Mary Reid Kelley and the Myth of the Minotaur

June 3, 2015
– By Emily Gonzalez-Jarrett, curatorial associate

The following is an excerpt of an essay on Mary Reid Kelley. Read the full essay.

The ancient Greeks believed that the gods punished mortals for their hubris, an excessive pride that offended the deities, who were capricious and wrathful, extending their vengeance through innocent generations. Family was fate, and fate determined suffering. Neither could be changed by a mere mortal. The artist Mary Reid Kelley’s trilogy of videos on the myth of the Minotaur, made in collaboration with Patrick Kelley, frames the difference between the ancient concept of fate and the contemporary belief that suffering is generally the result of one’s own bad choices. Reid Kelley’s lyrical scripts and slapstick action highlight the absurd and tragic dimensions of the Minotaur’s family story. Her stylized backdrops and costumes place the story in ancient Greece, but the artist’s blending of contemporary references moves it closer to home. The hapless Minotaur could stand in for any misfit, and her supporting constellation of family and gods satirizes both divine power and the contemporary cult of self-determination.
Traditional storytellers have focused on the hero Theseus and his quest to conquer the Minotaur, thereby freeing the people of Athens of their tributary obligations and defeating King Minos, but Reid Kelley’s trilogy centers on the women in the myth: Queen Pasiphae and her daughters Ariadne and the Minotaur (who is male in the traditional telling of the myth). The artist plays every character in these videos before a green screen, and Patrick Kelley composites the characters together over animated scenery based on Reid Kelley’s drawings. She finds or makes all of the costumes and props, creating a very distinctive aesthetic for each video. Reid Kelley was trained as a painter, and her black-and-white videos have a drawing-like quality. They recall illustrations and cartoons, methods of conveying experiences before the advent of the photograph. The worlds presented in these videos through scenery, characters, and dialogue are carefully crafted and complete.
Priapus Agonistes

Reid Kelley sets up her version of the myth in Priapus Agonistes (2013), in which athletes from rival churches play indoor volleyball to determine the annual sacrifice to the Minotaur, a cow-woman hybrid who lives in the labyrinth beneath the gym. She is the product of the union between her mother, Queen Pasiphae, and a bull. In the traditional version of the myth the god Poseidon placed a curse on Pasiphae to punish Minos for not sacrificing the beautiful bull to him, but in Reid Kelly’s female-centered retelling, the offended deity is Venus. The goddess of love and beauty punished the queen in part out of jealousy and in part out of displeasure with her conceited attitude. Priapus, the Greek demigod of fertility, worshipped by fishermen and farmers, replaces Theseus as the hero who will face the monster. Reid Kelley’s Priapus is a man-fish hybrid, which makes him an unconventional hero, but like many heroes, he is self-assured and egotistical, confident that he will thwart the perceived villain.

But it’s your joy, not mine, that matters now.
Express it freely! Wanton praise endows
My limbs with fearsome strength, which I’ll need
To kill the Minotaur!

In response to Priapus’s plan to kill the beast, Pasiphae cries for the child that she bore, showing not remorse for her offenses but guilt and sympathy for the Minotaur. She is too painfully aware that her offspring will continue to pay for her perceived indiscretions.

In Reid Kelley’s interpretation of the myth, the Minotaur is a creature to be pitied, not a vicious monster. She continues to become lost in the hallways of the labyrinth even though it is the only home she has ever known. Her life is one of isolation. She sees the human sacrifices as visitors sent to her for company and play but inevitably kills and eats them and then finds herself alone again. She knows of her royal family but is not allowed to live with them in the palace for reasons she does not understand. She cannot read the prisoners’ graffiti defaming the royal family. The Minotaur deludes herself that she is exceptional, not the evidence of her mother’s curse-driven transgressions against humanity. By the end of the first video, this illusion begins to crack as the Minotaur faces her desperate loneliness.