For the 19th Biennale of Sydney (2014), Australian artist Deborah Kelly presented a new suite of 19 life-sized portraits at the Art Gallery of NSW. Realised as and through a series of meetings and workshops, No Human Being Is Illegal (In All Our Glory) (2014) has been developed through weekly teaching and learning sessions, intensive collaborative artmaking and facilitated discussions.
The collaboration centres upon the nude photographic portraits of individuals who continued to be involved in the process. Workshop participants have and will barnacle the portraits with layers of archival and contemporary imagery specific to the subjects’ interests, attributes and vision, conveyed to the ensemble (through written, online or personal communications) by the portrait subjects themselves.
Participants have been invited through public callout to appear as subjects of the works; study and transmit technique; labour on the portraits; and donate archival imagery, envisaged primarily as obsolete reference books. The portraits, in process and complete, form a monumental company of amplified humanity with the metaphorical superpowers, cooperative skills, species empathy and historical knowledge to face the intersecting urgencies of our times.
The project is designed to render the institution permeable and productive, lively and uncertain. The process is devised to demystify artmaking, produce a creative milieu, and experiment with democracy’s applicability to collective artistic endeavour. This ambiguity of authorship, the process of exchange (of knowledge, skills, stories, trust) among the participants, the cumulative character and the open-endedness of the project itself, is proposed as an allegory for an idealised art institution and the sedimentary characteristics of its sandstone foundations.
For the better part of the last three decades, Kelly has created a prolific body of mixed-media artworks that are at once unexpected, humorous, provocative, egalitarian, challenging and profound. Often politically motivated, her artworks explore ideas of discrimination in all its manifestations, highlighting racial, sexual and religious prejudices that exist in society today.
Kelly’s artistic output can be loosely divided into two spheres: the public and the private. Many of her best-known works have occurred in the public realm, utilising highly visible canvases including billboards, bus shelters, postcards and human bodies. For Beware of the God (2005), commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney and later shown at the 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008), Kelly projected the work’s title (a spoonerism on the warning ‘Beware of the Dog’) on to evening clouds over Sydney Harbour. The work also consisted of 30-second videos screened at train stations in Sydney’s CBD, as well as stickers for the public with instructions from the artist on the back to ‘Pop the sticker somewhere that’s plagued by holy rollers, God botherers, or bearded blokes wielding vengeful-deity theories’.
Kelly frequently encourages viewers to participate in her work, as with Tank Man Tango (2009), an interactive and ephemeral memorial to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Inspired by the footsteps of ‘tank man’, the iconic lone man standing before the tanks attempting to drive out of the square after the massacre, Tank Man Tango contained instructions for a choreographed dance, broadcast on YouTube in four different languages. On the twentieth anniversary of the massacre, the dance was performed in over 20 cities across Australia and internationally, including Bristol, Leipzig, Mexico City, Philadelphia, Auckland, Athens and Brussels. Kelly granted participants licence to interpret the work in their own way, with each group adding a new dimension to its meaning.
In 2001, Kelly founded the group boat-people.org, a collective comprised of artists and media activists. Created in the heat of the Howard government’s controversy over asylum seekers, the group sought to respond creatively and purposefully to the government’s border regime. During the 2001 election campaign, the group projected a First Fleet tall ship with the words ‘BOAT PEOPLE’ on to the Sydney Opera House’s sails. Since then, it has continued to make public art around topics of race, nationhood, history and borders.
In recent years, Kelly has created a unique body of work in the form of collages which focus on themes of feminine representation. For the series ‘Tender Cuts’ (2010) and ‘Awfully Beastly’ (2011), she mixed images of high-end women’s fashion with cutouts of flora and fauna. This humorous look at popular and unquestioned depictions of women combined feathers, shells and bugs with leather handbags, brightly coloured lipsticks and fur.
Significant solo shows of Kelly’s work include ‘The Miracles’, Counihan Gallery, Melbourne (2013); ‘Make More Monsters’, Artspace, Sydney (2011); ‘Deborah Kelly’, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide (2009); and ‘Big Butch Billboard’, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney (2009). Her work has been included in several Australian group shows, and in international exhibitions including the 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008) and the 50th Venice Biennale (2003).