Patching into Mary Reid Kelley’s home in upstate New York I was struck, as ever, with the intimacy of the video call, and how it projects one into somebody’s domestic space well before a physical invitation to enter it. Reid Kelley is an excellent and generous host. Her voice already familiar through her films, is strangely tremulous as though on the verge of tears. This is perhaps the paradox of her work; highly wrought and dexterous feats of linguistic play rendered in heavily stylised visual form, yet stemming from deep wells of emotion, often an articulation of shame. Shot by her husband, amidst the security of a ‘closed’ set, and staged at her own studio, her films are secret acts, which are at once bodily and literary, delicate and bawdy. They stitch together a web of references, from classical poets of Antiquity, to Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Swinburne and Poe, revealing the magpie mind of a literary enthusiast with the irreverence necessary to weave her own pentameters and rhyme around neglected historical figures and her own strange and alluring fictional creations.
Natasha Hoare: Your films interplay your training in painting with a highly developed use of language, and an increasingly complex use of film and animation. They almost feel like living paintings. How did you come to work in this way, and start to perform in your own pieces?
Mary Reid Kelley: When I first started making videos, I had been doing a lot of text rubbings at War Memorials at Yale for all these students who had died in wars from the Revolutionary War up through Vietnam. The soldiers that I was particularly interested in were First World War soldiers. I started really thinking about them a lot and learning more about the cultural context of the war. Eventually I began writing these nonsense poems in the character of the soldiers and of the women they were involved with. There was this one soldier I was particularly interested in. He was a pilot who was killed in 1918, and I had this book of letters between him and his sweetheart. I wrote a poem in his voice and didn’t really think anything about it. Then Pat, my husband, came up for a weekend to visit me at school and brought his camera with him. I just thought, ‘Well, you set up the camera and I’m going to skip over to the bathroom.’ I made this costume based on Snoopy, who is a First World War pilot. That was the first video that we did and it was called Camel Toe, which is a play of course, on the Sopwith Camel – a famous English plane from the First World War. ‘Camel Toe’ is supposedly the name of his girlfriend, who’s a ballerina.
I definitely have more of a typical painter’s personality, as in so far as that I go in the studio and shut the door, which is different than a performer’s personality and I had never done anything on the stage. I think of it in contrast to my family, which is made up of a lot of really talented singers and musicians. I always preferred solitary activity. The performances happen with as few people in the room as possible. Pat has shot almost all the films, so usually it’s just him there as I perform. I’ve also had my sisters perform with me in some of my films. When I started writing poems the more embarrassed I was of what I was doing, the more interesting the product was. Even now my work involves a lot of self-embarrassment and a lot of shame, which can come from different places.
At the moment we’re filming the last film for our ‘Hammer’ trilogy and I’m making the costume for the character of Dionysus. He’s a God and he’s going to be nude, so I’ve spent the past couple days sewing up this penis suit. Of course, we haven’t shot it yet, so I haven’t actually committed to wearing it, butI’m having fun. I’ve had to redo it a couple times because at first the penis was too large. With classical Gods, the ideal is for a small, delicate symbol. I really enjoyed doing that, but at the same time there’s this potential for serious embarrassment.
I really enjoyed doing that, but at the same time there’s this potential for serious embarrassment
Natasha: So, that’s why you build these intimate sets where you’re working with family and with your husband Patrick. The fact that you work with your husband is really interesting as well. How does that play out on a set?
Mary: Well, Pat films the work and then probably the most obvious thing visually that he does for the work is construct the background sets. We film in front of the green screen, so if I’m not touching something or wearing something, it’s digitally inserted in post-production. He builds the sets completely.
The start of the process is when I start writing. That happens first. Then when we start filming, it becomes very collaborative and our goal from the beginning is to create this seamless, strange, grotesque version of the world. I do it through the writing and through the acting and the making of the costumes. Pat does it through the shooting and the post-production. That’s what he does. Was there something else about working together, that dynamic that you’re interested in?
Natasha: Yes, I suppose it’s just the sensuality of the act of creation between a couple, and your subject matter. But maybe it’s more functional than that, just a working process?
Mary: When we’re actually filming, it’s quite tense because it takes me a long time to get suited up. I have stuff glued to my face. In fact, for the first time we were doing some shooting last week, I had a mishap with some of the glue on my eye and basically pulled off some skin on my eyelid and had to wear a Band-Aid. That has never happened before. Once I put these eyes on and I’m in, I’m almost helpless. I can see a little bit and so we work as quickly as we can to get through the shooting. It can be tense.
I feel like for us personally, the stakes are high and we really care about what we’re doing. We’ve arranged our lives so we’re doing this exclusively and so it often feels very closed off, like something that nobody else knows about. In that way, it is an extension of our romantic relationship.
The point where we are right now in the process is this tension-laden part where we’ve got a self-imposed schedule for deadlines that are not self-imposed. We’re trying to hit things and not screw up. That kind of tension and stress is familiar to every couple. It’s totally impossible to compartmentalize your life so that if we’re upset about something that’s happening in the studio, it’s not like we can be, ‘Well, let’s just walk 20 feet over to the house and make macaroni.’ I’m like, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ You just have to live with that tension until it dissipates or you solve the problem. You are stuck in it and nobody will get you out of it.
The flipside is that when we have achieved something, each of us is really aware of what the other did and that gets to be part of our romantic relationship, too. We know that we did something that comes out of our life together.
Natasha: That’s beautiful, but it’s a many faceted process. Just to go back for a second, you say you start with writing. The language in the films is very slippery and peppered with quotations and illusions to historical moments and figures. Within that bawdy verse and the use of double-entendre is very powerful and sometimes allows your female subjects to really run rings around their male counterparts. How does the eroticism of language function for you, and how is it a figure of power for the female protagonists in your films?
Mary: I’ve already used this word, but I’ll come back to it again because I think of my work as thoroughly grotesque. That’s the tradition it works in and that’s how
I would describe the language, which is full of the puns and the rhymes. I would also describe the language as being very vulgar, with all these jingle-jangling rhymes. It’s almost overpowering. The grotesque has a very close relationship to the ideal, as in both the ideal and the grotesque are an ideologically framed space away from reality. I think the grotesque and the ideal are flip sides of a coin, and these sides are closer to each other than either of them are to reality.
The word ‘eroticism,’ is one I never use in my work. I do however feel that the erotic belongs to the realm of the ideal and so does the grotesque. The other thing that you described I agree with. In my work, the women tend to run rings around or talk rings around their male components. Puns are deeply fascinating to me. I was always a punster. One of the things that I love about punning is that if a pun is really good, it’s really bad. Again, it’s like the smashing of those two opposites, the friction of the opposites, which is what I meant about the relationship between the grotesque and the ideal. Sometimes if you’re surprised by a pun, it’s almost like you’ve been slapped. But it’s really good and it’s funny and you’re giggling at the same time. I love that collision, that violence of something being funny and good and that you want to reach towards it and simultaneously you want to turn away almost like you’ve been struck.
The other thing that is inherent in punning, which weighs on the concept of eroticism is betrayal. Generally, the purpose of having both men and women in my videos is for them to betray each other, but the most significant betrayal is the self-betrayal. People do disappoint each other, but they are really defeated by their delusions about themselves or about their lives. We’ve all been in that moment in which we speak a pun, but not on purpose. That’s why people use the phrase ‘No pun intended,’ because puns are a material condition of language. We have more meanings than words, so several meanings talk to share a word, whether they like it or not, whether we like it or not. That’s why we’re always going around saying, ‘Oh, no pun intended.’
I think that’s erotic, too, when you have two meanings smooshed up together, sharing the same word uncomfortably. These are far-fetched interpretations. It might be a stretch to call this erotic, but the couples in my videos are as antagonistic, as they are romantic. Just like I was describing how Pat and I make these films, pretty much the two of us, it is antagonistic and it is romantic.
People do disappoint each other, but they are really defeated by their delusions about themselves or about their lives
Natasha: In terms of language and the body, in your films do you feel language is following the body or do they oppose each other?
Mary: That’s really interesting. Well, the practical answer is that in the films, language comes first chronologically. I know the voice of the character before I know what they look like. It usually takes a couple months to write one of the scripts, and by the end of the script I can see the character.
I have to think really long and hard about what the script is, but then the visual part just presents itself at the end. The way that you phrased that question is a framing that says a lot in our feminist discourse. People are always trying to put their finger on what they think is an inherent disconnect between the body and language. Language being the ultimate product of the mind, which potentially surpresses the body. The most important connection between language and the body in my work is rhyme. You feel rhyme in your body. Your ears feel it. It has nothing to do with language being the vessel of meaning that we are constantly utilizing it for. Like puns, it’s kind of this excess quality of language that doesn’t add anything to its utility or its functionality, but does add to its musicality and to our physical experience of language. While I find this decade’s long dialogue about language and the body very interesting, personally I always think of rhyme and it’s the most important manifestation or core connecting of language, the body and my work. William Winsor has a great definition, he’s this mid-century poetic theorist, who said: ‘It’s an oral pattern of sound that overlays the meaning.’ Ball and tall rhyme, the fact that they rhyme doesn’t mean there is a connection between those words, but our body tells us that there is when we hear them spoken together.
Language being the ultimate product of the mind and maybe it’s suppressing the body
Natasha: I suppose the feminist readings might come through this idea of the grotesque is somehow related to the carnivalesque and a supposed liberation of the body. In some of the periods you deal with, the body was very tightly pathologized and policed. The Grisette character in Syphilis of Sisyphus ex-periences this in her narrative trajectory.
Mary: Yes, that is such an interesting, and grotesque historical period, the hysteria era. To me it’s so imaginative. I find Freud and Charcot to be incredibly imaginative in trying to come up with theories that match these expressions from their women patients.
Natasha: How did this figure of the Grisette catch you?
Mary: Well, I had picked up Baudelaire and over and over I find myself attracted to these writers. Baudelaire, he’s this incredibly influential writer about art. He formulated art writing as being personal and political and I don’t think that’s been improved on in the decades since then, so he really set the parameters for art writing. Baudelaire connects very closely to two English language writers that I’m also very interested in. First there’s Edgar Allan Poe. When Baudelaire encountered Poe, it was like some giant veil had been removed and he could interface with the world as an artist; as a creative person. Then of course, there’s Swinburne, who is probably the most important English language reader of Baudelaire. He writes this early English language essay on Baudelaire’s work, imports and lives, to his liver’s detriment, the idea of art for art’s sake and real decadence.
Baudelaire is also (more than either Poe or Swinburne) a great misogynist. His writings are full of just fear, just fear of women and of their bodies and describes them as being these wobbly containers full of ectoplasm and fluids that were completely mysterious. I know at one point in his writings I encountered this line where he said that he thought the most horrible thing in the world would to be a pregnant woman so swollen with these juices of nature.
Baudelaire totally denigrated nature and uplifted the urban, the artificial, the carefully honed.
Natasha: This is where the Decadent movement leads us to À Rebours (Against Nature) by Joris Carl Huysmans, which is the ultimate decadent statement.
Mary: Yes, like an orchid, a flower totally removed from the contaminating soil of the earth that just wants to sit and breathe the carefully refined air from above, absolutely. The Grisette character in Sisyphus is me paying homage to Baudelaire while kicking him in the shins by turning him into a pregnant woman. Sisyphus is Baudelaire’s nightmare of himself as a pregnant woman.
Natasha: How did you come across this Swinburne play Pasiphae, which had been censored in his time?
Mary: Well, I was researching and writing the first film of the trilogy Priapus Agonistes, in which you see the Minotaur’s family tree. The Minotaur’s mother is Pasiphae. Pasiphae is this incredibly interesting, minor mythological character and I didn’t know much about her. When you read your children’s version of Greek myths, they don’t tell you have the Minotaur was conceived. That’s a very naughty story. When I was looking around at stuff on Pasiphae, I found that Swinburne had written a short, dramatic fragment on Pasiphae. Swinburne loved Greek culture and poetry, especially Euripides. Euripides had written a play called The Cretans about Pasiphae and Ariadne. It was basically the whole family group that I was writing about. Swinburne was writing a homage to this lost Euripides play. The Swinburne Pasiphae text was published at the back of this slender book about Swinburne that is a scholarly text.
I wouldn’t describe it as a mass-market book. Swinburne isn’t a mass-market character like Poe. I got it and I read it and it was just hilarious. One of the reasons that it was so funny is because stylistically it’s just a big crazy sandwich. Of course, Swinburne is trying to pay homage to Euripides, so he’s writing his Victorian English conception of what the Greeks wrote like, which is heavily influenced by Alexander Pope and also by Shakespeare because it’s written in iambic pentameter. It’s just this crazy stylistic pastiche that’s so Victorian in its lurid, over blowness.
I felt Swinburne identified so strongly with Pasiphae as a sexual outcast and that’s why he wrote it. When we call that text suppressed, I think it was really suppressed by Swinburne himself. He probably showed it privately to a few people, who told him not to show it to anybody. Swinburne did a lot of private writing like that.
Natasha: Of course at the time sexual ‘deviancy’ could land you in jail.
Mary: Yes, in fact Swinburne doesn’t come off very well in this story at all, but Simeon Solomon was a minor pre-Raphaelite and a painter.
He was caught soliciting in a public men’s room in the 1870s and was arrested. Just as you’re talking about, he was arrested on indecency or sodomy charges and Swinburne dropped him.
Everyone dropped him. It’s very sad. Swinburne and Simeon Solomon had exchanged a lot of private, erotic correspondence just for their own interests and later Simeon Solomon may have sold some of this correspondence. That happened to Swinburne a lot because he wrote a lot of erotic, doggerel or poetry for his own amusement and later in his life, people sold it.
There’s a great pleasure in doing things in secret
Natasha: You touched on this a bit previously, but in terms of performing these characters, your process of writing is a long one. By the time you’re actually enacting these characters, it’s a sort of physical and linguistic ventriloquism. How involved do you become in those characters?
Mary: They are not very realistic. I’m not in any danger of falling prey to my method techniques, but I think that they are strong exaggerations. Like when I said earlier that Sisyphus was a parody of Baudelaire, well she’s also a parody of myself. All of the characters are different shades and degrees of parody. With Sisyphus, she’s very vain and I always think I’m extremely vain myself. I had a religious upbringing and I’ve always been ashamed of my own vanity. This comes back to the use of personal shame in my work.
In some ways, the characters are psychological exaggerations or exaggerated diagnoses of aspects of myself, of which I would be totally ashamed. It feels so much worse to say that to you when we’re looking at each over Skype. ‘I think I’m vain.’ The protection of the paint, make-up and outrageous costumes make admittance feel safer. but even though when I’m in the paint and the makeup and I’m saying it so much more explicitly because I have the protection of this outrageous costuming, it seems safer.
I think that this is the reason all these artificialities are so important to me. They allow me to say at great length and to dwell at great length on the shameful or the things one would not be proud of. Whereas, to just say them like I just did to you or to admit it to a best friend or a therapist, it takes so much courage. That’s part of what I’m doing.
Natasha: The films are becoming more ornate and complex. To some extent their masking is becoming fuller, the face is disappearing more and more. Is this tendency toward abstraction something that you’re exploring?
Mary: It’s partly a practical technique that allows my people to play more people. In the earlier films when I was playing one or possibly two people, I could arrange my own face to look sufficiently different. When I’m playing like in Priapus, I’m playing, I haven’t counted, but maybe eight or nine characters, so I really do have to be more involved in the masking.
A couple years ago, a friend pointed it out to me and I had never really thought about it this way, but the little eye goggles that I mostly use, function just like a mask. Even though they’re very small, they cover up a critical part of the face and to defer the viewer’s expectations of that part of the face onto an artificial substrate that’s been specifically designed to receive the audience’s expectations. I thought, ‘If I’m already using masks, I can just use real masks, too,’ but at least until now, the most important characters are often played with the eyes.
Natasha: The costumes are beautiful. Are you involved in every part of production?
Mary: Yep, I make almost everything. The exception is Sisyphus’ dress. That’s the only time I’ve worked with a professional seamstress. The task was totally beyond me. A lot of this process is buying something that’s ready-made and then embellishing it a lot.
Natasha: What about your use of monochrome? Is that something that will continue? Is that a way that you have always worked or is it speaking to those references to Expressionist or early cinema?
Mary: It’s one of those early impulses and I had specific reasons at the time for doing so. At the beginning I was thinking of the First World War, cinema, black-and-white cartoons, woodcuts, and that was all true at that point. Now working with different subjects, I can safely say that I just really love thinking in black and white. I never think of it as giving something up. My work is completely made of all of these contrived limitations, like the limitation of rhyme. If you limit yourself when you write in couplets as I do, your meaning is limited in what you can get to rhyme together there. I just find that the limitation liberating. Working in black and white never boring.
Pat and I, both love early cinema and not only the look, but that it was a much much smaller production. These films would be made with what would now be a totally skeleton crew, just a dozen people and a instead of a dozen cameras. This has made them very helpful for Pat and I. We really like looking at those movies, because we can see those filmmakers’ solutions to their own limitations.
We also love contemporary film and television, but so often the problems that they solve artistically have nothing to do with how we solve problems. We get a lot out of making things ourselves and keeping it small. It is a limiting strategy, but so many of the things that really strike people about our work are there because we invented them to fill some hole. I feel like I’m not making a whole lot of sense.
Natasha: From within constraint comes creativity.
Mary: I’m making a lot of props about Duchamp right now and in all the texts on him it’s rarely cited that he was an enthusiastic bricoleur. He loved to tinker. He wanted to do things himself and to do them in secret. There’s a great pleasure in doing things in secret.
Natasha: It’s striking that this is how you’ve described your shoots, this secrecy, this removal, this space.
Mary: That in itself is a pleasurable payoff for us, to get to do these wild things in secret and on the cheap.