KELLY, Deborah; Beastliness
For several years, Deborah Kelly has been cutting up diverse magazines to create collages that amalgamate the feminine and the grotesque, spawning mythical hybrid beings that are fantastic in every sense. In this work, she revivifies the traditional handmade technique using digital animation technology. Beastliness 2011 is a vibrant, thumping bacchanalian fantasy that takes as many aesthetic cues from MTV as the photomontage exponents Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann and other proponents of twentieth century Dada - though both streams of influence express a passionate critique of society in their own manner.
Beastliness begins with a dreaming woman who wakes in a strange universe. As locks of hair swirl across her face - transforming her into something like a lavish werewolf - her singing lips becomes our gateway to a world of frenzied dancing beasts. Gyrating to a rising soundtrack, the creatures couple, climaxing with sprays of floral pleasure. Feathers fly as the characters consume each other in a post-coital conclusion that formally resembles an ouroboros - the ancient symbol found across many cultures depicting a snake or similarly slithering beast consuming itself, representing the circle of life and, in some contexts, immortality.
Kelly’s wild work recalls the two early fables. The first is a version of the fifteenth-century tale of knight Guerino the Wretch, who is drawn in by the prophet enchantress Sibyl of the Apennines. Her castle appears to be a paradise overflowing with handsome young people of every talent, grace and luxury, but in its true form, as is revealed at midnight each Friday, the paradise is shown to be an illusion of the devil inhabited only by snakes and serpents. Although Guerino eventually escapes, he soon returns, having reflected that such depths of pleasure are destined to have moments of ‘hell’.(1)
The second is the tale of Bluebeard, often interpreted as a male fear of infidelity in his wife, and being caught unknowingly raising another man’s child. Bluebeard, a wealthy aristocrat, is literally an ogre of a husband who punishes a string of young wives for their natural curiosity, killing and often eating them.(2) He is widely spurned because of his dreadful ‘blue’ beard, and Kelly’s dreaming, increasingly furry woman similarly toys with the idea of the unnatural growth; however, the artist makes a case for an expanded understanding of ‘women’ rather than drawing moralising inferences from appearances. Moreover, in the fable, brave men or magic would release Bluebeard’s wives from their predicament, but in Kelly’s version, there is nothing to be rescued from, as there is no patriarchal brutality to ruin this outrageously beautiful fantasy.
Deborah Kelly’s fairies are modelled on her interest in the influential teachings of Donna Haraway’s ‘A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century’. Haraway’s essay outlines the opportunity for feminists to break away from patriarchal structures narratives without turning to an essentialist position - a reductive conceptual framework in which all women are bound together in a simplistic description, marginalising the full diversity of womenhood.(3) Kelly’s strategy, then, is to embrace diversity, eschewing binaries of control and the constraints of normative expectations by re-mythologising femininity and, literally, metamorphosing our notion of gender.
Peter McKay, Artlines 1-2012, p.37.
1 Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, Chatto & Windus, London, 1994, pp.7-8.
2 Warner, pp.259-65.
3 Donna Haraway, ‘A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, New York, 1991, pp.149-81.