“Starless Midnight”

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
South Shore Road
October 20–January 21

Karon Davis, Waiting Room, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable.

In November 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepted an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University with a powerful improvised speech that railed against three “great and grave problems that pervade our world”: racism, poverty, and war. On the fiftieth anniversary of this speech, “Starless Midnight” confronts King’s hard-won insights with contemporary realities. Curated by Edgar Arceneaux and Laurence Sillars, the nine-artist show opens with the heartrending juxtaposition of Louis Cameron’s NOW!, 2016, a black wall branded with the one-word call to arms, against Karon Davis’s Waiting Room, 2016, a painstaking re-creation of a public clinic—the poor man’s purgatory—down to the shoddy wooden play set and a coffee-stained copy of Us Weekly.

For all its unflinching blows—from Charles Gaines’s musical manifestos to Cauleen Smith’s “maladjusted cinema”—the exhibition belongs to Barby Asante’s iron-veined, two-part film, The Queen and the Black-Eyed Squint, 2017. Drawing from Ama Ata Aidoo’s searing 1977 novel, Our Sister Killjoy, Asante restages the 1957 visit of the first Miss Ghana to England, just months after her country had wrangled its independence from the British Empire. As Miss Ghana, Asante is a picture of forbearance against the obsequious hospitality of her chaperone, Miss Britain, who proudly points out the monument to Earl Grey and cathedral frescos of Jesus and his snow-white saints, blissfully immune to the tactical omissions that make up her own heritage. Lest this history belong solely to the past, in the accompanying South Kensington segment (filmed just days before the exhibition opened) the beauty queens make their rounds in the shadow of Grenfell Tower—the public-housing complex that caught fire this past summer, killing seventy-one people—and the lingering logic of empire it carries in its darkness.

Kate Sutton

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Tate Liverpool
Albert Dock
November 17–March 18

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, This is Offal, 2016, HD video, black and white, sound, 12 minutes 51seconds.

In “We Are Ghosts,” Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley perform an antic kind of haunting: dark jokers leering from the unquiet slumbers of history. In their new video, In The Body of The Sturgeon, 2017, we’re plunged into the claustrophobia of the fictional USS Sturgeon at the end of World War II. The twelve-minute narrative is saturated with various fluids: You can almost smell the thwarted testosterone, the sweat, the ethanol swigged straight from the can by a desperate sailor. There’s even an ode to golden showers, in which Mary, with drawn-on chest hair and metal funnel bra, performs a gender-warping burlesque.

Mary (who plays nearly all the characters) pops up again in presidential drag as Harry Truman, announcing the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The frame moves in seasick waves. All this screwball capering is overlaid with the mock grandeur of the script: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” enunciated to emphasize its portentous tetrameter. The crew eventually meet a watery end when the submarine hits a mine and sinks. Brainy and allusive (nods to Carson McCullers and gender theory abound), the overall effect is cartoonishly serious, thrilling, and demented.

The show’s second film, This Is Offal, 2016, similarly taps comedy from tears. Inspired by Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem “The Bridge of Sighs,” Mary plays a drowned suicide victim, whose internal organs are resurrected as surreally bickering talking heads at her autopsy. “You lily liver! How can you treat a faithful foot so callous?” Punning and garrulous, it answers back for history’s doomed heroines (“I feel ya, Ophelia”). Patrick as the lugubrious, Lou Reed–look-alike coroner is hilarious, while the highbrow references to Greek mythology are worn with rapid-fire irreverence. Rarely has laughter in the dark been this fun.

Daniel Culpan