Mary Reid Kelley invests in the liminality of wartime as a moment of cultural malleability and production. Her videos, which conflate poetry, painting, live action performance and stop-animation, enact the slipperiness of language in times of extremity with signifiers that swing from propaganda to elegy, and rhetoric to apology. Her work often returns to the forms of modernism, taking up the hallucinatory flattened and distorted visual tropes of German Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism. She re-imagines these aesthetics, embracing the “Make it New!” ethos while pointing to the exclusions and problems of the original movements. H/Qu (2012), a work on paper produced during Reid Kelley’s fellowship with the American Academy in Rome, marks the artist’s inquiry into the strategies determined by the text experiments of the French collective the Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or ‘Workshop for Potential Literature.’
The Oulipo, whose roster has included the likes of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, was formed in November of 1960 by ten members from the various disciplines of writing, mathematics and pataphysics. Their goal, according to founder Francois Le Lionnais, was “to discover new structures and furnish for each structure a small number of examples,”[i] but also to recuperate and reactivate traditional constraining literary forms. Oulipian poetic theory ranged from the polemical language of early manifestoes to elaborate formulations of a literary aesthetic based on algorithms and re-combinations.
As the Oulipo toyed with the weight of the canon and the institutions that reify it, refusing and reworking normative literary forms in order to both pay homage to and withdraw from a historical continuum, their experiments serve as apt fodder for Reid Kelley’s own textual reformulations. Her work asserts a horizontal approach to the canons of culture, lending an alternative, fabricated perspective that doesn’t quite correspond with official histories. She examines the untold narratives of women’s labor in wartime economies with tales of prostitutes, grisettes, and ‘modern women’ called to industry. Each drama is back-dropped by climates of political upheaval that justify and mobilize, but ultimately confuse duty, morals, and social contracts. Sadie, the Saddist Sadist (2009) and You Make Me Iliad (2010), both set in the midst of World War I, take up the duality of expectations for women in wartime, and her 2011 The Syphilis of Sisyphus retreats to Paris in 1852 at the onset of the Second Empire to further unpack the implications of women’s roles through radically shifting sentiments toward progress, technology and national pride.
The videos are narrated in verse that swiftly turns from earworm to enigma. The classical forms of iambic pentameter or dactylic meter are taken up with a blistering repartee that dismantles the content of ‘purple prose’ to sharply critique historiography, public policy, and the representation of women. With these tweaks and turns, the artist emphasizes that words and history are not objects, but processes– processes that elaborate the dynamic potential of our conception of the past. Reid Kelley’s texts loosen the grip of words, and of historical narratives as an extension, so as to free them from the stalemate of tradition.
In H/Qu, Reid Kelley renders this process transparent and lends agency to the viewer to enter the game. The distilled ‘choose your own adventure’-style structure of the printed text allows the viewer to muddle the distance between a hardboiled mystery and a narrative riddled with prankster wordplay—a simple substitution can turn Henry’s ‘quips’ into ‘hips’, or send him into the depths of the ‘quarry.’[ii]
Russian linguist Roman Jakobson once delineated poetic language from that of quotidian communication, positing that, like a Cubist painting, poeticity can produce a contradiction between sign and object that is mutually mobilizing. Without this contradiction, he claims, “the relationship between concept and sign becomes automatized. Activity comes to a halt, and the awareness of reality dies out.”[iii] Through re-combinations of language, Kelley produces contradictions within semantic codes, and performs a perforation of canonized linguistic forms and historical narratives, revealing what lurks behind them. She mimics the metered structures of Homer, Chaucer and Shakespeare–or in this case, the constraints of Le Lionnais, Queneau, and Calvino– but produces them with a synthesis of strategies used to subvert dominant interpretations. Reid Kelley’s subtle and crass affronts to language make it strange, and perhaps, make it feminine. H/Qu lets you decide.
[i] Warren F. Motte, Jr., Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).
[ii] The noir fictional undertones of Henry’s ambiguous fate reflect a subcommittee of the Oulipo whose central interests were detective fiction. In 1973, Le Lionnais established the Oulipopo, or the Ouvroir de Litterature Policiere Potentielle. Oulipopo’s projects dissected the situational and character tropes of the mystery story and invented new constraints to serve as imagination aids for detective fiction writers.
[iii] Hal Foster et al. “Formalism and Structuralism” in Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004) 35.