The Syphilis of Sisyphus
Since 2008, the New York-based artist, poet, filmmaker, set designer, and costume maker Mary Reid Kelley has occupied a distinct niche within the contemporary art world, creating and acting in short, performative videos. Revealing her creative styling and intellectual mischief-making, these unique videos typically demonstrate a monochromatic palette, artist-designed sets and costumes, and rhythmic and pun-filled verses articulated by the protagonist.
Co-directed with Patrick Kelley and set in 1852 before the modernization of Paris, The Syphilis of Sisyphus is an eleven-minute video depicting the poetic monologue of a young, pregnant prostitute named Sisyphus—played by the artist—as she ponders aloud the fate of women. With her flawless verbal breadth, puns fly freely throughout the piece. Examples include “Fishing for compliments, I will use allure,” “The wrist will be history!” and “My blistering wit, and it’s deep lacerations are advanced forms of Syphilization!” Creating the graphically-designed sets based on an old map of Paris before the wide boulevards were established, Sisyphus traverses the narrow streets and alleys, whereby she is suddenly interrupted by a cast of characters acting out vignettes concerning the history of her country. As Napoleon, Karl Marx, Marie Antonette, and Baron Haussmann alternately make appearances, Sisyphus is caught throwing baguettes at the bourgeois (“I baguette you!”) and consigned as a test subject at La Salpêtrière Hospital (where French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot infamously submitted female patients to his studies of hysteria). The viewer last sees her as a bride, surrounded by a gaggle of adoring suitors, stating “goodbye nature and hi, men.” Interested in the idea of a historical burden, Reid Kelley’s protagonist’s polemical musings create a link between past and present. Should women attempt to break free from the position assigned to them by history and nature or is it the myth of Sisyphus—determined to push that boulder for eternity?