Bell(e), ethos' installation focusing on literary suicides, chucks the adolescent illusion that killing oneself is a meaningful act of passion
Reviewed by Patti Hadad, Fri., Sept. 8, 2006
The Vortex, through Sept. 23
Running time: 1 hr
Many teen girls have dog-eared copies of The Bell Jar or Patriotism because of their romantic notion of suicide as less than a fainting spell and more as a "be all and end all" (literally) act of defiance and martyrdom. Goodbye cruel world, as they say. But Honoré de Balzac once said that every suicide is an awful poem of sorrow. After an artist commits this final act, his or her body of work becomes an extended suicide note, making the artist's opaque life an even more intriguing mystery.
Bell(e) seems to chuck any of those adolescent illusions that suicide is a meaningful act of passion. Ethos' latest installation features a handful of authors (including Anne Sexton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Marina Tsvetaeva, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Yukio Mishima) captured in a vitrine by the Greek poet Sappho. Each masochist is in his or her own setting, as if Sappho had decided to catch her literary favorites with a bell jar before they flew off into an afterlife of eternal servitude and torture in Hades.
When you enter, the artists are half-creating, half-rambling, playing with objects in their spaces. Mishima is yelling with a magnifying glass held to his mouth. Tsvetaeva is cutting paper doves. Sexton, of course, is applying bright red lipstick. Center stage, the skeleton of a bell hangs over Sappho's area, which has turnkey alarm clocks and a place to hang her scepter. She chimes a small brass bell, and the authors leave their places and move into someone else's. Sappho visits each one, feeding them grapes, holding up a mirror to them, chanting her Sapphic verse. In fact, all the authors are chanting texts. Chad Salvata, who conceived this museum and brought it forth with the help of set designer Ann Marie Gordon, and sound designer Roy Taylor play monotone readings of text overhead, which spins the madness on top of the blood light that lighting designer Jason Amato shines with crucifixes.
Perhaps from breathing in their own insanity in the jar, they go mad (again) and begin to babble, scream, and occasionally throw things, like poor soulless creatures in a zoo calling desperately before destroying themselves and their environments completely. Here these artists are remembered solely for their final acts, their suicides.
The actors bring suicide to its knees, staying in character, killing themselves night after night. They show us that, for better or worse, suicide can be an act of independence. You might want to bring something to bite down on when you go. Watching this hourlong display is a kind of shock therapy.