In Mary Reid Kelley’s videos, bawdy characters, performed by the artist, bewitch with complex wordplay. Produced with Patrick Kelley, the videos are set inside a black-and-white world of bespoke props and costumes where ancient Greek mythology mingles with allusions to art history and popular culture alike. The cadence of the scripts, which are written in meter, slows down the spinning narratives, as they delve into gender iniquity and sexual taboos. Last month, Kelley was named a MacArthur Fellow for her cultural contributions, especially her cerebral commentary on women’s roles throughout history.
Five videos can be seen at Reid Kelley’s current show, We’re Wallowing Here in Your Disco Tent, on New York City’s High Line. “The Syphilis of Sisyphus” (2011) gives voice to a 19th-century pregnant Parisian woman, who disparages the idealism of modernity. In “The Queen’s English” (2008), a nurse on the Western Front during World War I watches a soldier slowly die, while over in London, “Sadie, The Saddest Sadist” (2009) explores the conditions for female factory workers during the war. Drunkenness thwarts the existentialist journey of Dionysus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur in “The Thong of Dionysus” (2015), and lastly, “Camel Toe” (2008) similarly conveys a more comedic inflection, when a male aviator grapples with the loss of his lover with a curious distraction.
On the phone with Reid Kelley, she reminded me of the cardinal rule of comedians: never explain your jokes. But we did talk about minotaurs, makeup, and more.
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Jacquelyn Gleisner: The minotaur — a mythological creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head — has appeared in Dante’s Inferno, numerous paintings and drawings by Pablo Picasso, and “The House of Asterion,” a short story by Jorge Louis Borges, among others. It is also the central theme for your recent film trilogy, which includes “Priapus Agonistes” (2013), “Swinburne’s Pasiphae” (2014), and “The Thong of Dionysus” (2015). What does this ancient creature have to offer contemporary audiences?
Mary Reid Kelley: The idea of the minotaur is so old that it’s impossible to say that somebody authored it, or has authority over its meaning, making it a very appealing artistic costume. Picasso made the minotaur a very personal symbol, and he elaborated on it at length. He imagined an island full of minotaurs, plural. He thought of them as a bunch of beasts who were always confused, and being killed and humiliated in public. When I pick up the symbol of the minotaur, it is for the same reasons that other artists have done so: to say something about myself.
JG: The language of your films is full of puns. For example, the three protagonists of “The Thong of Dionysus” — Dionysus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur — are on a quest to find “a raisin to live.” Why are puns so important to your work?
MRK: One explanation is that I think of puns being a verbal cubism where you can get a word to hold multiple facets of meaning that have no logical relationship to each other. The association exists through pure phonic chance, and it’s fun to exploit this artistically.
The other reason is that as soon as I started writing seriously as a part of my work as an artist, the puns came pouring out. I was in my late 20s when I tried to write verse for the first time, so I discovered my inner punster fairly late in the game.
I admire artists who can’t be separated from their sketchbooks. They are constantly drawing, and that is fundamentally how they relate to the world. I didn’t discover wordplay as a fundamental way that I related to the world until I tried to do something that I had never tried to do before, which is to try to write a poem.
The reason that I’m giving you both explanations is that you don’t always have a choice as an artist as to what methods or tactics you can use. I would be dishonest to say that this is my conscious and rational choice to write this way. I don’t think I could write another way.
JG: Your mother never wore makeup, but you were obsessed with it growing up. The costumes and makeup in your films do not idealize the female image. For instance, you’ve embellished the pubic hair of several female characters, including Pasiphaë. How did you develop the aesthetic of this character?
MRK: I wanted to draw an aggressive picture of female sexual self-determination, which defines Pasiphaë in the films. I borrowed a pre-existing caricature of the feminine ideal — the titillating California beach babe — but included this exaggerated pubic hair fringe, which renounces the interventions that result in the beach babe: the plastic surgery, the razors, the bleach, the tanning. The “natural” feminine is literally spilling from her clothes; it can’t be suppressed. I think that the grotesque and the ideal are two sides of the same coin, and Pasiphaë is sexy in this conventional way, but she also has the profuse, flagrant pubic hair. It was interesting to make the two sides of the coin visible at the same time.
JG: Your process begins with extensive research. While you were working on “You Make Me Iliad” (2010), you read accounts from soldiers and medical officers about prostitutes during World War I. In this film and others, you focus on untold stories of female trauma and working conditions for women. What is important to you about writing and narrating stories from these perspectives?
MRK: Most World War I material is about the soldier experience, and is from their perspective, but there is significant scholarship about women workers. We know that women drove ambulances. We know that women worked in huge numbers in munitions factories. Women have been interviewed about their work in munitions and nursing. Yet there is an enormous difference between these women and the women who did sex work, about whom there’s almost nothing. We didn’t lose those stories through carelessness. They were suppressed. The primary suppressors were the women themselves because the personal consequences of telling that story would have been enormous.
Attempting to come into contact with these women and failing to do so was profoundly sad and disturbing for me. But by imagining these characters, I can participate in one of the ways that humans can reconnect with a past, even if it’s fragmentary.
Mary Reid Kelley: We’re Wallowing Here in Your Disco Tent continues at High Line Art (High Line Channel 14, West 14th Street Passage, the High Line, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 2.