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Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley at Tate Liverpool in Artforum

In “We Are Ghosts,” Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelleyperform an antic kind of haunting: dark jokers leering from the unquiet slumbers of history. In their new video, In The Body of The Sturgeon, 2017, we’re plunged into the claustrophobia of the fictional USS Sturgeon at the end of World War II. The twelve-minute narrative is saturated with various fluids: You can almost smell the thwarted testosterone, the sweat, the ethanol swigged straight from the can by a desperate sailor. There’s even an ode to golden showers, in which Mary, with drawn-on chest hair and metal funnel bra, performs a gender-warping burlesque.


Mary (who plays nearly all the characters) pops up again in presidential drag as Harry Truman, announcing the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The frame moves in seasick waves. All this screwball capering is overlaid with the mock grandeur of the script: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” enunciated to emphasize its portentous tetrameter. The crew eventually meet a watery end when the submarine hits a mine and sinks. Brainy and allusive (nods to Carson McCullers and gender theory abound), the overall effect is cartoonishly serious, thrilling, and demented.


The show’s second film, This Is Offal, 2016, similarly taps comedy from tears. Inspired by Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem “The Bridge of Sighs,” Mary plays a drowned suicide victim, whose internal organs are resurrected as surreally bickering talking heads at her autopsy. “You lily liver! How can you treat a faithful foot so callous?” Punning and garrulous, it answers back for history’s doomed heroines (“I feel ya, Ophelia”). Patrick as the lugubrious, Lou Reed–look-alike coroner is hilarious, while the highbrow references to Greek mythology are worn with rapid-fire irreverence. Rarely has laughter in the dark been this fun.


— Daniel Culpan