2016: Issue 1: Mary Reid Kelley: Priapus Agonistes

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Still from Mary Reid Kelley’s Priapus Agonistes, 2013, courtesy the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London.

AGWA’s screen space, inaugurated in 2015, continues in 2016. It has, this year, functioned as a wonderful counterpoint to the work in the other galleries, being often more confronting and challenging for a broad audience. It is also proof of dedication of the gallery to some of the most important and interesting contemporary art. It is testament to AGWA that the works it is prepared to present here are often thoroughly confusing and challenging to people who do not often encounter video works – I say this only as several viewers walked out in apparent discomfort or disgust as I watched the videos presented there. I have a great hope that it, as part of a gallery experience (and one with various galleries dedicated to a more conservative curatorial and aesthetic regime) expanded their world – even just a little bit. Kelley’s work maintains the challenging sentiments of Ryan Trecartin’s work from earlier this year in its clear presentation of sex and gender and bodily issues through a highly stylized format. In this case, it is styled after classic theatre, rhythmic poetry and long-canonised experimental film, all of which Kelley uses as the setting for her reappropriation of Greek myths. The irreverence and humour of Kelley’s work undercuts the serious and somewhat transgressive subjects of her work, as well as the historically canonical references and rhythmic and poetic structures she draws on.

It is interesting to contrast this work with the equally visually sumptuous Lingchi – echoes of a historical photograph, by Chen-chieh jen, presented at Success earlier this year. While both are black and white, and both engaged in some kind of obvious filmic manipulation (whether it be slow motion or expressionist sets and masks) there is a dichotomy between the works’ operations and sensibilities. Both orbit around ordeals, yet whereas one seems seductively antagonistic to the ‘death-by-a-thousand-cuts’, Kelley’s is irreverently funny about the bestiality, death and violence that permeate this narrative of the minotaur, and the feminist reinterpretation she offers of it. This character in her work makes it much less immediately troubling than Chen-Chieh Jen’s work, and it does not prey on and play with our visual desires in such a jarring way. However this is not to say it is ineffective. It also cleverly sidesteps our defences against many of the aesthetic and formal devices and subjects that Kelley presents. The humour of the work hides its transformative potential – and allows it to become quite approachable. Though there are valid concerns to be had about the heteronomative and western version of feminism that Kelley offers there remains something of power in its ‘updating’ of the oldest forms of literature and art, along with its integration and re-radicalisation of western mythic narratives. The absence of any real censorship – of bodies or humour, the emphasizing of the most normally hidden sexual organs (at least in contemporary televisual and filmic culture) the presence of often-removed bodily hair, and abject bodily functions, gives the work a transgressive charge.

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Still from Mary Reid Kelley’s Priapus Agonistes, 2013, courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London.

This transgressive quality is interestingly what AGWA seems to be after with its latest instalments in the screen space. With Trecartin’s six films earlier this year for PIAF, and now Kelley’s Priapus Agonistes, there seems to be an ongoing narrative to do with gender and sex, and going past the cultural boundaries that typically exist about those issues (again largely in televisual and filmic formats) through video art. However there is also, from an art history perspective, something about a retrospective avant-garde that is invoked in both works. Trecartin’s work, while enjoyable, is somewhat typical post-net art to the point of overdoing it. The excessive digital zooms and rapid cuts and shitty graphics, and even the plasticised, stereotypical characters become less an ironic criticism of any external referent than an example of being caught up in itself. Kelley’s work exhibits a similar introspection and self-absorption, into old German cinema, ancient Greek myths, and the avant-garde as it was. Though both works are entertaining, they seem to be quoting from the past in a way that presupposes it to be progressive and interesting, because it was once. In a way, it feels like a considered, cautiously political act on AGWA’s behalf, after the MOMA series, to present a series of video works that draw on the languages that were developed in a similar age, but play and riff off them in a later one.

Alongside its artistic predilections, Kelley’s work appears to aspire to serious literary goals, and achieves them. The powerful rhythmic pacing, double-entendres, and image and word plays make for an experience that engages with multiple modes of production at once – all the more impressively, Kelley herself performs most of it. The strength of film is in its combination of image and sound, and the chorus, narration and voice acting of the characters is vital to the work. Though everything is in caricature, the work is still linguistically and poetically strong. The costuming, setting, acting, and scripting are all conducive to the interpretation of the work as a caricature, a sarcastic portrait of a history of modernity that is partially inspired by the classics. The irony and playfulness of Kelley’s work avoids any typically originary potential in the myths and stories that she uses as the basis of her work. (We can think of Arno Brecker’s sculptures as taking Greek aesthetics and myths as a kind of ‘originary’ mythos) Instead, these histories become malleable and strange to themselves. Priapus Agonistes emphasizes the transgressive and radical potential of ancient myths and old forms and formats through re-interpretation.

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Still from Mary Reid Kelley’s Priapus Agonistes, 2013, courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London.

Kelley’s work comes close to losing itself in its own exceedingly clever games – like Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray; there are moments when wit is gratuitous and overdone (the Ba’al as one instance of a joke that did not quite land). However, the caricature, in its visible construction, remains grounded, and its stylization, however self-referential, remains comparably accessible as amateur theatre. The subject of the work, inclusive of all uncouth elements (‘I do not shit the halls… not often’) also does not become overblown. Despite this, the work does aspire to serious literary and artistic goals. It has not taken the form of epic poetry and avant-garde film for purposes of accessibility and to be relatable. It is, however, the success of the work that it creates a powerful literary and artistic work that includes the basest of subjects and remains impressively humorous and entertaining – and somehow remains approachable.

Runs until 25th September.

written by Graham Mathwin