Mary Reid Kelley, recipient of a 2016 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” said she settled in Olivebridge because “there are a lot of artists and a lot of non-artists doing their own thing here. It’s a great place to set up a film studio, and no one thinks you’re crazy.” Kelley’s black-and-white videos, based on literary and historical subjects, in which she plays nearly all the characters, have earned her the prestigious $625,000 grant, which artists are invited to use for any purpose they wish.
The videos are filmed by her partner, Patrick Kelley. Each one is based on intensive research, takes a year to make, and includes rhyming poetry written by Reid Kelley and crammed with wordplay: puns, literary allusions, and double entendres.
A four-part series on World War I includes Sadie the Saddest Sadist (2009), about a female munitions worker in Britain, and You Make Me Iliad (2010), from the perspective of a female sex worker and the men who interact with her. Later Reid Kelley turned to Greek mythology with Priapus Agonistes (2013), turning the Minotaur into half-woman rather than half-man. In Pasiphae (2014) the Minotaur’s family history is explored through an unpublished text by Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Kelley, 37, received a B.A. from Saint Olaf College and an M.F.A. from Yale University. Her videos and installations have been screened, exhibited, and performed at such venues as the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, the Tate Modern in London, and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. She is a senior critic at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and a critic in painting at the Yale University School of Art.
Reid Kelley spoke by phone from Belgium, where she and Patrick are putting up an installation — video, props, paintings, and a mural — at a museum in the university town of Leuven.
A lot of your pieces revolve around women. Is that true of most of your work?
It’s true, but there’s usually a range of characters, women, men, monsters, mythological creatures, gods and goddesses. I think that usually the work is about women because I’m a woman, and I choose to act in all of my work. It’s also about a lot of things other than women.
You Make Me Illiad is specifically about a woman, a sex worker.
Yes, it’s the fourth in a series set in context of the First World War. I spent a couple of years reading memoirs, poems, looking at newspapers and photos. Through the memoirs of Robert Graves and the paintings of Otto Dix, I knew there were a lot of women doing sex work, an important part of the social economy of the war. It was difficult to directly research the lives of these women because they didn’t leave first-person sources — no memoirs, no letters that I know of, not even detailed arrest records. But it was an entire sphere of activity that was really prevalent. When I did research for a film about a munitions worker, there are academic works, and if you worked for a certain factory that was a big enterprise, they had their own newspaper.
So you had to use a certain amount of imagination to reconstruct their experience, although you’ve stated that you used the voices of the men who wrote about the women to keep it as factual as possible.
Women had every motivation not to speak about it, and so did the men, because it wasn’t socially acceptable. For example, in Good-Bye to All That, Robert Graves names people who went to the brothel but says he didn’t go, that he kept his virginity through the war. Other writers thought it was ungentlemanly to name names. Pre-penicillin, if you got syphilis, you could bring it back to your wife or prevent you from marrying at all. It was an extremely fraught situation.
Why do you work in black and white, and why are your texts all in rhyming couplets?
The first four films we made were black and white because they were about World War I. The subject of the war shaped a lot of choices we made that carried on to later films. One was to write everything in verse, because when I started digging into the material, poems were such a huge part of the cultural response to the war. In the early 20th century, although there were poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot trying to be avant garde, you didn’t have to have a special pedigree or skill to write “occasional” poetry, observing an occasion.
My grandfather used to write poems for birthdays or his parents’ anniversary. He’d write a sonnet, nothing fancy but from the heart. He wrote an ode to his German shepherd. That’s what a lot of war poetry is. People recognized they were witnessing something extraordinary or terrible, and they chose to mark the occasion by writing poetry. They weren’t setting out to make great art like Pound was. It made me think, if my grandfather can write to his German shepherd, and people can sit in trenches and write about the sky, I could give it a try myself.
What about puns? Why are they such a big part of your poetry?
The reason I would admit to myself at the time was that I thought wordplay and punning was a way of thinking like a painter, the way Cubism can put multiple perspectives in a picture at the same time. A pun makes you see two meanings of a word at same time — you hear two things at once. In dramatic irony, the audience understands before the main character what’s going to happen to them. Punning was a way of hinting at other meanings besides what was being explicitly said.
In World War I writing, you see the critical importance of the music hall. It was a working-class entertainment, full of wordplay and innuendo, because you couldn’t quite come right out and be vulgar, you had to use sleight-of-hand.
But as we’ve made five films now that we’re done with the First World War stuff, I’m still doing a lot of wordplay. I really like to make these puns. It’s important in whatever art you’re doing, you have to submit to these impulses, no matter how weird. Comedians from 50 years ago used a lot of wordplay, but comedians don’t pun any more — it’s no longer funny. My dad is good punster. I really like it.
Why do you use history as a starting point for your films?
The mythological forms aren’t necessarily about the past. If you’re doing a historically-based film, like World War I, you research memoirs, documents, newspapers, but in case of a mythological scene, like the Minotaur, you research artworks: Picasso’s many images of the Minotaur, William Blake’s engraving of the Minotaur to illustrate Dante’s Inferno. Many 20th-century artists picked out the mythological monster. Of the films in the Minotaur trilogy, the only one I haven’t written is by Swinburne, a poem about how the Minotaur is conceived. It’s very un-erotic.
What inspired you to make films based on Greek mythology?
I’ve always liked mythology. Some kids had a dinosaur or a horse obsession; I had a mythology obsession. I knew who the Minotaur was, but in the kid version, they don’t explain that the way you get a half-human and half-bull is for a human to fuck a bull. In 2012, we spent a year in Rome, so we got closer to a world governed by many gods. It’s a very different perspective. When the Romans would conquer someone, they’d say, “We’ll take your gods too, they can come play. We’ll build a temple for them in the Forum.” That made us interested in doing something about mythological creatures.
How did you end up in Olivebridge?
When we came back from Rome — we had put our entire life in a storage unit — we realized we had a lot of artist friends living in the Hudson Valley. We rented a modified hunting cabin for about two years and liked the area so much, we found a house we could afford to buy. It has an outbuilding so we can film in it. Our past three films were made there. There are so many interesting people here. Our landlord was also an artist, and the guy we bought the house from is an expert in medieval English housebuilding techniques. A lot of people came here with their own version of what they wanted life to be. There’s a lot of freedom. A lot of my peers are living in New York or L.A., but here we don’t have to sacrifice everything to afford to be able to do what we do.