Artist Lesley Kerman on her new exhibition ‘Advice to Women in Management’
Viewers of the exhibition will discover irony in the title – ‘Advice’ implies a series of solutions, or suggestions, but the content of the exhibition uncovers problems that are far more complex and indeterminate than that. The etchings and objects in the exhibition address the experiences of women in management and arm them with an understanding and insight into the forces and drives at work or, as Mary Douglas explained in her book How Institutions Think.
This exhibition began with the discovery of a waterlogged briefcase. I found it half submerged, beyond the promontory at the end of the large island, in the river that runs past the bottom of my garden.
Imagine my amazement that evening, when I opened the catches, lifted the lid and peeled back the sodden paper to discover that the case contained the agenda for a forthcoming academic board meeting of an institution that I had recently left. Attached were papers considering the consequences of my departure and proposals made for restructuring the faculty, put forward by my former colleagues.
Moreover, there were internal applications for a post in the Senior Management Team of the University. Whoever owned the case had a clear strategy for dealing with the situation. The discovery was uncanny. As the anthropologist Michael Taussig said: ‘There are accidents so accidental that they must be the work of the gods’.
What was to be done with the case? I asked my friend who, at the time, was a vicar of a West Country Cathedral. He said that I could not return the case to the institution, as no-one would believe that I had found it. I read Frank Merrifield’s book on The Archeology of Ritual and Magic and discovered that in some burials, the close personal effects of the deceased; their bowls and platters, were placed in the mouth of the grave and sealed in plaster, an inert material used to prevent leakage between this world and the next. I bought some plaster of Paris from Tiranti’s and filled the case with plaster. I did not want the world that it contained leaking into my world ever again. Struggling to cope with the shock of the coincidence, I wrote a book about the contents of the case, but due to the nature of the terms of the legal agreement that I had signed, I couldn’t show it to anyone. So I made one copy of the book and embedded it in resin. The book that couldn’t be read said something about the way the institution had silenced me. Together the book and the briefcase had become a sculpture.
The events that provoked the work in this exhibition at Goldsmiths, University of London took place twenty years ago. I am sure that things must have improved for women managers in higher education since then.
A colleague told me that in the University of Manchester Library the Malleus Maleficorum, (The Hammer of Witches), 1487 Kramer and Sprenger’s handbook for the European witch trials, had been filed under ‘Business Management’. This, at first, seemed like a librarian’s joke, and then began to acquire significance. The collision of the world of management training with the anthropology of witchcraft provoked me to create a suite of etchings ‘Advice to Women in Management’. I began etching in an effort to understand what had happened to my flourishing career. Acid and needles seemed like the appropriate materials.
At the time, Val Walsh and Louise Morley were editing Feminist Academics – Creative Agents for Change. Val saw the etchings and wanted to include them in the book, but the publisher Taylor and Francis refused, seeing etchings as inappropriate in what was to be an academic text. Disappointed, I volunteered to write a chapter for their book. The exhibition at Goldsmiths is the first time that the etchings and the text have been presented together. The catalogue for this exhibition is called Advice to Women in Management.
Lawyers arranged compensation for the events that lead to this work. I had to sign an agreement that I would not talk to the press about the events leading up to my ‘retirement’, nor would I cross the threshold of the institution from which I was ‘retiring’. In return for being silenced, I received a sum of money, which enabled me to become a full time artist.
For many years I had a recurring nightmare, in which I would materialise in the library of the institution. There was a moment of delight when I recognised the many books that I had selected for the library, and then a sensation of horror when I realised that somehow I had crossed the threshold! If discovered, I would lose my compensation and my new life. I struggled to disappear. Because of this recurring dream I feel as if I know what it’s like to be a ghost.
This year an ex-student of mine invited me to the library. It was about to be demolished and the derelict building, the experience of standing in that space where I had materialised so often was cathartic. The opportunity of exhibiting this work in the Library at Goldsmiths has arrived at the perfect moment. I am not afraid any more.Tagged in: goldsmiths, Lesley Ke
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