Wonderland.

BEING HUMAN – DEBORAH KELLY

Ahead of the Being Human exhibition, we speak to artist Deborah Kelly about her series of collages, No Human Being is Illegal.

Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition collages
Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition collages

Now more than ever, it feels like there’s a necessity for art which delves into the experiences of different pockets of society. Identity and individuality are increasingly important in a time where the future seems less certain. For The Wellcome Collection’s Being Human exhibition, Deborah Kelly brings her poignant collages from Sydney to London – collages which explore multiple, diverse life experiences, from drug addiction to surgery.

The Being Human exhibition, opening on the 5th September, will journey into what it means to be human in the digital age and current atmosphere. With sections such as Genetics, Minds & Bodies, Infection and Environmental Breakdown, the exhibition will bring to life explorations and imitations of our “hopes and fears about new forms of medical knowledge, and our changing relationships with ourselves, each other and the world”.

Ahead of Being Human, we spoke to one of the many artists contributing their innovative artwork. Deborah Kelly tells us more about her project for the exhibition, No Human Being is Illegal (In All Our Glory)

Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition
Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition

Photography: Left Catherine McElhone, Right Nancy Skinner

Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition
Photography: Left Catherine McElhone, Right Nancy Skinner
Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition

Where did you initially get the idea for your No Human Being Is Illegal project?
Well, I was invited to a dream gig by curator Juliana Engberg: to make something for her 2014 Biennale of Sydney. I wanted to make the kind of work that only such a gigantic event allows you to scale for. My desire was to instigate a long, slow, collective project that would resonate with and be part of the moment in which it was made. Something that would exceed an individual artist’s work, in size, complexity, duration, depth and love.

How did you go about finding the volunteers that were involved?
Because of the Biennale’s media clout, callouts for both nude portrait subjects and for (fully-clothed!) people to participate in the workshops, making the collage elements, were broadcast on national and local radio and in many other forms of media. I needed 20 subjects and 50 workshoppers. This being Sydney, 279 people volunteered to disrobe, and 25 people offered to do the work.

So the first hurdle was choosing 20 subjects from the 279 expressions of interest. I invited everyone who had responded to either call to attend a public meeting and choose, and we all had the same amount of voting power. It was truly a wrenching decision, as so many amazing people had applied. But to share that heartache, and to vote together, really bonded us from the beginning. There were certain subject applicants I especially wanted in the project, and I did lobby for them, but they were not voted in. And that was the start of the workshop participants’ becoming genuine collaborators, and not ‘volunteers’.

What kinds of stories are being told by these collages?
So many stories! And so many kinds of stories. History, identity, musings, desires, whims, warnings, contemplations and literal tales of derring-do. Here’s one written by my father, who just turned 92, about his rascally childhood in depression-era rural Victoria. He’s in the work, and this prize-winning story is a distinct part of his portrait.

What materials did you use for the collages?
Thrown-away things. Old books, dead encyclopaedias. Wedding rings from broken relationships, a discarded dress, obsolete reference materials, tattered magazines. Partly for the practical reason that there’s enough stuff in the world already. And partly because the material, printed history of western civilisation is being sent to landfill, displaced by Wikipedia, usurped by the digital. All those deceased volumes are a world in ruin. Of course it’s largely an archive of straight white men’s colonial fantasies, and so eviscerating the books is perversely, vengefully thrilling. As is cutting free the images and setting them to tell quite other tales and truths.

Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition collage
Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition collage

Photography: Left Nancy Skinner

Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition collage
Photography: Left Nancy Skinner
Wonderland interview Deborah Kelly Being Human exhibition collage

How long did it take you to compose the collages in the project?
In the end about 70 people worked with me to devise and develop the portraits. The first 50 people worked together in thrice weekly workshops for nine months to devise and realise the portraits. So in human labour hours… I can’t do maths, but is it maybe years? Compressed into nine months through the intensive workshop schedule.

Can you say a bit more about why you wanted to title the project No Human Being Is Illegal (In All Our Glory)?
I understand that art is a little voice in a howling storm. But given the specific circumstances of this work (look up Biennale Boycott) and the bigger, ongoing, deja-vu catastrophe of the fortification of borders all around the planet, I was trying to add an absorbing, multi-valent voice. The title is a retort to the hate-mongers and race-baiters in and around the Australian government, and to what they have legitimised in public discourse.

What are you most influenced and inspired by in your work?
The teeming world.

What would you like people to get out of your work?
I’d like people to find it interesting, intimate and for them to be awed by the treasure of humanity.

Do you feel like this exhibition, with its roots in exploring identity and all its complexities, is particularly pertinent in the current landscape?
Oh, absolutely.

Being Human opens at The Wellcome Collection in London on the 5th September.

BEING HUMAN – DEBORAH KELLY

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