Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley create video works intended to give a voice to the characters of unrecorded history. The subjects of We Are Ghosts’ two videos, 2016’s ‘This is Offal’ and new commission for Tate Liverpool ‘In The Body of the Sturgeon’, are characters sacrificed to fate and history. The Kelleys bring their stories to life with more than a touch of surrealism and dark humour; it’s visible in the ping-pong eyes and mask-like features of their characters, audible in the poetic dialogue full of puns and wordplay with which these stories are told. It takes the viewer a while to adjust to this world – but once you’re in, it brings bathos to the bleakest of situations.
‘In The Body of The Sturgeon’ is set in a submarine at the end of the Second World War. Up on the surface President Harry Truman has just bombed Hiroshima, while down here all the sailors can do is stave off boredom through drink and pantomime. The artists may claim that this is a history lesson rather than a comment on contemporary events, but the scenario of futile ennui in the face of nuclear war feels remarkably relevant. It’s no surprise that the characters seem each to be descending into some form of madness.
The script is based word-for-word on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s much-parodied 1855 poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. Using this structure could elevate this story and its characters into the canon of epic poetry, but the wordplay the Kelleys use, together with their cartoonish visual style, create a dichotomy. This is no arena for grandeur – rather, in the tradition of ‘Catch-22’ and ‘Doctor Strangelove’, the absurdism of their scenarios create a far more interesting meditation on the physical and mental destruction war bestows.
Many of the same techniques and themes can also be seen in ‘This is Offal’, the tale of a female suicide as told by her dissected cadaver. To give authority to the voice of a dead woman, in response to the speculations of Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem ‘The Bridge of Sighs’, introduces a refreshing complexity to her character. The sight of her organs debating which is to blame for her death is both tragic and ridiculous, and makes it impossible to explain her motivations by any stereotyped or romanticised expectations. There is insanity, but also sadness, in their desire for a new kind of immortality on the medical student’s table, when we can’t help but share the mortician’s belief that what was real and true has been lost.
It’s easy to understand why the Kelleys are artists developing a strong international reputation. The stylised surface of each twelve-minute film reflects universal anxieties, their dark surrealism only adding poignancy to these stories of the forgotten and brings them to life in your thoughts and memories beyond your time in the gallery.
We Are Ghosts will be on display at Tate Liverpool until 18 March 2018, and entry to the exhibition is free.
Julia Johnson is a writer based in Liverpool. She’s interested in how engagement with art can be opened up to the widest possible audiences.