Mary Reid Kelley, Swinburne’s Pasiphae, 2014, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes 58 seconds.

Mary Reid Kelley, Swinburne’s Pasiphae, 2014, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes 58 seconds.

Mary Reid Kelley

Mary Reid Kelley, Swinburne’s Pasiphae, 2014, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes 58 seconds.

Mary Reid Kelley’s nearly nine-minute black-and-white video Swinburne’s Pasiphae, 2014, and its accompanying handmade props and drawings constitute the second installment in the artist’s ongoing trilogy based on the life of the Minotaur, that infamous half-man, half-bull of Greek mythology. As she has with each of her increasingly complex and distinctive video works to date incorporating animation with live action, Reid Kelley again weaves a multilayered narrative full of blink-and-you-miss-it literary and artistic allusions and clever wordplay. The video is highly stylized yet utterly captivating. Reid Kelley plays each character, donning various inventive prosthetic masks, bodysuits, and appendages. With its exaggerated postures and monochromatic setting, the setup is part German Expressionist film, part commedia dell’arte. As the Minotaur, Reid Kelley wears a leotard with a paper-bag mask over her head, from which protrudes the cartoonish rubber muzzle of a bull.

The piece is based on the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne’s erotic retelling of the Minotaur’s conception, and it is his multivoiced poem that provides the work’s dialogue. Swinburne’s Pasiphae recounts the liaison between a bull and Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos. Cursed, so the story goes, to lust after the bull by the god Poseidon, the queen instructs Daedalus, that renowned artisan of Greek mythology, to construct a hollow wooden bull with which she might consummate her desire. The eventual result of this seemingly impossible coupling is the birth of the Minotaur, a monstrous figure Daedalus is later charged with imprisoning inside its own purpose-built labyrinth, where Theseus finally slays him. Swinburne’s poem was banned during his lifetime due to its explicitly sexual nature, although it was precisely this aspect of the myth that has been explored with relish by artists from Picasso to Pollock. Reid Kelley conceived of her video as a collaboration of sorts between her reading of the myth and Swinburne’s. In her translation, Pasiphae is more feminist femme fatalethan supine, cursed victim. The moment Pasiphae climbs into the rear end of the wooden cow is one in which the usual reproductive order is slyly retooled, and it stands in stark contrast to the typical artistic motif of the young woman being carried off by the giant bull (in the video we see a projection of Pasiphae literally inside the cow’s belly).

The costumes, prosthetics, masks, and props that feature heavily in Reid Kelley’s video are quite unlike anything else. They fill the screen and, subsequently, the accompanying galleries to create a monochrome world of objects, as if cartoonlike signifiers for a black-and-white past. Daedalus’s all-white workbench and tools are sculptural installations rendered flat and otherworldly on-screen, while the wall-mounted pages of personal ads from tabloids that we see Pasiphae trawl in the video bring the myth up to date: QUEEN SEEKS BOVINE FRIEND reads one; another declares TAURUS SEEKS ARIES FOR FARMYARD FUN.

Reid Kelley’s retelling replaces the Greek concept of fate with the modern one of choice, what the artist dubs the “consumer world’s name for freedom.” The emphasis here is on the risks inherent in the pursuit of that freedom. In the final moments of the video, we see the skittish, lost Minotaur stumbling around her labyrinth, represented as a cold and graffiti-covered series of concrete passages. This female Minotaur is a far cry from the threatening beast of mythic legend. In the last shot, the Minotaur lies curled on one side, shoulders shuddering as she sobs. Neither freedom nor fate can save Pasiphae or her son from the nightmares in which they are ultimately trapped. It is a parable of sorts. Pasiphae’s pursuit culminates not in the fulfillment of her cursed desires but results instead in disappointment, confusion, and the realization that her apparent freedom to choose was, in fact, no choice at all.

Jo Applin