New York

Catherine Sullivan

Angel Orensanz Foundation/Whitney Museum of American Art

Catherine Sullivan is in the process of creating an exciting body of work that dissects the meaning of the word “to perform.” Operating separately in both video and live performance, she creates paired installations and theater works that share source material and performers but emphasize the nature of different acting styles within each respective medium in fascinating new ways. That she achieves such a high level of sophistication in both mediums makes her work all the more consequential.

As a former actor herself, Sullivan is as versed in the methods of directors Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Kazan, and Brook as she is in the (non)methods of Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, with whom she studied as a graduate student. This combination of interests drives her to fine-tune the movements and emotions, costumes and props of her players with the diligence of an archivist and the license of a performance artist. It also leads her to constantly probe the distinctions between live and celluloid: On-screen, in her multi-channel installations, figures are cut, edited, and reassembled according to her own precise directorial eye; in performances, where she is, naturally, less in control of what the viewer sees, entire bodies careen through the sight lines of many pairs of eyes moving in multiple directions at once.

Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land, 2003, presented in a five-channel video installation at the Whitney and as a live performance at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in the Lower East Side, both as part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, is an intriguing rendition of such parallel plays. In the former, audiences mostly stand while watching a twenty-five-minute black-and-white looped video, with attendant distractions of gallery visitors constantly on the move, while in the latter they are seated, close-up, concentrated on a mass of warm-blooded performers in full color for more than ninety minutes. Though video and live productions share the same narrative, cast of characters, and an overall athletic physicality partic- ular to Russian theater actors, it is the live version that, hands down, provides the most tension, not only because Ice Floes is based on the musical Nord-Ost (adapted from the novel Two Captains, by Veniamin Kaverin), which was playing in the Moscow theater seized by Chechen rebels in 2002, but also because more than thirty boisterous actors from Chicago’s Trapdoor Theater race between rows of seated audience members, making eye contact as they go.

Dressed in elaborate turn-of-the-century costumes or in the high fur hats and capes of an Arctic aboriginal, the players inhabit a “plastic” acting style, using the broad, repetitive gestures of pantomime, with little interaction among characters. They shuffle like zombies or rant and rave in chorus in sequences that build to a crescendo, and then fall into silent stares of exhaustion. Phrases and actions are limited to punch lines and punches and take place within an almost logarithmic rotation: The words “And father never returned!” for example, are repeated so noisily and so frequently that the audience comes close to shouting out loud along with the actors. Indeed, this expressionistic, highly choreographed play reminds us that theater is as much about public assembly and public exchange as it is about representing states of desire, disgust, or empathy.

Sullivan’s timing and sense of rhythm are more in evidence in the film installation than in the live production. If this had been a film, she would have left the last twenty minutes on the proverbial cutting-room floor. She also would have constructed a more varied visual rhythm to certain scenes, applying her acute sense of sequencing to prevent those lengthy scenes of over-the-top behavior from tiring the viewer. But the excitement of Sullivan’s work is this: She has staked out a vast field of operation for her future that speaks of history, contemporary culture, politics, and the myriad ways in which these can be examined and articulated visually, linguistically, and aurally, in two dimensions and in three. It is a landscape of enormous promise.

RoseLee Goldberg