American artist Catherine Sullivan initially trained as an actress, and although she has worked in a variety of media, she is best known for theatre and video work that explores the conventions of performance and role-playing. Sullivan uses a wide range of historical and cultural references – including film noir, avant-garde cinema, contemporary art and the history of theatre – to explore the tensions between performers, their roles and their audience.
For her first UK exhibition, Sullivan is showing The Chittendens, a six screen video installation. To make the film, she dressed sixteen actors in conventional costumes that bring to mind stereotypes from nineteenth and twentieth-century America, such as the Secretary, the Muscle Man or the Management Executive. Sullivan then envisioned fourteen different ‘attitudes’ – an emotion to perform or a character to embody – and asked each of the sixteen actors to perform according to one or more of these attitudes. Some of the attitudes are behavioural patterns that Sullivan derived from emotional reactions or situations, while others are formal patterns, akin to musical notation, borrowed from performance history or contemporary dance. Each performance varies in duration and form, condensing or expanding according to rhythmic combinations.
The Chittendens was made in collaboration with composer Sean Griffin, who wrote the score for the video. Sullivan then edited the video to highlight the formal dialogue between the actors’ gestures and his music. In one scene, for instance, two women dance and shout as if performing a series of instructions from an unseen choreographer, and these actions betray more than a hint of madness. Meanwhile, a soft, minimal piano score creates an atmosphere at odds with the inexplicable behaviour of the characters. In the background, a young man dressed as a priest sits in a chair, rocking back and forth and moving his hands before getting up and leading the camera into another room, where we see yet more characters performing.
The Chittenden Group insurance company, from which Sullivan derived her title, uses a solitary lighthouse as its corporate emblem, and she picked up on this image as a metaphor for self-control and free will. While most of The Chittendens was shot in an abandoned office in Chicago, the opening section of the video, in the first room, was shot on Poverty Island, a small island in Lake Michigan with an abandoned lighthouse.
This exhibition is curated by Vincent Honoré, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.
The Chittendens is part of the 2005–6 Level 2 series curated by Jessica Morgan, Curator Contemporary Art, Tate Modern.
To coincide with the display, Sullivan is presenting a special screening of her earlier artworks.