Catherine Sullivan: Metro Pictures
Richard, Frances, Artforum International
One can't summarize Catherine Sullivan's video Triangle of Need, 2007, but particulars can be given: The work was produced during residencies at the Walker Art Center and at Vizcaya, an opulent estate built in 1916 on Florida's Bay of Biscayne by International Harvester magnate James Deering. Additional shooting was carried out in an abandoned apartment in Chicago (the city once home to the original factory of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company [International Harvester's parent company]). Sullivan collaborated, as she typically does, with an ensemble of actors and dancers, and with the composer Sean Griffin, plus choreographer Dylan Skybrook and film director Kunle Afolayan. Transferred from 16-mm film, the video was projected in three parts in three rooms. A three-channel segment in black and white, and a single channel in black and white and degraded color showed on a folding portable screen, while a four-channel portion in color was projected onto a screen suspended from the ceiling. Benches and red velvet drapes provided the gallery mise-en-scene. And content? It involves Neanderthal orphans coaxed to mate by a trio of headmistressy women, Nigerian e-mail scams, time travel and psychic permeability, an invented language called Mousterian (after the Paleolithic culture that travels under that name in archeological circles), a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, and figure skating.
"There is absolutely going to be a great doubt and distrust in your heart," an actor explains earnestly, facing the camera. He is quoting an e-mail from one Dr. Patrick Obi, who promises to share the fortune of Harold Bowen, an engineer killed in Nigeria, if only you provide your bank details. It is, of course, the artist's address to the audience. Disarmingly, Sullivan sets herself up as a scam artist who spins a tale so bewildering that we buy it--but instead of giving us nothing for something she constructs a fun house of paleoanthropology, eugenics, silent film, robber-baron capitalism, and fantasies of communication with a monstrous yet familiar other. Marrying what she calls "vestigial narratives" of cultural supremacy to Skybrook's "disfigurement choreography," Sullivan stages a pageant of collapsing selfhood, where the only locus of identity is gesture--physical tics that under pressure turn hypertrophic and alien, until race, gender, nationality, historical origin, even species read just as a congeries of symptoms. …