Mary Reid Kelley, The Queen’s English, 2008, still from a black-and-white video, 4 minutes 20 seconds.

AS AMERICA’S MISADVENTURES in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, with Iran boiling on the horizon, war fills our minds. A growing number of artworks and films focus on our current crises, but what makes Mary Reid Kelley’s videos particularly fascinating is that they send us backward in time to the grimly instructive universe of World War I. The Great War hovers above all narratives of armed conflict in modern memory, with its shattering speed of destruction, its multiple fronts blistering and spreading, the world order collapsing in its path. Broken unities gave way to the iconoclasms of a new culture’s anomie and social upheaval. That is the background against which Kelley unfolds her recent works, Sadie, the Saddest Sadist, 2009, and The Queen’s English, 2008, which fuse performance, poetry, and painting and focus on two women in the war effort, caught up as subalterns in the labors

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