Mary Reid Kelley Makes A Video

By March 01, 2024

The black and white silent video works of Mary Reid Kelley are influenced by the artist’s South Carolina upbringing, her history-loving parents, the collaborative nature of her sibling relationships, and a determination to dissect and investigate a woman’s role in contemporary society. They are as comical as they are solemn, imaginative as they are eerie. Kelley, performing as the central character, dons enlarged, button eyeballs that both mask her identity and obscure her vision. “The eyes block out everything. When I look out of the eyes, I see very little, which is great, and it’s helped me do the performance. I don’t think I could have started performing without them,” she explains.


A historical reimagining of La Belle Époque, a period in France that is continuously romanticized in popular culture via Marie Antoinette-inspired retellings and modern adaptations, the artist’s eleven-minute production of The Syphilis of Sisyphus (2011) centers a sex worker who contracts syphilis and becomes pregnant. Research informs Kelley’s portrayal of historical figures, as well as her love for literature. Artist as the performer/protagonist is a continuous thread in Kelley’s video works, as she traverses animated and live-action landscapes while disappearing into her chosen roles.

All of Kelley’s project relies on a collaborative spirit. In this video, she works with her partner, Patrick Kelley, as the videographer for the project, and her three siblings serve as lead actors—a group of individuals engaged in the theatrics of growing up together in Greenville. Taken in part from her own understanding of the American South’s history as one that is clouded by truth distortion, Kelley understands that storytelling depends upon who holds the pen of power and privilege. Her work conveys an invigorated passion for discipline-meshing and fleshed out characters that address the complexities of womanhood in history, in order to place a critical eye on past, present, and future.

This film is part of Burnaway’s partnership with Art21, an organization that produces award-winning documentary films about the world’s most groundbreaking contemporary artists. The collaboration intends to deepen an understanding of visual art that hails from the South today.

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“A bunch of fallacies operate in present-day thinking about theater. People think that meaning comes from somewhere out there, pre-established, predetermined. I don’t think that’s so. Meaning comes from involvement, you create the truth of your situation… Theater has taken the tone of the rest of our lives: meaninglessness, otherness, outsideness… Gil [Moses] calls it the ‘ice-cream parlor theater’—a place you go to not even for dessert, just to do something. But the FST has to be bread—a bakery which makes something vitally needed… [Meaning] doesn’t come from oracles; you forge it on the anvil of your own experience with each other.”

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