BALTIMORE, MD—In collaboration with the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advanced Media Studies, The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) presents Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley: We Are Ghosts on view April 4 through August 19, 2018 in the Contemporary Wing. The exhibition presents two dramatically stylized films that artfully resurrect history and poetry. For This Is Offal (2016), which won the Baloise Prize at Art Basel, and their most recent film, In The Body of The Sturgeon (2017), they reanimate the dead, empowering a drowned woman to tell the story of her suicide, and envision the final moments of an American submarine crew.
These unorthodox ghost stories are told in careful meter and rhyme with wild wordplay and wickedly funny twists throughout the films’ scripts. More broadly, the artists’ choice to focus on subjects who represent life experiences not recorded in detail by official history (an unnamed, “average” woman and enlisted Navy men) is an act of reclaiming otherwise lost souls. Nearly life-size lightbox portraits of the film’s characters are also presented in the exhibition.
“The subjects of these two films parallel one another as embodiments of femininity and masculinity under the stresses generated by their own imperfect natures and confrontations with death, as well as the eras they inhabit,” said Kristen Hileman, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art. “Despite their anachronistic forms of speech and odd, blank-eyed appearances, these figures represent us—or any person, at any time, who has struggled with her or his sense of identity and place in posterity—and lead us to the awareness, expressed in the show’s title, that inevitably ‘we are ghosts.’”
The division of labor in producing these films is divided between MacArthur Award–winner Mary Reid Kelley (American, b. 1979) and her artistic collaborator and life partner Patrick Kelley (American, b. 1969). In addition to creating the brilliant verbal contortions of the scripts, Mary directs and performs most of the roles in makeup and costumes of her own design. Patrick, who also appears in the two works, produces the digital effects and editing that result in the seamless but strange cinematic universes that underscore the characters’ plights. Harkening back to the early years of movies, particularly the dreamlike sets of German Expressionist film, the black-and-white mises-en- scene announce to viewers that they have entered another reality in which contemporary critical thinking infuses nostalgic fantasy with the power to bring greater nuance and empathy to attempts to imagine the people who lived before us.
For This Is Offal (pun emphatically intended), British poet Thomas Hood’s The Bridge of Sighs (1844) is the jumping-off point. Hood approached the poem’s fictional suicide with a distinctive understanding of the socioeconomic conditions of London that might have prompted such a fatal leap into the Thames. Mary and Patrick take Hood’s grittier impulses several steps further by empowering their deceased woman and her various dissected body parts with speech. The organs and extremities display their own independent-minded personalities, as they bicker over which initiated the suicide and whether any will achieve eternal recognition as a scientific specimen or medical transplant. A ghostly body joins the fray, providing clues that in life the woman may well have struggled with her sense of vanity. While the true cause of the woman’s fall is ultimately withheld, the work concludes with a realization that in death, her physical body has become simply “offal.”
The artists’ nimble wordplay is also evident in In The Body of The Sturgeon, which is making its U.S. debut at the BMA and was co-sponsored by the BMA, the Center for Advanced Media Studies, and Tate Liverpool. Although Mary sets the script during the closing days of the Second World War, she turns to American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s much-parodied 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha for its language and structure. She composes a cento (a poem made up entirely of words and lines quoted from an existing poem) that transforms mushrooms from Longfellow’s vision of pre-colonial America into atomic clouds over Japan.
Patrick’s disjointed editing reinforces the fragmentation inherent in Mary’s script, presenting staccato sequences of shots that evoke the radio static that would interrupt the communications of a sinking submarine. (The set for this film is inspired by the USS Torsk docked at the Inner Harbor.) Just as Longfellow attempted to conjure a subject—the oral traditions of Native Americans before European contact—that was unknowable from his position in history, Mary and Patrick imagine the impossible-to-observe situation of men locked in a metal container, dying at the bottom of the ocean. However, unlike their predecessor, they are fully aware of what they do not and cannot know, reconstructing their grim scenario to understand history as a tool to probe human character, rather than a fixed truth or a status quo–affirming ideal.
Mark Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley: We Are Ghosts is the latest in a series of projects in partnership with the Center for Advanced Media Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. This exhibition is co-curated by Senior Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman in collaboration with the JHU Center for Advanced Media Studies and by Lauren Barnes, formerly an Assistant Curator at the Tate Liverpool and now Curator at The Hepworth Wakefield. We Are Ghosts was presented at the Tate Liverpool from November 17, 2017 to March 18, 2018. The BMA and Tate Liverpool have co-published a catalogue including the films’ scripts and essays by both curators to accompany the exhibition.
Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley: We Are Ghosts on view from April 4, 2018 — August 19, 2018 at Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD.