Los Angeles

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, In the Body of the Sturgeon, 2017, HD video projection, black-and-white, sound, 12 minutes 15 seconds.

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, In the Body of the Sturgeon, 2017, HD video projection, black-and-white, sound, 12 minutes 15 seconds.

Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Vielmetter Los Angeles

In Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley’s collaborative and often funny works, historical events are rendered as featherlight webs of consequences. For this series of paintings, photographs, and sculptural installations (many of which featured the characters—some historical, some invented—that populate their video In the Body of the Sturgeon, 2017, also on display here), the duo struck a more restrained tone, knitting together histories of settler colonialism, the sociosexual politics of naval life, and President Harry S. Truman’s deployment of the atomic bomb. Similar to the pair’s previous exegeses on gnarly pasts (imagine three characters screaming, “I baguette [beget] you!” as they hit each other over the head with crusty French bread), these works featured their signature cartoonish black-and-white color palette. However, the text Reid Kelley voices throughout In the Body of the Sturgeon is distinct from that of past works in its method of assembly. The artists created a cento—a poem using language in an extant poem or poems—out of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. (The paintings also adopted the cento form but were sourced from other texts in Truman’s library.)

Known for its trochaic tetrameter (in which each line has four trochees—two-syllable metric feet in which the first syllable is stressed—and which the cento retains) as much as for its glorification of the image of the “noble savage,” Longfellow’s poem has its admirers and its detractors. George Eliot, for example, wrote without irony that it and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter were “two of the most indigenous and masterly productions in American literature.” The poem’s narrative loosely follows the developing relationship between Hiawatha (an Ojibwe man) and Minnehaha (a Dakota woman), and is at times atmospheric, cosmic, mundane, and plotty. Over the course of Hiawatha’s introduction and twenty-two sections, the titular character vanquishes a magician, is swallowed by a sturgeon, and accepts Christian missionaries into his village before deciding to canoe off into the sunset; the work is a fantastical, picturesque, and romanticized reverie of settler colonialism’s brutal advance in the United States and Canada. While Longfellow had high aspirations for his poem (calling it an “Indian Edda”), the sociologist Margot Francis summed up its thrust with clarity, writing that by “imposing a Christian framework on the Anishinabe oral legends, the poem presents an account of gentle heroism and doomed retreat from the world on the verge of the cataclysmic changes of colonial rule.”

From this heady, tricky text, the two artists have created something astonishing: a group of works connected by a narrative that acknowledges and reframes certain aspects of its source while simultaneously leveraging the constraints of the poet’s Romantic language to reflect the human devastation wrought by international and interpersonal conflict. For example, the invented submarine where much of the action of In the Body of the Sturgeon takes place is named the USS Sturgeon, after that important episode in Longfellow’s poem wherein Hiawatha is eaten by a mighty fish. Hiawatha escapes capture, but the settler sailors in the submarine do not. This and other works apply an old-new gloss to the dropping of the atomic bomb, effectively denaturing contemporary accounts of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan to reveal some of the rationales behind what should only be abject horror. Read by Reid Kelley in Truman drag, the results of their literary scavengery sound like a prophecy of some far-off future, retrieved only after its decimation:

“As the day dawned / wings above us
Dropped / upon some far-off island,
First a single / shell of scarlet,
Then a snow-white cloud unfolding.
In the eastern sky / our vengeance
Filled and lighted / all the village.
For a stranger / far to eastward,
He it was who brought the / conflict.
Beautiful is the sun, O strangers!
We have found / the fatal secret,
And the sun is / split asunder.”

That this assembled text vividly illustrates nuclear physics while also exposing the aestheticization of the atomic bomb’s inconceivable destruction—just as Longfellow collapses and aestheticizes the earlier historical genocide of the noble savage—is nothing short of revelatory.