Catherine Sullivan

Catherine Sullivan studied acting before becoming a visual artist (she has degrees in both areas), and her two-part multimedia installation Five Economies (Big Hunt Little Hunt), 2002, hovers in the increasingly indistinguishable zone between these disciplines. Initially overwhelming, Big Hunt is a mural of motion: five silent black-and-white films (each a succession of short intercut vignettes) are shown simultaneously as video projections in a twenty-one-minute loop, filling a large wall. The five silent films are both unwieldy and mesmerizing as they interrelate and disperse, come together and fall apart. They were all shot in the same interior space, which appears to be an actor’s studio with a small stage, some adaptable rooms, and a kitchen area. Here a troupe of actors repetitively and obsessively works through character studies culled from scenarios that range from the broadly physical slapstick entertainment that was part of Irish wakes a few centuries ago to the life of Birdie Jo Hoaks, a twenty-five-year-old woman who passed as a thirteen-year-old orphan boy to cadge welfare benefits in the mid-’90s. Sullivan’s actors further engage in a variety of body/dance exercises and restage scenes from films such as The Miracle Worker, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Persona, and Marat/Sade. For example, we witness multiple interpretations—filmed in every corner of the studio—of the scene from The Miracle Worker in which Anne Sullivan tries to cajole a resistant Helen Keller into feeding herself. On one level these variations amount to something like an actor’s primer, showing the scene played with restraint or abandon, primly or violently, but what seems to count is less the success of these alternate readings than the mutability of the bodies within them: The actors disappear into character, subsuming their own reality into fiction. Interspersed are shots of the same actors engaged in what seem to be improvised body movements—flexing their instrument. This investigation of the fundamental medium of acting, the body, shows it to be almost limitlessly compelling and manipulable.

Little Hunt is a silent twelve-minute video transferred to DVD and displayed on a monitor. In it, two actor-dancers are shown at various times of day and night on a tennis court filled with sets and props from a production of Les Misérables. The man and woman amble slowly and disconnectedly among these materials—scabbards, pistols, swords, books, buckets, scythes, and so on—in automaton—like rhythms, with repetitive and trancelike gestures. Their motions largely reflect indifference to the props that surround them. Though making no attempt to convey a narrative, Little Hunt manages to reside at the periphery of storytelling: The accoutrements of theater continue to imply some kind of anecdote, no matter how absurd or dysfunctional its presentation. Function follows format. and the persistent and reflexive narrative structure of theater and film can only imperfectly be transcended. Sullivan’s installation both oddly undercuts and reifies theatrical impulses. Her concentration on the actor’s body as the work’s core component introduces another examination of the contested zones between life and art.

James Yood