When I first read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ (1855), or had it read to me, I was young. I remember the plot, which recounts the adventures of the eponymous Ojibwe warrior. I remember the rhythm of the trochaic tetrameter, which thuds in the back of your skull: ‘By the shore of Gitche Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water’. But, mostly, I remember the imagery: the spirits that whip around the young lead as he ventures into the unknown, armed with nothing but bow, arrow and birch canoe.
These words have since turned. To a contemporary audience, Longfellow’s epic is a work of ferocious literary orientalism. The poet never spent time with his ‘noble savage’, but constructed the 31,000-word pastiche of ‘nativeness’ from a distance, positioning the fetishized primitives within a pantheistic world of spirit and simplicity. Hiawatha learns written language (‘the art of Picture-Writing’); marries the ‘Handsomest of all the women’; slays the magician ‘Pearl-Feather’; and, finally, embraces ‘the Pale-Face’, who brings word of Jesus Christ.
‘The Song of Hiawatha’ was never intended as an ethnographic report; it was a work attempting to define American whiteness through a vocalization of everything that it was not. Longfellow achieves this with the skill of a master poet. The stress pattern, for instance, is not native to the English language, but Balto-Finnic, which leaves ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ with an intentionally unrefined gait. And, while authentic Ojibwe vocabulary stipples the text, Longfellow is cautious with omissions. Certain terms, crucially those pertaining to logic and reason, are absent. The word ‘family’ does not feature. Here, we have an entire people set in opposition to the Victorian Anglo-American conception of civilization; here, we have words radicalized and sent to war.
These words turn, again, in the latest film by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, In the Body of the Sturgeon (2017). The script, composed by Mary, is a cento – a ripped up, reconstituted version of Longfellow’s magnum opus that tells the tale of a submarine crew lost in the Pacific towards the end of World War II. We find the company (all of whom are played by a make-up-caked Mary, filmed by Patrick) languishing in a burlesque Das Boot (The Boat, 1981) bardo, like heavily contoured characters from a Käthe Kollwitz woodcut. They flail in bunk beds flanked by pin-ups; guzzle jerrycans of distilled fuel; and bawl, blue-balled, as a sea-dog in drag gyrates: ‘Set us free from this dark prison!’
Longfellow’s language fits the madcap narrative with unexpected precision. The distilled fuels are ‘spirits, / Made with harvest of the cornfield’; the spoils of war are ‘the blood stains from your fingers’. This unlikely marriage is made most apparent when US President Harry S. Truman flickers onto a television to spread the gospel of the atom bombs jettisoned above Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman’s original speech, made on 6 August 1945, was curious. Tasked with explaining the mechanics of this harbinger of death to citizens unversed in nuclear physics, the president’s advisers turned to metaphor: ‘It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed.’ Mary’s appropriation of the script is no more, nor less, fantastical: ‘We have found the fatal secret, / And the sun is split asunder.’
This act of conjuring an unknown through a delusive deployment of language is one of the strands binding together In the Body of the Sturgeon. As Mary says: ‘Longfellow’s language is inappropriate to the submarine, as it is to the Native American subject.’1 I would add: ‘a harnessing of the basic power of the universe’ is an inadequate description of nuclear fission. Here, we find numerous communities (Longfellow’s readers, the Sturgeon’s G.I.s; Truman’s subjects) blinkered by poetics, by rhetoric. Here, we glimpse the duplicitous potential of language. As the film approaches its final act, the sub strikes a mine. Delirious, a remaining officer embraces wordlessness: ‘Very quiet lies the Sturgeon […] Very sleepy with the silence.’
As the vessel floats, pendulous, we drift towards the artists’ 2016 film, This Is Offal, and the six-day-old corpse of an unnamed woman who has thrown herself into a river. Mary’s script, fit to pop with puns and part-inspired by Thomas Hood’s poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs’ (1844), lifts spirits. Ahead of an impending dissection, our would-be Ophelia’s sassy organs hover, mid-rapture, and bicker. A caustic liver blames the brain (‘Your neural cells should all be fired’); a still-beating heart jumps at the prospect of a new home. A feckless brain exonerates; a severed hand and foot lick their wounds: ‘You think I’m so pedestrian, so boring / Spending all day with the flooring.’
As a weary pathologist, played by Patrick, paces, the corpse lurches with saccharine sprightliness: ‘Why would I feel sorrow, or remorse? / I’m a priceless pedagogical resource!’ Giddy at the thought of becoming a slab of meat with use-value, a body upon which ‘the med students linger’, she giggles: ‘Acetic acid keeps me in my prime! / My ass was preserved in the knickers of time.’ As curator Kristen Hileman has noted, this is ‘a woman so consumed by appearance and fashion that she wears the brutal evidence of death as adornment.’ Sexy. Dead, dead sexy.
To watch such brazenly caricatured stereotypes of femininity play out as a male viewer is to feel Laura Mulvey’s breath at your neck: ‘Woman’s desire is subjugated to her image [...] as bearer, not maker, of meaning.’2 In casting their Anatomical Venus as the enforcer of said subjugation, Mary and Patrick satirize this to death, making explicit how the violence of gender can be internalized, triggering conflicts that savage the self. On cue, the cadaver’s spirit breaks: ‘Having grown my shackles, now I’m bound / To shimmy for this theatre in the drowned.’ Her brain – cruel, collected – crows: ‘This is the river that the boatman picks, / You can’t be pulled from it, because it Styx.’
Here, in the evacuated body of yet another artistic rendering of a female suicide, we discern a socially constructed opposition between meat and cognitive matter that ensures mind plays body, body plays soul, and soul, succumbing to the frenetic contradictions, hurls itself from a bridge. Man, here, remains passive and, crucially, undrowned.
Mary Reid Kelley with Patrick Kelley, The Thong of Dionysus from 'The Minotaur Trilogy', 2015, video still. Courtesy: the artists, Pilar Corrias, London, Susanne Vielmetter LA Projects, Los Angeles, Fredericks & Freiser Gallery, New York, and Arratia Beer, Berlin
Mary and Patrick’s films are post-mortem parodies: disjointed variations on a theme that sees repetition deployed at an ironic remove. Under a metahistorical guise, they pounce upon the various hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age and, in making them equal parts legible and ludicrous, unveil their deep-set problematics. Call it Brechtian distancing with a burlesque twang. In ‘The Minotaur Trilogy’ (2013–15), this estrangement sees us re-acquainted with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. In the original tale, King Minos refuses to sacrifice his prized bull to Poseidon, who, in turn, curses the King’s wife, Pasiphaë, to forever yearn for the bovine brute. With a little help from a friend (the master-craftsman Daedalus and his wooden heifer), this lust finds its outlet and unto the world a beast is born: the Minotaur, a gruesome composite destined to forever moulder in a labyrinth and feast on Athenian sacrifices. Enraged by this programmatic slaughter, the mighty Theseus travels to the labyrinth and, with the assistance of Minos’s neglected daughter Ariadne, slays his foe. Women: abused and overlooked; men: cleaning up after other men. Oh, the truths that tales conceal.
‘The Minotaur Trilogy’ – comprising Priapus Agonistes (2013), Swinburne’sPasiphae (2014) and The Thong of Dionysus (2015) – re-imagines these various small tragedies as a hallucinatory drag act set within mischievous monochromatics. Theseus, re-incarnated as Priapus, wears a belt of foodstuffs, a fish over an eye and the irritating bravado of a sexually frustrated teen (‘O Queen, I’m at your cervix’); Dionysus writhes, dick out, on a chaise longue, bemoaning humanity’s preoccupation with the non-alcoholic; Venus has the face of a pug. Mary and Patrick’s Minotaur also stands apart from convention. What for Ovid was a ‘hybrid monster’, here is piteous. She (for it is a she, replete with outlined breasts and a pubic shrub) scuttles through her labyrinth with a bag on her head. She chases her tail, searches for a lavatory, searches for a family, aping the tragic Minotaur of Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘The House of Asterion’ (1947). Stricken with loneliness, Borges’s outcast yearns for death. ‘Would you believe it, Ariadne?’ a bloodied Theseus exclaims at the story’s close. ‘The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.’
Swinburne’s Pasiphae, which visualizes the scheming of Pasiphaë and Daedalus that enabled the creature’s conception, takes as its script a poem by the 19th-century writer Algernon Charles Swinburne. Swinburne was a poet enveloped in taboo. He wrote on cannibalism, necrophilia and bestiality, drank excessively, was partial to a beating and boasted about copulating with a monkey. But, even for Swinburne, ‘Pasiphaë’ was too salacious a beast to publish. The work remains unsettling, as when Daedalus foretells that the queen will be saturated with ‘Sweet stings & pleasurable warm violences’, with ‘shoots of fluid flame through the aching blood’.
Swinburne’s language renders endearing to his readers a queen tormented by aberrational desires and, in doing so, reclaims said desires from the clutches of taboo. The poem is, as historian Catherine Maxwell notes, a ‘pleasurable violence’ itself; an artistic conduit through which the reader can experience the liberating potential of licentious pleasures. With ‘The Minotaur Trilogy’, Mary and Patrick follow suit, puncturing the normative identities proposed by the original myth and allowing us to acquaint ourselves with their grotty undersides: with bountiful ‘selfs’ that are fluid and erratic, riddled with luscious urges and digressions. They also forewarn against the repression of such (ab)normalities. We flick back to our Minotaur, fly-ridden and motionless.
In contorting the didactic system of this archetypal Grecian apologue and using it as a vessel through which to champion all that it is not, Mary and Patrick proffer a cautionary case study. Just as Swinburne’s ‘Pasiphaë’ is not – to lift Mary’s words – a straightforward ‘boosting [of] artistic freedom’ but a ‘dramatization of its risks’3, so, too, is this Bacchanalian trilogy an admonitory nod towards the seductions of artistic creation. For, while Daedalus’s ‘marvellous handicraft’ facilitated the gratification of carnal urges, it was deployed for one purpose: to deceive. And while Mary’s ability to slide between bodies jabs at the conventions of comedy, tragedy and history, she remains an artist in drag – a form that screams, to invoke anthropologist Esther Newton, ‘appearance is an illusion’.
Words are deceitful little things. Letters, violent. But stories are the worst of all. In bringing up these bodies and tragicomically bastardizing their ghosts, Mary and Patrick not only give voice to those omitted from official histories, but demonstrate the possibility of such resuscitations. They exemplify how historical plotlines and the words of those populating them can be co-opted and cut loose; how the language that defines us is only ours until death do us part with the right to control it. In this, they call for both an enacting of artistic violence against sanctioned narratives that promote convention and ‘morality’, and an increased suspicion of artistic agency itself. For, while these bodies rest six feet deep, the words that animate them bounce freely on the surface, their looping arcs determined by anyone who thinks to reach out a hand, snatch and throw.
Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley are artists based in upstate New York, USA. This month, their exhibition ‘We Are Ghosts’ travels from Tate Liverpool, UK, to the Baltimore Museum of Art, USA. Their film This Is Offal (2016), which won the 2016 Baloise Prize, is being screened as part of ‘Blind Faith’ at Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany, until July. Their work is included in Flying Too Close to the Sun (2018, Phaidon), a survey of myth in contemporary art. In September, they will have a solo exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, USA, and will produce a new work for Studio Voltaire, London, UK, in 2019.
This article appears in the print edition of the March 2018 issue with the title Comedy, Tragedy, History.
– Harry Thorne