of molecules of light.

Writing about the effects of mechanical reproduction over 70 years ago, Walter Benjamin theorized that mass entertainments created a new form of reception, cinema viewers absorbing a film in a way that did not require their direct attention. Itself a kind of prophecy of the eventual fusion of art with everyday life, with the advent of digital technologies, this cultural capacity for distracted apperception has been multiplied tenfold. Mark’s epic work REM (2007) recreates this experience using cinema as its source. Over two hours in length and compiled from over 170 films and TV shows, REM creates a composite feature film from disparate clips she recorded off the television. The narrative presented is coherent because by definition film genre provides the building blocks of storytelling.  Watching the work, however, it soon becomes apparent that a semblance of coherence is all that is required; in REM following the ‘narrative’ is akin to the experience of being adrift in your own thoughts. The work is a parable for our culture lost inside the figments of its own imagination. Like her practice as an artist as a whole, it brings a syncretic intelligence to bear on film detritus to bring us the insight that our culture belongs to us. In the subtle shift in thinking that is required to grasp this idea is the future of our culture, one that we already living in today.

This text orginally published in Canadian Art, Winter 2007. 

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