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Exhibition of works by the British artist Rose Finn-Kelcey opens at Firstsite
Rose Finn-Kelcey, Jolly God, 1997. Courtesy the Estate of Rose Finn-Kelcey.

COLCHESTER.- Firstsite, Colchester, is presenting Power for the People, an exhibition of works by the highly acclaimed and influential British artist Rose Finn-Kelcey.

Finn-Kelcey (1945 – 2014) first came to prominence in the early 1970s as a central figure in Performance and Feminist art. This presentation, which is comprised of more than thirty works charting her forty-plus year career, highlights some of the recurring themes in Finn-Kelcey’s work, in particular empowerment, voice, faith and spirituality, and explores the conceptual strategies she employed to illuminate them.

If Finn-Kelcey’s artistic practice can be characterised at all, it would be by its unpredictability: each new work routinely defied the expectations created by its predecessor. It Pays to Pray (1999), originally in four parts and shown outside London’s Millennium Dome, is illustrative. It consists of vending machines selling prayers viewed on an LED display screen. Each prayer is named after a chocolate bar, bidding users, ‘the hungry souls’, to make their choice and get a quick, spiritual fix, as they might from a chocolate bar. A similar dry wit is at play in Jolly God (1997), a hand-tufted woolen rug work based on a Vatican airmail stamp showing God as a piratical figure with an eye-patch. This enlarged representation literally brings the religious patriarch down from the heavens, back to earth to be used as a floor-covering for mankind.

The show also features two of Finn-Kelcey’s performance-based films, each a documentation of the artist’s investigations into the construction and presentation of the personal and political self. Bull’s Eye (1985) centres around the figure of the matador. Over several years Finn-Kelcey insinuated herself into the lore and costume of the bullfighter and that of a flamenco dancer, engaging with concepts of control and precision, male/female ambiguity, ritual, and slaughter.

Also on display, Cutout (c. 1982) is a precursor performance of Finn-Kelcey’s seminal work, Glory. First performed at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1983, this is the first time this film has been shown. In it, Finn-Kelcey acts as both animator and controller of 100 surrogate performers arranged on a large table. Conceived as a personal response to the Falklands War, the artist takes on the role of puppeteer, commanding various cardboard cut-out generals, dictators, political leaders and weapons with a rake. Mimicking the actions of the battlefield planner or casino croupier, Finn-Kelcey takes control from those who normally hold the reins of power. In her terms, ‘playing God’ in this way is a metaphor for the activity of the artist, and a means of questioning art’s patriarchal associations with authority and mastery.

A unique work in her practice, Truth, Dare, Double-Dare (1994) encouraged Finn-Kelcey to relinquish control and authorship in order to create a collaborative work with fellow artist Donald Rodney (1961 – 1998). Both artists knew they took a risk in this commission by Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, but were keen to test the boundaries of collaboration and the delicate balance of individuality and ego involved. The resulting sound installation is the outcome of a painful process of confronting their own differences and incompatibility, challenging each other to say what they really thought of one another as in the children’s game of the same name. Uncomfortable yet compelling in its rawness, this very personal work is as difficult to hear as it was to make.

The show’s title comes from one of Finn-Kelcey’s most notable public interventions, a word-based flag work sited at Battersea Power Station. Rich in nuance and ambiguity, Power for the People (1972) puns on a popular protest slogan of the time, and, of course, what the building generated. The flag works are both objects (in the artist’s terms, ‘wind-dependent sculptures’), and messengers – tools of communication. To underscore the importance of the flag works, Firstsite will show a number of preparatory collages which offer insight into the way Finn-Kelcey explored site and language, as well as filmed documentation of a range of other flag works in situ – Fog, 1971 (Nottingham Castle, Nottingham), Here is a Gale Warning, 1971 (Alexandra Palace, London), and Variable Light to Moderate, 1971 (Funkturm Tower, Berlin).

In response to these works and others that were not realised in her lifetime, two contemporary artists, both friends of Finn-Kelcey, will show works alongside the exhibition. Peter Liversidge (b. 1973) will make a giant flag for the gallery’s entrance with the word ‘HELLO’ stitched in black on a white background, ushering visitors into the show. Simon Moretti (b. 1974) will show a neon work depicting a lightning strike taken from an eighteenth century Indian painting, an image often used as a symbol of divine intervention.

Says Firstsite Director, Sally Shaw: ‘We are truly honoured to be showing this extraordinary body of work by Rose Finn-Kelcey. The exhibition, which is being staged during Firstsite’s year-long exploration of identity, underlines not just Finn-Kelcey’s enduring relevance and influence on contemporary art, but her formidable intelligence, wit and originality.’

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