What do the Neanderthals have in common with an early 20th-century American industrialist? What are the connections between Nigerian cinema and a sprawling mansion comprising four centuries of architectural styles? These are some of the elements—physical and conceptual—that make up Catherine Sullivan’s new film project, making its world premiere at the Walker in August. In the multichannel video installation Triangle of Need, Sullivan orchestrates exceedingly complex sets of ideas and participants to weave a nuanced story about evolution, class, wealth and poverty, and the inequalities and injustices in our global economy.
A 2007 artist-in-residence at the Walker, Sullivan was trained in both visual and performing arts, and the works she creates are truly hybrid, freely crossing boundaries and mixing disciplines. She has explored different theatrical and performative conventions, from the popular stage play and musical to the historical drama, from postmodern dance to Fluxus performance. In Triangle of Need, these intersections are abundantly evident.
The story in Sullivan’s video installation unfolds in two main locations: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami and a nondescript apartment in “an American city.” Vizcaya was the former estate of American industrialist James Deering, vice president and heir to the agricultural trust International Harvester. He built Vizcaya in the 1910s on the Bay of Biscayne, and the interior and exterior decors of the estate span architectural history, from Renaissance to baroque rococo to neoclassical, as if generations of a family lived there continuously. If Miami was the locus of Deering’s historical fantasies and architectures of leisure, Chicago, the home of his factory, was the location of his industrial production and labor mobilization. And in these two starkly contrasting sites, Sullivan situates what she calls “vestigial narratives,” one involving a wealthy industrialist trying to force the last remaining members of a hominid species to reproduce, and the second, a series of reconstructions of scenes from the catalogue of Pathescope Films, the company from which Deering ordered silent film reels for screening at Vizcaya.
Sullivan always works with many other creative minds and skill sets for her projects, and during her Minneapolis residency, she partnered with local choreographer Dylan Skybrook and two dancers to develop specific movements of the imagined species, which were based on research on Neanderthal physiognomy. Furthering the exploration of the body’s ability to extend beyond its erect orientation and bipedal movement, Sullivan also engaged Minneapolis figure skater Rohene Ward, with whom she designed and filmed a series of spins. Concurrently, Sean Griffin, a Los Angeles–based composer and the artist’s frequent collaborator, invented a complex, performative language called Mousterian taken from theories of Neanderthal speech. For this work, he also created an original score for 11 instruments, combining scientific reconstructions of various sources (prehistoric flutes, early analog electronics) with early 20th-century American parlor music and sacred music by 17th-century composer Joachim Neander, after whom the Neanderthal is named.
Add to this already illustrious list of collaborators Nigerian actor/director Kunle Afolayan, who provides a counterpoint to Sullivan’s direction and style with his commercially based practice. Sullivan’s and Afolayan’s footage of the same script will be intercut and interspersed, creating a structure that questions its own operation. Indeed, Sullivan describes her approach as “agitating the content from within” the cinematic structure she has set up. Triangle of Need—her most ambitious to date—promises to give viewers a series of immersive and stimulating image and sound environments. But at the same time, this complex technique of narration is, to borrow the artist’s words again, a willfully “imperfect apparatus” for understanding the world and its historical and social contingencies.
—Doryun Chong, exhibition curator