Mary Kelly

An Earthwork Performed


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Not on display

Mary Kelly born 1941
Petroleum coke, printed paper, film, 16mm, projection, black and white and video, monitor, colour and sound (stereo)
Overall display dimensions variable
Presented by Tate Patrons 2020


An Earthwork Performed 1970 can be exhibited as both a performance and a static installation; when installed, it consists of a regular pile of four hundred kilograms of petroleum coke, which is coal that has been processed for domestic use. The pile of coke is situated between a film projector mounted on a plinth and the projected image of the film on the wall. To the left of the pile of coke is a reel to reel tape recorder and an amplifier, and to the right is a video monitor; an antique shovel with a microphone is positioned sticking out of the pile of coke. This installation replicates the essential elements of the work when shown as a performance (with the absence of a second film projector). The work was first presented as a performance on 10 November 1970 at the London New Arts Lab in Camden with the artist Stephen Rothenburg as the performer, shoveling coke in the gallery, accompanied by filmed and recorded material. The surviving typewritten score for the performance is included as part of the installation and describes the performance as a layering of sound and a mix of recorded activity, live activity and amplified activity that reaches a crescendo. As Kelly recalled:

First there is the film of coke being shoveled, after five minutes, pre-recorded sound of shoveling starts; after five minutes, amplified sound of shoveling from live performance starts; then after five more minutes the video of live performance starts and is simultaneously shown on a monitor; after five minutes, second film projector starts, showing same film and at the same time, the pre-recorded sound of shoveling is amplified … This was the highpoint in the crescendo, ‘wall of sound’ effect.
(Mary Kelly, email correspondence with Tate curator Andrew Wilson via Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London, 22 August 2016.)

This ‘crescendo’ continues to build for twenty minutes, after which the film ends; five minutes later the video ends; at further five-minute intervals the tape ends, the microphone on the shovel is switched off, and finally the shoveling stops and the performance ends.

The work was first shown as a static installation in 2012 for the exhibition Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at MOCA Los Angeles and Haus der Kunst Munich. For this, the seventy-minute performance was compressed to a loop of six minutes. The single film projection runs for six minutes; sound recording of coke being shoveled starts after one minute and runs for five minutes; the amplified sound of coke being shoveled starts after two minutes and runs for three minutes; the video of shoveling with synchronised sound starts after three minutes and lasts for a minute. The loopings are continuously maintained.

Although An Earthwork Performed seems to be inscribed with the history of unionised labour activism – that became most pronounced two years after it was made, with the commencement of the first national miners’ strikes in Britain since the General Strike of 1926 – it provides a gendered structure for Kelly’s subsequent focus on the distinctions inherent in the sexual divisions of labour in both industrial and domestic contexts. Discussing An Earthwork Performed, the historian Siona Wilson has reflected how the miner is:

the cultural archetype of masculine manual labour. He serves as the standard for the left’s assumed gendering of work as a masculine norm. But the idea of the miner is invoked metonymically in An Earthwork Performed through the material of coal, since the labour the artist performs belongs to the realm of distribution not production. This is coke, coal that has been processed for household use, not the raw material produced by the labour of miners.
(Wilson 2015, pp.53–4.)

Wilson goes on to explain that this work provided the basis from which Kelly could ask questions that would form the core of her work for the rest of the decade: ‘What is the relationship of domestic labour to the traditional Marxist category of production? What happens when we adapt this Marxist approach to address the political aspects of nonproductive gendered labour, such as housework and the affective care of the mother or wife?’ (Ibid. p.54.) An Earthwork Performed also makes manifest – through performance – the degree to which conceptual art did not admit subjectivity within its remit. Specifically, An Earthwork Performed also initiates this critique of conceptual art practices through its direct reference to Land Art and the writing of Robert Smithson, in which ‘Earth Works’ are characterised as construction sites, by his comparison of them to ‘pavements, holes, trenches, mounds, heaps, paths, ditches, roads, terraces, etc.’ (quoted in Jack D. Flam [ed.], Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Berkeley 1996, p.56). For Kelly, the masculine site of construction that typified much Land Art was exchanged for an abstracted (rather than romanticised) image of the domestic labour needed to keep the house warm.

Further reading
Margaret Iverson, Douglas Crimp and Homi K.Bhabha, Mary Kelly, London 1997, reproduced pp.10–11.
Phillipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon (eds.), Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, exhibition catalogue, MOCA, Los Angeles 2012.
Siona Wilson, Art Labor, Sex Politics, Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance, Minneapolis 2015, reproduced pl. no.1.

Andrew Wilson
October 2016

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