Now on view at Hammer Museum, Mary Reid Kelley’s videos are a collision of drawing, performance, and wordplay that clatter against Greek mythology to produce a visually spare, lexically rich cycle. Working with videographer Patrick Kelley, the artist has produced three black-and-white videos that follow the story of the half-woman, half-bull Minotaur, her lust-crazed mother Pasiphae, and her helpless sister Ariadne through boldly drawn landscapes. A complex weave of alienation and irreverence burlesques the original stories to create a spectacle that is equal parts tragedy and farce.
The ancient tales are spiked with contemporary elements, and crisis is contrasted with absurd humor. The first video, Priapus Agonistes (2013), sets the drama in a small-town gymnasium, where the outcome of a volleyball game will determine the next sacrifice to the Minotaur. The cocksure Priapus (“the one-eyed Prince of Athens”) swaggers onto the court and wins handily, but as he mocks Ariadne and Pasiphae, the camera pans down to the labyrinth underneath, where the Minotaur paces—hunting not for victims, but for a bathroom. With her hands pressed to her crotch, she trots along the gray cinderblock corridors covered in graffiti left by her victims. “I hate Crete!” reads one missive; another foreshadows her fate: “Murderer! Your end is near, bitch.”
A flashback scene explains the prehistory of the Minotaur. Queen Pasiphae sunbathes with Venus, who has the face of a bulldog. After trading jealous barbs replete with innuendo and double entendres, Venus zaps Pasiphae with a curse that makes her mad with lust for a bull. She taunts her rival, “Well, your china shop will take new dynamics / When I put a bull in your ceramics. / We have our beef! And I am vowed, / Proud Pasiphae, to make you cowed.” Pasiphae struts and preens, Venus throws shade, and the act could have been subtitled The Real Housewives of Crete.
Swinburne’s Pasiphae (2014) takes its dialogue from 18th-century English writer Algernon Charles Swinburne. Although the piece is as linguistically dense, it is not flippant and acts as a foil to the sassy banter of the other plays. Pasiphae approaches craftsman Daedalus to build her a cow-shaped decoy so she can crawl inside and mate with a bull. Daedalus doesn’t question her desire; he measures, saws, and hammers away happily, fully invested in the industry of creation, while Pasiphae tries to cool her heat with prescription drugs and lowbrow magazines. The video takes on a somber tone at the end, with a voiceover intoning, “…and all day / Thy tempest-shaken spirit shakes thee through / And thy spent body sickens with thy soul” as the scene shifts to the estranged Minotaur lying on the floor of the desolate labyrinth, her torso heaving with sobs.
The final and most lively act, The Thong of Dionysus (2015), begins with a drunk Dionysus—looking a lot like Weird Al Yankovic—lolling on a chaise lounge, with the maenads chorusing behind him. He narrates his own grape-laden manifesto of debauchery before turning to the matter of Ariadne’s plight: She mourns her own abandonment by her libidinous mother and the death of her sister as the sea rises all around her. A confused Priapus wanders in the maze before finally happening onto the Minotaur, who is already dead from loneliness. Here, Dionysus’s caustic monologue tugs the narrative thread running between the eccentric elements of the entire cycle, pulling the contemporary back to Greek philosophy:
In a Labyrinth, everyone thinks they’re a prince,
In control of a string which will bring them back home,
Oh, I’ve written a Thesis on Theseus syndrome.
You start by believing your brain’s little voices,
I’m in charge of my life! I’m the sum of my choices!
Spend all of your time like a mime in a box,
acting smart in a carton, showing off in your coffin!
You hate fate so can’t ask it, is this room my casket?
Do I defy gods, or am I their mascot,
their doll to inflate, their plotline to weave,
a bauble abandoned, a plaything deceived.
In the end, Priapus falls in love with the dead Minotaur and lies down beside her to die. Meanwhile, Ariadne comes to Dionysus’s den and tries to kill herself. The maenads convince her that she needs “a raisin to live.” They dance all night in a permanent state of “Disco Tent.”
Reid Kelley’s other works based in Greek myth, such as The Syphilis of Sisyphus (2011) and You Make Me Iliad (2010), also use sharply designed sets and clever wordplay to great effect; and the works on view at Hammer are clearly a richer measure of what came before. They are mesmerizing, but their delight is tinged with melancholy; for underneath the barbed repartee, the characters are wretched creatures bound to continue along paths that lead to their undoing. The strength of Reid Kelley’s work is in her inventiveness, reinvigorating ancient tales with contemporary perspectives. If these works seem atemporal, it’s only because lust, pride, poor choices, loneliness, and discontent are timeless.
Mary Reid Kelley is on view at Hammer Museum through September 27, 2015.