American artist Mary Reid Kelley and her partner Patrick Kelley are known for their monochromatic, highly stylised, ghoulish short films. Each references a specific historical context. Their latest is set in 1945, when Harry Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima, and features a cast of painted performers reciting poetic verse. With the scenery and cast decorated in this graphical, monochromatic way, they appear as flat works of art come to life, unnerving in their surreal quality.
For the pair’s first museum solo show in the UK at Tate Liverpool called We Are Ghosts, opening tomorrow (17 November), Mary and Patrick are showing their newly commissioned film In the Body of the Sturgeon. It’s set in a submarine during this crucial moment in the second world war, where bored sailors entertain themselves with bootleg alcohol and ad-hoc burlesque performances. The 12-minute story combines elements of animation and live sequences, like many of their previous works, but is more immersive than anything they’ve done to date.
“This is more of a physical, real set that could be interacted with by the characters,” says Patrick. “It has a full bunk room that recreates the claustrophobic environment of the submarine.” The narration also uses verse, like the duo has done in other films such as This is Offal, also part of the Tate show. The difference with this new piece is the verse is a “text collage” – a cut up and reconstructed version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 31,000-word epic poem from 1855, The Song of Hiawatha.
“I love writing with rhyme – the repetitiveness and fun of it – but this is a new experiment for us. It’s put together like a fridge magnet poem. It uses all these words and absolutely no words from modern language, not even the word submarine! It’s a purposeful mismatch to the visuals, and creates an interesting distance between these cartoon-like scenes and the strangely archaic palette of words.”
This verbal collage is then mirrored by the visuals of the film, Patrick explains. “It uses jump cuts. For every scene, we shot different versions and the film jumps between these versions every time the verse cuts from one section to another. It’s temporally presented, and has a broken quality to match the rhythm of the verse. Even is there’s just one word from one section, you’ll see a moment from one scene.”
On the subject, Mary says the film isn’t a commentary on current affairs as much as a reminder of the history of atomic power. “Like a lot of people, we were shocked that nuclear weapons had suddenly entered the conversation again, and the harmful rhetoric that was being used with it. Back [in the second world war] we didn’t have a distinction between regular and nuclear weapons. Now even children know the unique military and moral category it falls in. It’s disturbing that our president can talk about it in such a careless way.”
We Are Ghosts by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley opens 17 November – 18 March 2018 at Tate Liverpool.