37 years ago, the iconic chimneys of Battersea Power Station grew cold, their clouds of smoke grinding to a halt above the metallic river Thames. Few trees lined the river banks of this built-up heart of inner-London. With its unyielding foundations of concrete and steel, there appeared little left to bow to the forces of nature. Nothing to signal, really, that the air was even in motion.
Until this point, the smoke clouds billowing from the station’s ivory chimneys had traced the direction of the wind blustering through the city. For half a century, these clouds had served as visual markers of the shifting, migrating air all around, invisible yet perennially in motion. But in 1983, when the station was officially decommissioned, the air around south west London appeared, in the eyes of the passing onlooker, to suddenly stand still.
The closure of Battersea Power Station had come after decades of industry decline, in which Britain had begun its steady descent from industrial giant to industrial pygmy. Coal was increasingly becoming replaced by oil, natural gas and nuclear power, leading to a period of widespread industrial unrest as hundreds of coal mines were shut down throughout the 70s. Mass strikes and protests swept the country as coal workers fought for higher wages, resulting in power cuts on a scale that warranted a “national emergency.”
At the centre of the action, in 1972, Rose Finn-Kelcey’s public art display appeared suddenly against the station’s clay brick walls; large black flags billowing in the wind, broadcasting the slogan Power for the People across the rooftops. This work was part of a series of flags Finn-Kelcey created and displayed from the top of various European landmarks between 1968-73. Drawing on the kinetic art tradition of the previous decade, Finn-Kelcey named the flags ‘wind-blown objects,” for without the motion of the wind propelling them they could do little but hang limply, their messages hidden inside folds of fabric.
Power for the People is an inherently political work – political in the specific context of post-industrial strike, but political also on a broader and more structural level. Tapping into the context of social unrest, Finn-Kelcey’s work seeks to make visible the nameless people working, not only in Battersea, but in the mines and factories across the country fighting for fair employment.
Yet at the same time, Battersea is referenced as the literal source of power for millions of people’s homes (at its peak it was producing a fifth of London’s power.) This instantly makes the workers’ struggles and the wider social context personally relevant to individuals. It slyly prompts viewers to remember where the energy in their home actually originates from, pointing at a disconnectedness between individuals and the systems and processes that govern their lives.
It’s clear that when such a disconnectedness occurs, we’re more able to look past unfair employment within industries or, as is the case today, disregard the negative, harmful outputs of the energy that fuels what we consume. Ironically, the installation was eventually removed from Battersea due to complaints from Chelsea residents across the river.
What’s more, with the wind being necessary to reveal the content of the work, Finn-Kelcey alludes to the normally hidden qualities present in the environment. It probes and asks about meanings that are there but remain unnoticed until they are purposefully made visible.
During the time Finn-Kelcey was practising, many female artists were working to bring normative representations of women into the light, making them visible and subjecting them to questioning. Curator and artist Catherine Elwes recounts, in a recent roundtable discussion by Modern Art Oxford, Rose Finn-Kelcey’s weighty influence in this arena. Traditionally, Elwes argues, female representation was either obscured through domesticity or presented publicly as spectacle, eroticised as objects for male enjoyment.
Through much of her work, Finn-Kelcey seeks to unearth fragments of the lived experiences of women, moving beyond the limits of the domestic, of appearance, of mere representation. She presents a female subjectivity that is deeply human, rich in its emotional nuances of anxiety, confidence, doubt, experimentation, stretching far beyond palatable ideas of the pleasing, amicable, gentle feminine. What follows is a reaction against the images of women so dominant throughout art history which have been appropriated, represented and reproduced by men, removed from and devoid of any lived female experiences.
In The Restless Image: a discrepancy between the felt position and the seen position, Finn-Kelcey morphs the female body from its recognisable form, capturing a moment of thrilling, bewildering, youthful experience. Here, on the sands of Greatstone beach in Kent, she poses in a handstand, her face obscured by the billowing pleats of her skirt which falls around in a conch-like form. From the centre of this almost labial opening, her legs and arms grow out from either side albeit in reverse. Hands root her to the steady ground, feet stretch up and away from the known, out into the unpredictable world beyond where all known reference points, such as ‘up’ and ‘down,’ seem to have lost their relevance.
Researcher Eleanor Roberts claims that, in addressing the discrepancy between ‘seen’ and ‘felt’ positions, the title clearly situates the work within feminist discourses focussed on women as ‘seen’ objects in search of subjecthood. Perhaps it’s a somewhat confusing experience, contemplating one’s existence from the space between felt and seen experiences, searching for whatever ‘self’ can be extracted in this topsy-turvy world. Yet it’s also a moment of exhilaration, of daring protest through a defiant act, and a playful seeking to confuse rather than be confused, as the viewer moves their head from side to side, attempting to recognise and understand the strange, natural form growing up from the earth.
Finn-Kelcey seems to embrace this contradictory nature of experience and self, her works filled with moments of self-expressions in opposition to one another. In Book and Pillow, she gives form to the most anxious and unimpressive side of herself through a model of a small homunculus; a tiny pink critter, feeble and folded yet always lingering, always following her, from the heart of her work to the depths of her dreams and subconscious.Placed within the pages of a book balanced on a pillow, viewers are invited to hone in on this hidden, private, vulnerable side of the artist through a magnifying glass which, when picked up off the wall, activates the incessant sound of a buzzing fly.
In contrast, Finn-Kelcey’s Divided Self (Speakers’ Corner)’ shows the artist sitting in conversation with herself on a bench in Hyde Park. Rather than highlighting the angst that this fragmented, uncertain experience can at times provoke, she presents both sides of herself as confident, relaxed, equal counterparts, accepting one another as they playfully try out different angles and stances, enjoying the games of identity construction. This personal process is not hidden from view but acted out brazenly within the public realm of the city, bringing to light the hidden lived experiences that so often remain invisible.
In so many moments, Finn-Kelcey’s work seeks to capture and reveal the normally hidden qualities and meanings present in our environment, within ourselves and within others. When invited to exhibit at the Chisenhale Gallery in 1992, Finn-Kelcey discovered that during WWI the building had been a factory in which workers used steam to bend wood for Spitfire propellers. Once again, seeking to bring to light the latent narratives, people and meanings hidden within the very walls of the space around her, Finn-Kelcey created her 1992 Steam Installation piece, a sculpture made entirely of steam. Held in place by two curtains of cold air, a whirling cloud of air was made visible, swirling and dancing in perennial motion.
Not only does Finn-Kelcey create clouds of meaning, she manages to capture them for all to see, from the Battersea flag that gave form to hidden faces and forgotten systems, to the sculptures and images that unpick the tenuous fabrics of self construction. She’s a wind-like force, dislodging timeworn norms from their dusty coves and revealing news messages hidden deep inside folds of fabric.