Catherine Sullivan


The work by LA born artist Catherine Sullivan (1969) is based on qualities that the artist has fostered from both her educations, the realms of theatre and of fine arts. Since 1997, Catherine Sullivan writes and stages pieces that are based on theatre and which are presented within the visual arts context of video films and installations.

Simultaneously, she often implants her dramatic concepts within the local theatre scene by hijacking existing stage sets for her performances. The exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich will present for the first time in Switzerland a comprehensive survey of the artist's work, along with works such as the large 5-channel-video-installations «Big Hunt» (2002) and «Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land» (2004) and the multi-screen projections such as «Gold Standard (hysteric, melancholic, degraded, refined)» from 2001, there will be a range of sculptures, photographs and single-channel works The central theme in Catherine Sullivan's work are the encoded forms of expression. She applies these as confronting elements of communication between content, performer and audience, which through their formal as through their stylistic repetitions become effective. The selection of works shown at the Kunsthalle Zürich therefore emphasise the artist's striking interest in choreography.

Catherine Sullivan's interest is based on the emotional tension, which arises between the portrayed, the portrayer and the audience. She explores the principles of dramatic conventions and the mechanics of expression, which she filters from a large range of historical references. Sullivan calls her works «second order drama». Her material emerges from various sources such as cinema, theatre, literature, musicals or for example a Trisha Brown Choreography.

Point of origin in «Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land» (2004) is the brutal hostage take-over by the Chechens during the musical performance «North-East» at the Moscow opera in October 2002. «North-East» was seen as the first Russian musical, which reached an American format and attracted the Moscow audience in masses. The musical is based on the novel «Two Captains», a love and adventure story, which uses the Bolshevik Revolution and the Second World War as backdrop to portray an adventurous expedition into the Arctic region. As a symbol of Russia's expansion policy, Sullivan seems to affirm the musical's content as ideal symbolic target of the Chechens. Equally, this musical represented the charged relationship of adopting American entertainment culture. Catherine Sullivan took the novel «Two Captains» and developed roughly 50 pantomime-like actions from it, which all performers rehearsed, regardless of the character to whom the action originally was linked to. With a sequence of approximately forty archetypes and costume clichés, the artist evokes a system of representative impulses, which move in the realm of theatre but without "being" a musical. The work was filmed in the Polish American Army Veterans Association in Chicago, a social, multi-functional room serving the Polish community, which with their nationalistic and nostalgic emblems, military relics and the woodcuts by Polish artist Alex Kowalczuk spread a dark and dramatic atmosphere.

«Big Hunt» (2002) presents itself on five projection-screens, loops, each 22 minutes in length. In this work, Sullivan asks the question how and why emotional expression is of interest to us. In order to do so, she questions the role of the actor as central theme. How does emotional memory get formulated? What are the formal characteristics, which set the mechanics of the expressive and emotional content into motion? How does the body relate itself to the act of expression and how does this expression relate to the viewer's interpretation thereof? Her theory is, that the audience is less interested in the dramatic roles themselves but rather in the actors' virtuosity in transformation and empathy. Her starting points thus are normally based on film or real-life models, which can be homed in on through the skills of acting, conceptually or thematically. The scenes in «Big Hunt» relate to films like Arthur Penn's «The Miracle worker» (1962), which revolves around the mute and deaf Helen Keller and Robert Aldrich's «Whatever Happened to Baby Jane» (1962), which tells the story of a person's struggle between the glamorous "past self" and the degraded and desperate "present self". These films circle around the mental illness and derangement, whose dramatic essence is heightened through the contrast of the protagonist's physical beauty. In addition, Sullivan also makes use of true stories

such as the one of the 25 year-old Birdie Jo Hoaks, who pretended to be a 13 year-old orphan boy in order to receive social security contributions. Sullivan develops dramatic tasks from this library of references, which stylistically have been influenced by pre-existing templates. Through this matrix, an ensemble of 30 performers executed a tightly strung web, leading to a grand re-organisation of derivatives of physical capacities of expression, which feed from a rich pool of potential constellations of conflicts: The conflict between content and form (the beautiful actress versus the pitiful character), between the symbolic power of the theatre and ist representational forms, between hybrids of performative styles and their ability to emotionally involve the viewer into something, which has already been experienced through the codex of emotions displayed in theatre, television, or through the Hollywood movie culture. With this, Sullivan succeeds in creating a strange world originating from visual sources, which spread themselves through repetitive scenes, contents and performers assuming a form of decoding. This form of decoding lends her video installations and theatre pieces a quality, which stands apart from the normal content and referential systems, allowing the viewer a direct experience of emotional values.

In many of today's contemporary art practices, one can observe the reflection and exploration of transgressing the media in the '60s’ & '70s'. In contrast to these historic departures where the deconstructive process of transgressing limits became the central theme, it now appears that the formal requirements, specific to each media such as the visual arts, exhibition, theatre, performance, music, literature, etc become the central role. This goes hand in hand with the reactivation of the physical presence of the self in relation to the existing formal definitions as with the subjective reinterpretation of seeing this "merging" of media. In Catherine Sullivan's work the relationship of the diverse media is not formulated as a deconstructive way of lifting this media transgression or as a transportation of media specific expressions in a documentary mode from one context to the other, rather she infiltrates the forms of meaning and effects of the various media. Her video installations are impressive worlds, where the fascination of the theatrical gets transformed into the aesthetic form of a video-installation. Likewise, her theatre pieces build a form of piracy within the standardized theatrical context in which she implants aesthetic adoptions of her real-life experiments coming from performance and the visual arts and thus testing the potential impact physical expression holds. Sullivan addresses the transformation of the media itself by deplacing certain qualities, by inserting other formal existing codes, thus isolating, lifting and intensifying specific characteristics which allow the viewer a new, also different but direct encounter with the work.

Kunsthalle Zürich thanks: Präsidialdepartment der Stadt Zürich