Art review: Mary Reid Kelley at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
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The two short videos that make up Mary Reid Kelley’s Los Angeles debut at Susanne Vielmetter seem rather arcane at first. They are both set in World War I and narrated by women who speak in a constant patter of rhyming verse. The sets, costumes and make-up are all stark black and white, as if an early modern charcoal drawing has come to life. And the live action is intercut with animated text sequences that evoke the intertitles of old silent films. Yet the videos are more than historical homage or revisionist fantasy. They are richly layered, often darkly humorous explorations of the roots of modernism in the early 20th century, a tangle of war, sexual liberation, nationalism and utopian ideology that upended nearly every convention of Western civilization. Propelled by Kelley’s skillful, double-tongued speech, riddled with puns, suggestive homonyms and clichés, the videos are bizarre, thoroughly engrossing tableaux.
Looking at the first global conflict through the eyes of women, Kelley casts domestic and sexual relations within the cruel logic of war and industrialization. At the beginning of the 7 1/2-minute “Sadie, The Saddest Sadist,” the title character declares, “I want to be a modern girl,” and idealistically goes to work in a wartime factory. Shortly thereafter, she meets Jack, a sailor, and throws herself with patriotic fervor into his arms. At the climactic moment of their liaison—represented visually only by vibrating, animated text—she sings out, “I know that you care/by these Marx on my Lenin.” Whether it induces a groan or a chuckle, such wordplay peppers the characters’ rhyming speech. In this case it suggests that Sadie has aligned (or confused) sexual freedom with other ideological revolutions.
Sadie soon discovers that Jack has given her “the clap,” and the reality of liberation sinks in. Perhaps being the saddest sadist means Sadie is a masochist, as her labor and body are exploited in the name of ideology and patriotism at every turn. Indeed Jack begins their exchange by singing, “Britannia rules the waves” and ends it with “Britannia waived the rules,” linking military supremacy with a breakdown of social accountability. Although Sadie identifies with the victors, she is also their victim.
If Sadie is an archetype of the modern girl—paradoxically ensnared by “freedom”—the narrator of the second work, “The Queen’s English,” is more of a Florence Nightingale type, nursing wounded and dying soldiers in a tent hospital. Yet despite her traditional feminine role, she is empowered by language. She utters a stream of calm, slightly melancholy speech, never pausing to note the anachronistic clichés that erupt across its soothing surface. She uses a new-age metaphor to describe the soldiers’ mental state: “If the body is a temple, then the belfry’s full of bats.” Later, she lapses into a mish-mash of present-day pop feminist slogans: “I love you darling the way a Dutchman loves a dike, the way a woman needs a man that needs a fish that needs a bike.”
Although they could not be more different stylistically, these twisted clichés are oddly reminiscent of fellow video artist Ryan Trecartin’s stream-of-consciousness rants. The way in which the present continually asserts itself in Kelley’s vision of the past echoes the addled, pastiche speech of Trecartin’s characters. The effect not only creates parallels between now and then but also suggests that the layering of more than one time or place has always been the nature of the present. Ours, Kelley suggests, is not so different from the fragmented world riven by war and ideology that early modern artists attempted to capture.
Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, 6006 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-2117, through June 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.vielmetter.com
Images: ‘Sadie, The Saddest Sadist’, (top) and ‘The Queen’s English,’ film stills. Courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.