Catherine Sullivan

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.


The complex relationship among the actor, the role interpreted, and the way in which gestures and actions establish different levels of empathy with the audience lies at the base of Catherine Sullivan’s oeuvre. Her background includes acting studies as well as a degree from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Both of these experiences have come to influence her art, which formally includes one or multi-channel video installations and performances done live for the theater. In both cases, the artist writes the scripts and directs her cast, using professional as well as amateur actors and dancers. Their actions, physicality, excesses, acting ability or professional skills represent the true medium through which the artist expresses herself. The analysis of these dynamics passes through a variety of sources including the history of theater, cinema, literature, and a wide range of references to popular culture.
Intentionally overlapping, joined in deliberately arbitrary relationships, the references Sullivan uses in constructing her works are never employed to stage logical narrations. On the contrary, in her works opposing or similar interpretative models are juxtaposed in order to investigate the proliferation of meanings. At the same time, the abundance of references contributes in highlighting the basic elements and the very heart of the concept of theater acting and interpretation, which remain the fundamental components of the artist’s oeuvre. [MB]

List of Works

‘Tis Pity She’s a Fluxus Whore, 2003
two-channel video installation, DVD transferred from 16 mm film, color, sound, dimension determined by the space, 26 min.
Permanent loan of the Region of Piedmont
The title ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore refers to a play published in 1633 by the English dramatist John Ford. The production caused a scandal due to the story’s plot of an incestuous relationship between Giovanni and Annabella, brother and sister condemned to a tragic fate. The term “Fluxus,” added by the artist to compose the title of her work, refers to the famous avant-garde movement that, bridging the sixties and seventies, wed the experimentation of various artists in Europe and the United States, often unsettling both the audience and critics with seemingly illogical or disarmingly simple actions.
Sullivan’s work, installed in the form of two videos on monitors, unites these two different episodes in the history of performing arts by comparing two cases of disruption in the relationship between the actor, the role portrayed, and the spectator.
The work was initially produced for an exhibition held by the artist at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut where Ford’s play had been staged in 1943.