Catherine Sullivan’s video installation ‘Tis Pity She’s a Fluxus Whore, 2003, brings together two specific references from the history of theater and that of performance art. Invited to exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, Sullivan explored the history of the theater connected to the museum, focusing on A. Everett “Chick” Austin. Amateur actor and director of the Wadsworth Atheneum since 1927, Austin was forced to submit his resignation in 1943, following a scandal created by his staging of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a tragedy written by the English playwright John Ford in 1633. Deemed offensive by both public and critics, the story revolves around the incestuous relationship between Giovanni, played by Austin himself, and Giovanni’s sister, Annabella. The other reference for Sullivan’s work is Fluxus, the avant-garde movement that developed in Europe and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, and which frequently bewildered both public and critics with apparently illogical actions. In particular, Sullivan has delved into the events of July 20, 1964 in Aachen, Germany, when some artists, including Ben Vautrier, Wolf Vostell, and Joseph Beuys, were physically assaulted during a festival. Numerous members of the public interpreted the choice of date as intentional, linking it to July 20, 1944, the day when Hitler was the target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Sullivan’s work was shot in the United States and in Germany, in the same theaters that were the settings for the events described. Performed by a single actor who plays all the roles and alternates a Fluxus and a traditional theatrical style, the work reveals the dramatic fracture that can be created between actor, the text that is interpreted, acting technique, and the public.
The history of theater, cinema, literature, and popular culture are some of the multiple sources the artist draws upon for her works, which include video installations and live performances. These references are often superimposed and brought together arbitrarily, according to what the artist calls “a forced relationality.” Avoiding linear narrations and seeking out new connections, Sullivan develops instead an analysis of different interpretive models, arriving at an investigation of the very concept of acting. For all her own works, she writes the script and directs the cast, making use of actors and dancers, both professionals and amateurs. They—their actions, physicality, and acting ability, encompassing excesses or consummate craft—represent the true tool employed by Sullivan, whose background includes a degree in acting.