Beauty, decadence and decay: “The Syphilis of Sisyphus” by Mary Reid Kelley

On the Winter/Spring edition of Gulf Coast Journal, we see a black and white Southern Belle coiffed, painted, and dressed for the evening. What we find out later is that Sisyphus, the protagonist of Mary Reid Kelley‘s writing/video/art piece “The Syphilis of Sisyphus,”  is a prostitute ready to pick up customers and desperately trying to cover up her syphilis marks. And so we are pulled into Reid Kelley’s world of beauty, decadence, and decay.

Mary Reid Kelley is something of a savant, adept in poetry, costume, make-up, video, and installation, her artistic oeuvre is consistent and thorough. At 35 years old, she  is a force. She develops a narrative in poetry form,  designs all the sets, costumes, and make-up and then directs its filming.  Reid Kelley along with her husband, brother and sister compose the project team and their collaboration provides Reid Kelley with the ability to be singularly focused on the work instead of on management issues.

Mary Reid Kelley "Syphilis of Sisyphus"
Mary Reid Kelley “Syphilis of Sisyphus”

I was introduced to Kelley through her solo exhibition at Boston’s ICA (Institute for Contemporary Art) where “The Syphilis of Sisyphus” played alongside “Sadie the Saddest Sadist” and other films.  Drawings, journals, props and costumes of  Kelley’s concept development process were included, and I was able to witness the extreme detail that goes into all her works.

In “The Syphilis of Sisyphus,” the featured work of Gulf Coast Journal, Mary Reid Kelley has developed a fantastical recreation of Paris where Sisyphus is our guide.  Part Plath and de Sade, Reid Kelley’s Sisyphus shows us a world that is dark and ironic. Using historical sources on disease,  philosophy and fashion,  her intellectually challenging work is hilarious and heartbreaking.

Here is an excerpt


In Scene 3 of the work, a troupe of actors perform vignettes of French history. In order to better demonstrate, Reid Kelley’s use of research, art, and irony in the work, here is a section from her account of the death of the radical Jean-Paul Marat:

Jacques Louis David "Death of Marat"
Jacques Louis David “Death of Marat”

While taking a medicinal bath for his chronic skin conditions, Jean-Paul Marat was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, a political moderate. She used a 5 inch kitchen knife to cut through his chest. In honor of Marat, Jacques-Louis David painted his death in the iconic 1793 canvas above. Reid Kelley’s version (visual and written) can be found below:

Mary Reid Kelley’s “Assassination of Marat”

“Drown in the tub of your 


Blood, wretched traitor!” screamed

Charlotte Corday.

Caught in underwater, and covered

In lotion

Jean-Paul Marat sputtered,

“What did she say?”

Mary Reid Kelley is not for everyone – some of the images are  disturbing  and watching her films are a bit  like playing historical-cultural Jeopardy. If you’re not up to snuff, you’re going to miss a lot of it.  However, if you can experience the work as a puzzle – knowing you will have to zigzag between what you know and what you don’t know, it’s quite a fun challenge.

Images and the entire text of “The Syphilis of Sisyphus” can be found in Gulf Coast Journal.

Here is Art21’s commentary on another Reid Kelley work “You Make Me Iliad”

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