Mary Reid Kelley interview: 'make-up always feels transformative'

The American artist tells Time Out about her bawdy exhibition that interprets the origin of the mythical Minotaur

Mary Reid Kelley with Patrick Kelley, 'Swinburne's Pasiphae', 2014

Mary Reid Kelley with Patrick Kelley, 'Swinburne's Pasiphae', 2014 © the artists

A fan of panstick and punning titles, US artist Mary Reid Kelley – known for videos such as ‘Sadie, the Saddest Sadist’ – combines live action and animation to create ribald retellings of moments from history and literature, often from a feminist perspective. Here, she talks about ‘walking backwards into performance’, the pleasure and pressure of working with her husband and how for her new exhibition, ‘Swinburne’s Pasiphae’, she delved into the imagination of decadent nineteenth-century poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.

What’s an American artist doing making work about a Victorian Londoner like Swinburne?

‘I’m drawn to what I think of as “terminal” artists: artists who carry a style or idea to a point beyond which seems (at least for a while) impossible to go: like Stanley Kubrick or the Ramones or Agnes Martin. Swinburne consumed all of the oxygen in English poetry for a while. And he was, by all accounts, a superbly eccentric character: a red-haired dandy, alcoholic masochist, who read and was influenced by Sade and Baudelaire while the former was illegal and the latter was unknown in England.’

What’s his poem ‘Pasiphae’ about and what attracted you to it?
‘The poem – it’s really a verse drama fragment – was unpublished during Swinburne’s lifetime. Its mythological heroine Pasiphae is the Minoan queen who gives birth to the Minotaur, and Swinburne’s poem explains how that conception came about – an episode of bestiality which was too taboo to publish, even for a poet who relished shocking the public with his sexual taboos. Its central question is: what obligations, if any, do artists have to their fellow humans? It’s a question which is fought over as vehemently today as it was in the nineteenth century.’ 

How are you bringing the poem to life?
‘There’s a nine-minute video, which is a combination of live action as well as 3D and stop-motion animation. The script is Swinburne’s, verbatim. He wrote “Pasiphae” in homage to a lost Euripides play on the same subject, so it’s a stylistic omnibus: Greek tragedy wedged into Elizabethan dramatic pentameter, parodied in an erotic Victorian frenzy. And now, of course, it’s been revived as twenty-first-century feminist video art! In addition to the video there are props and drawings from the film on show, as well as five portraits of Swinburne. For the portraits I made clay models of his face and features based on paintings and photographs of Swinburne made during his lifetime – one of these paintings was by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his great friend. My husband and collaborator, Pat, photographed and printed the models, recreating the points of view in the portraits.’

‘I trained as a painter and feel like I walked backwards into writing and performance’

Portrait of Mary Reid Kelley

Portrait of Mary Reid Kelley © Patrick Kelley

Is working with your husband fun? 
‘The most fun and rewarding part of collaboration has been creating a world, an aesthetic, an ideology that by now (this is our seventh film together) feels like an independent animal, because neither of us are solely responsible for it. As for challenges: aside from occasional dissents over editing, a consistent challenge in our collaboration is explaining to others how the collaboration works, or why it’s important to recognise it. It’s partly because I’m a feminist that I feel an obligation to be honest about the collaborative aspects of my work– not least because of the age-old practice in all creative mediums to suppress secondary collaborators (often women) in favor of a primary creator (usually male). The lone-creator ideal is very seductive, and the art world is still largely structured around it.

Do you have a background in theatre?
‘Not at all. I trained as a painter and feel like I walked backwards into writing and performance. I realised that I was desperate to enact the characters that were the forces behind my 2D work, and that in doing so, all my “non-art” loves like literature and costume and wordplay could be rolled up into a time-based work that functioned like a shouty, rambunctious, emotionally incontinent painting. The emotions and situations I keep circling around in my work – vanity, pride, aggression, ambition – are all aspects of self-delusion that lend themselves equally to comedy and tragedy, and I think experiencing these comic and tragic facets in quick succession leads to the kind of seasick epiphany that we are trying to create.’

Why do you play all the characters yourself?
‘Getting into costume, the surreal thrill of painting another face on top of my own face, is one of my favorite acts. Most cosmetics were forbidden to me until I was 16, so makeup always feels subversive and transformative. The real burden of having one actor for multiple roles is borne by Pat, who shoots and assembles the layers of the work. At one point in “Priapus Agonistes” (the prequel to “Swinburne’s Pasiphae”) there are six of me on screen, and Pat managed this by carefully tracking light, camera and actor position for each of the six shots. There was a lot of tape on the floor.’