On ViewBaltimore Museum Of Art
April 4 – August 19, 2018
Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley’s films This is Offal (2016) and In the Body of the Sturgeon (2017) approach the grim mysteries of death with madcap humor. The artists have developed a totalizing, surreal aesthetic in black-and-white video that blends complex poetic dialogue and literary subjects with the loony delivery of children’s television from the 1990s. With Patrick behind the camera, Mary plays nearly every role, performing scripts written in tragicomic verse. In its ghoulish costuming, challenging use of language, and the collaborative dynamic of the artists, their work sometimes resembles that of Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. But in contrast to Fitch and Trecartin’s gleeful contemporary nihilism, Mary and Patrick work off history and mythology, their storytelling frequently rooted in the reanimation of Victorian poetry.
The presentation We Are Ghosts comes to Baltimore from the Tate Modern, where This is Offal debuted as a live performance in 2015. It is based on Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem “The Bridge of Sighs,” a pathos-drenched lamentation of the suicide of a young woman whose body has been pulled from the River Thames. Its narrator gushes that the “dishonor” of her suicide is redeemed at the sight of her vulnerable, pitiable corpse, in which “Death has left on her / Only the beautiful.” In one simplistic sense, This is Offal is a big eye-roll toward Hood’s attempts to humanize and moralize the dead woman. We see Mary as a drowned corpse on an autopsy table, her chest cavity starkly sutured, skin bruised, left foot and right hand missing, and eyes masked by bulbous black protuberances that occlude her personhood. A gloomy male physician examines the body, proclaiming it a selfish waste of life. But he is deaf to the corpse’s retort; she rises vaporously along with her own heart, stomach, and brain (each organ played by Mary’s disembodied, painted face superimposed on the screen) to speak from beyond the veil, expressing a nuanced mix of defiance, regret, and fear.
In contrast to Hood’s abstracting sentimentality, the gruesome embodied reality of decay is emphasized. As she literally unzips her own torso to pull more viscera from within, the corpse cries, “I stink therefore I am! Cast off all vanity, ‘cause this is offal!” The script is constructed entirely of such comedic wordplay; the severed hand admonishes the foot, “Shut up, you barking dog, you ankle-biter—I’m sure you’re happy now that your load’s lighter!” In contemporary English, puns like this are the disgraced minions of Dad jokes. But Mary fires off one after another, barreling right through the territory of awkward humor into a surprising realm of gymnastic paronomasia (play on words), conjuring the communicative power of the double-meaning as a tool for grappling with paradox. Though she’s been composing scripts in this punning style since emerging from Yale’s MFA program in 2009, it is especially potent here, where the subject at hand is the ultimate paradox of death. Humor and poetic ambiguity are the best tools we have to depict the unthinkable beyond, to peer over the banks of the rivers Jordan and Styx.
Death is also at the center of the second film, In the Body of the Sturgeon, which depicts crew-members on a fictional submarine at the end of World War II. This film dramatizes the sort of anxieties one assumes are exacerbated at the bottom of the ocean: boredom, isolation, anxiety, and mortal vulnerability. Inside the claustrophobic capsule, sailors languish in sweaty bunks, their fish-like faces and bulging eyes grotesquely prefiguring the corpses they shall become—the sub soon encounters a minefield, midway through a burlesque performance by one of the crewmates, or rather Mary in jubilant double-drag, with painted-on body hair, padded crotch, metal funnel-bra and a mop-wig.
The script is a poetic collage of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s fantasy epic about a Native American hero, The Song of Hiawatha (1855). If the connection between this poem and the film’s subject sounds opaque, perhaps it is why this work does not congeal as successfully as its companion. Where This is Offal takes its literary muse into new territories, Sturgeon feels encumbered by Longfellow as it works toward themes of warfare and the psychology of the doomed, though its closing lines resonate from beyond the watery grave: “We are ghosts, again transfigured / changed into so many fishes, hiding in the deep abysses / from unnecessary tumult.” The strength of this film, however, is its eerie aesthetic atmosphere and amazing set detail, down to hand-drawn pinup posters adorning the lonely men’s bunks. In crisp black and white, Mary and Patrick’s world resembles a fever-dream episode of The Twilight Zone, a haunted dimension of the imagination.