Open Frequency 2009: Nicola Kelly selected by Karen Ingham

Open Frequency 2009: Nicola Kelly selected by Karen Ingham Nicola Kelly, I Cut Your Hair While You Were Sleeping, 2008. Installation

Karen Ingham selects the work of Nicola Kelly

Nicola Kelly explores photography’s relationship with vernacular portraiture, death, and the memento mori. Her photographic images and installations are densely coded with both explicit and implicit references to the history of photography and photographic theories on indexicality and the uncanny.

This is particularly evident in the work she has been developing since 2003, ‘Under The Stairs I Found A Box’, which has evolved into a series of intimate photographic installations utilising photography, glass, parabolic mirrors, lockets and small pieces of fabric. The impetus for this work was Kelly’s move to a new house and the surprise discovery of a box of photographs under the stairs. Many of the images were of a small boy who was normally photographed on his own. Kelly’s fascination with these ‘found’ images and with the subject of the young boy was perhaps lent even greater significance through the artist’s relationship with her own young son. In creating memento mori objects for the photographic installations, Kelly’s practice was transformed into a material manifestation of the photographic fetish, as theorised by Marriane Hirsch:

'It is precisely the indexical nature of the photo, its status as relic, or trace, or fetish, its 'direct’ connection with the material presence of the photographed person that at once intensifies its status as harbinger of death and, at the same time and concomitantly, its capacity to signify life'.1

This notion of the fetish is most evident in the piece ‘I Cut Your Hair While You Were Sleeping’ (2008), which incorporates snippets of Kelly’s son’s hair placed within the photographic frame. Hair, ribbons and even teeth were used in the production of mourning jewellery, popular in Victorian society, with its high levels of child mortality. Kelly plays with these themes of loss and mourning through the production of an intimate series of family portraits, ‘Small Family Group' (2008) in which Kelly and her immediate family appear as ghostly images etched onto, or scratched off, the slightly mirrored surface on the paper.

There is a sense of the illusory in the ‘Untitled’ (2008) series of works, which includes lockets, display jars and sealed cases. I am reminded of Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in which time and space are reversed and things are not as they first appear. With her use of parabolic mirrors Kelly plays with this theme of illusion, creating photographic memento mori that we can see but not touch. Unlike Alice’s adventure, in Kelly’s world the illusory nature of reality is revealed not only through a mirror but also through the camera lens.


1. Family Frames: Photography and Post-Memory, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, 1997

Karen Ingham, September 2009

Artist's biography

Nicola Kelly graduated from the MA Contemporary Dialogues: Photography at Swansea Metropolitan University in 2008 following a BA (Hons) Degree in Photography in the Arts at Swansea Institute of Higher Education in 2001.

Selected exhibitions include Nicola Kelly/Rebecca Spooner, Oriel Mostyn Gallery 6 & 7, Llandudno (2008), MA Photography: Contemporary Dialogues, Ffoto Gallery, Turner House, Penarth (2008), Through the Lens: 1st RWA Open Photography Exhibition, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol (2008), Origins, Oriel Lliw Gallery, Pontardawe Arts Centre, Pontardawe, Swansea (2007), Dead Horse Arts Group, The Widcombe Studios, Comfortable Place, Bath (2007) and National Eisteddfod of Wales, Felindre Park, Swansea (2006). Nicola Kelly lives and works in Swansea.

About Karen Ingham

Karen Ingham is an artist, writer and curator, and the director of various research initiatives in lens-based arts, and arts, science and technology collaborations at Dynevor Centre for Art, Design and Media at Swansea Metropolitan University. She was born in England but raised in the United States, Germany and Norway, returning to England to study time-based arts in Nottingham in the 1980s. Following graduation she worked as an independent film director and screenwriter before moving to Wales where she worked at Chapter Arts Centre and the BBC before returning to her own practice. She gained an MPhil with the University of Wales in 2001 and a Doctorate in 2006 with research into historical and contemporary arts and science collaborations in the anatomical theatre.

Ingham works in lens-based arts and her practice is interdisciplinary, incorporating theory and practice. She has received support from The British Film Institute, The Wellcome Trust, The Arts & Humanities Research Council, The Arts Council of Wales and The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. She was awarded a 2006 Arts & Humanities Research Council 'Sci-Art Fellowship' for the project 'Seeds of Memory' where she collaborated with the Cardiff Neuroscience Research Group, and her installation 'Vanitas: Seed-Head', has been shown at The Waag, Amsterdam (2005) and ENTER 3 Festival, Prague (2007).

Her practice has been widely exhibited and disseminated with publications in distribution with Dewi Lewis Publishing, Ffotogallery Publications and Seren Books. Her research focuses predominantly on: biomedical discourse, 'Anatomy Lessons' (2004) and 'Re: Embodiments' (2008-10); the mind-body continuum, 'Vanitas: Seed-Head' (2005) and 'Seeds of Memory' (2006); the photographic memento-mori, 'Death's Witness' (2001); and the notion of place and belonging, 'Lost' (1998), 'Paradise Park' (2000), 'Ha Ha: Margam Re-visited' (2002 and co-edited with Christopher Coppock), and 'Unnatural Histories' (2008). Karen Ingham is represented by Millennium Images London and IRIS International Resource for Women's Photography.

Karen Ingham's research at Swansea Met University

Karen Ingham's profile on Iris (Research Group) 

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