Verbal Play and Venereal Disease: A Q&A with Mary Reid Kelley

Mary Reid Kelley, who graduated from Yale University's MFA program in 2009, has already received solo shows at Fredericks & Fresier gallery in New York and at Susanne Vielmetter Projects in Los Angeles. Her video works, mostly situated in a dark and surreal World War I-era universe, feature stylized figures rendered in live-action stop-motion animation, and songs that are both haunting and hilarious. The films engage with our evolving (but also sometimes too-static) understanding of language, historical narrative, sexuality, and gender — especially in times of war. Lauded for her three videos, Sadie, The Saddest Sadist (2009), Queen's English (2008), and Camel Toe (2008), the artist spoke with ARTINFO about her newest work, You Make Me Iliad, which will appear in the 2010 Santa Fe Biennial, opening this Friday. 

ARTINTO: At the Santa Fe Biennial, are you showing the videos that you’ve been exhibiting in Los Angeles and New York?

Kelley: No, what we’re doing in Santa Fe is a brand new commission. Sarah Lewis and Daniel Belasco are the curators of the biennial this year and they commissioned me last June — pretty much directly a year ago — to make a video for the biennial. They said I could do whatever I wanted, so I ended up making a new piece for it. It’s live video and stop-motion animation. Similar to the one that you probably saw [Sadie, The Saddest Sadist].

Have you been traveling at all? You were a recipient of both the Alice Kimball and Schoelkopf travel grants.

The Schoelkopf is given between your first and second year at Yale so I went to France and Belgium, and I had a pretty defined project, which was to go to about 44 graves of soldiers who had died in World War I. They’re all Yale students, and I kind of picked them out of the Woolsey Memorial Hall. There are like 221 names of Yale students and alumni and they’re all men and about 44 of them are still buried in Europe, because the United States government gave families a choice if they wanted to bury people abroad or bring them home. So there are about 44 between France and Belgium. We kind of went on a scavenger hunt to find them all.

Were you successful? Did you find them all?

Yes, we found most of them. It was a really good experience. One of them, one of the people that we found, had his named misspelled on his cross. It was a great trip. The trip that we just returned from, actually was three days ago, was a longer trip to Italy.

It seems like you are really interested in written documentation about the historical themes that you play off of in your films. Are there any interesting documents that you’ve gathered recently that you’re using for the commission at Santa Fe?

While Sadie was focused on a female munitions worker, in the new piece, which is called You Make Me Iliad, I look at another job (if you want to call it that) for women that I was interested in from the war, which was prostitution, which happened on an enormous scale on both sides of the Western Front. And you know it’s everywhere — if you read memoirs like in Robert Graves Good-Bye to All That, he talks about it. But it’s really bad because there are no primary sources left. There are no diaries; there are no letters; there’s no writing. I even asked a teacher that I had at Yale named Jay Winter, who was really great and supportive of me, and I asked him: “Am I missing something? Is there something that I don’t know about?” And he goes, “not really.” There are a few photographs — presumably taken by soldiers — with women there and you can kind of figure out who they are and what they’re doing there. It was almost the absence of anything tangible about these women that defined the new piece. That said, the prostitute’s not the only character in the piece. One of the other characters is a medical inspection officer who’s German. And the female character is a Belgian prostitute. But the medical officer in the film is performing what was known to the men at the time, euphemistically, it was called a “Tail Parade.” It was basically a genital inspection to prevent venereal disease from spreading. Venereal disease was a huge problem.

Yes, Sadie is afflicted after a sexual encounter.

Yeah she gets the clap. This happens in the new video, the “Tail Parade,” but it’s not graphic. This is after the point in the video where there’s singing. My younger sister actually performed in the role as the medical officer, and she’s a really bombastic soprano. I wrote the lyrics in the form of a waltz and she put it to music. It’s called "Roll Back the Foreskin." She does this amazing, dramatic ballad.

The ultimate family bonding experience.

It really was!

I read that when you showed some of the videos at Fredericks & Freiser you gave out booklets with the lyrics? Is that something you’re going to continue to do? It seems interesting that the text becomes a separate art object. Was it for comprehension’s sake or some other reason?

Yes, there is a text-based object that goes along with the new piece. Where before there were booklets, this is a poster. Since the characters are German in the new piece I tried to draw more from German cinema in the 1920s, Weimar Republic cinema, and I thought that a poster would be appropriate. It’s kind of a comprehension buttress, I guess, because some of the word-play, different kinds, some work better to the ear and some work much better when you’re reading them. Plus, it goes by really fast, and I wanted to give people a chance to read it, if they were so inclined. I think that if you put looking and reading together the whole experience becomes much more saturated, much more dimensional. I think that films with word-play offer a material way to approach language.

In the Art in America piece about your work, it’s posited that the films are not a commentary on current wars or current life, but are focused exclusively on history and narratives of history. Do you think they function as contemporary critique as well?

I clearly remember that statement by Brian Boucher. I think it would be ridiculous to watch the films and not connect them with ongoing violence in the world. And definitely, if you’re American, that’s part of it. But I don’t think I am trying to make a particularly detailed analysis or a metaphor. So I guess when Brian said that in the article, in a way I kind of appreciated it, because I thought he was trying just to take it on its own terms as history. And I wouldn’t want somebody to just think it was about a metaphor of the current crisis, but I think that the metaphor obviously enriches it, and as the maker of the work I’m not outside of that, I pay attention to that.

I’ve never seen any of your drawings, but they’re up on your Web site. I was wondering if you’re still working on those, or how they relate to the work that you’re doing now.

I am still making drawings. The new piece has quite a few drawings in it. The backgrounds are more elaborate, more detailed. I made a lot of drawings for those. I’d also love to do more of the rubbings that I have done in the past. So much of being able to make them is tied to physical opportunities. I mean, Yale was totally covered in stuff that you can make rubbings on. There were plaques and carvings everywhere.

In a New York Times article from earlier this year, you were dubbed one of the decade’s performing artists to watch — who else would you have included in that list of young artists that you find interesting now?

I thought it was pretty comprehensive. I like Natalie Djurberg a lot. She probably doesn’t count. People have compared my work a lot to Ryan’s [Ryan Trecartins] work, I guess because of the language. The last time that I was totally jumping up and down looking at a piece of contemporary art was the Marianne Vitale piece that was in the Whitney Biennial. It gave me almost this sick feeling in my stomach — it was just so good.