The three films of Mary Reid Kelley’s Minotaur Trilogy, Priapus Agonistes (2013), Swinburne’s Pasiphae (2014) and The Thong of Dionysus (2015), comprise a raucous, fiercely contemporary remixing of mythology’s most maligned trans-human being. The works are grounded in an aesthetic defined by stark black-and-white filming and Kelley’s inimitable low-fi renditions of the signifiers of classical art. This visual idiom provides a unifying touchstone for works that integrate an omnivorous range of subject matter and references assimilating elements of performance, sculpture, film, and literature. The pace is utterly frantic, but Kelley’s narrative deftness always carves out territory for genuine pathos as her gods and monsters tear each other, themselves, and the language they speak into tiny pieces.
Priapus Agonistes sets the narrative of the Minotaur in the context of a supremely high-stakes church volleyball tournament. In the film, the Presbyterians and the Baptists furiously contend to forestall their own sacrifice to a beast that never received the news about Jesus. Kelley’s selection of the followers of modern religions as the sacrificial subjects for her female Minotaur felt particularly rich in evocations, both of historical persecutions—rooted in pagan as well as Christian theocracies—and of the kinds of clash of intramural Christian theologies one can hear endlessly playing out over the airwaves of southern US radio. In addition to furious action, the characters in Priapus Agonistes narrate their world and their significance to us in language that borrows from sources including epic poetry and classical drama. The lexicon, however, is robustly contemporary.
Kelley’s demotic, pop-culture infused argot reaches its zenith in the hypnotic, suitably unhinged Thong of Dionysus in which the god of wine, fertility, and theatre extolls the virtues of the fruit of the vine in a positively Joycean freestyle so dense with puns and wordplay that watching it twice will barely disentangle the elusive and allusive linguistic threads Kelley weaves for the viewer. Litterateurs be warned, however, no pun is too low or double entendre too cheap for Kelley to include in her god’s peroration; groan and you may miss a key element of the plot.
Though it would be somewhat inflated to call Algernon Charles Swinburne’s unpublished fragment Pasiphae, which serves as the basis for the middle film of the trilogy, a “drama”, its structural complexity and lexical otherness provides significant narrative power in and of itself. Kelley’s videos are not “about” language per se, but they are also not about language, and, in part, its power to seduce, deceive and exalt the obscene or mundane, even the monstrous.
Together the films are the centrepieces of the exhibition, but in a small room, Kelley has assembled a pantheon of sorts that she describes as embodying the “Dionysian writing” the trilogy employs. Images of Li’l Kim, Jorge Luis Borges, and Charles Baudelaire among others are displayed in a surprisingly reverent hang. Entering the space felt somewhere between entering the inner sanctum of a temple and entering a bar at happy hour on Avenue A. The strength of Kelley’s aesthetic is such that even in such contexts, which would seem to cut against the brashness and vibrancy of her video works, you still feel the anarchic glee that The Minotaur Trilogy embodies despite being surrounded by glum stationary visages of Greats. A certain swipe at institutional methodologies seemed to lie behind the portraits and their display, nevertheless, as Dionysus would no doubt agree, however, reverent a tribute such an image may be, it can never substitute for the real, lived experience of creative apotheosis. Fortunately, that was available in quantities in the videos in the main room.
Mary Reid Kelley
The Minotaur Trilogy
Images courtesy of Arratia Beer and the artist.