If cats dream of mice, and mice dream of cheese, then do paleontologists dream of dinosaurs? Artist Ryan Wilson Kelly, who impersonates Philadelphian paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) in his performance and installation at Napoleon Gallery, insists that they do: “Cope had been prone throughout his life to recurring dreams about being attacked by dinosaurs,” says Kelly, who spins Cope’s fever dream into a richly suggestive pageant about aspirations of greatness lodged at the bottom of a bottle.
The Sleep of Reason, a collaborative endeavor between Kelly and curator Jordan Rockford, uses Cope’s recurring nightmare as an allegory for the cyclical futility of the creative process. “There’s that sense of anti-climax and, of course, that sense of a solitary endeavor,” says Rockford, gesturing around the set in which Kelly has just performed an approximate re-enactment of Cope’s last few hours. The design is at once baroque and ingeniously simple. Large sheets of cloth (canvas tarps from Home Depot) hang over each gallery wall, exquisitely illustrated to suggest the cluttered shelves of Cope’s study at 21st and Pine streets; unidentified but undeniably ancient shards of bone (painted wood putty) litter the floor; and slimy specimens (Styrofoam dipped in wax) languish in large glass jars. Red-velvet curtains and a single scansion separate the performance space from the audience, creating the sensation of a museum display come to life.
During the performance, Kelly paces the study, shuffles papers, takes notes and feverishly compares bones. Channeling Cope—who was, at the time, ensnared in the “bone wars,” a bitter rivalry to name as many specimens as possible—Kelly-as-Cope seems grimly determined but only moderately productive. He stops work every few minutes to clutch his stomach (Cope apparently died from a gastrointestinal disease). Prophetically, ‘Drinker’ was Cope’s middle name, and Kelly mimes his debilitating self-medication routine by swigging regularly from a little flask and then passes out on a cot in the corner and begins to dream. Meanwhile, images from Cope’s subconscious rise up on a projection screen behind him.
While Sleep of Reason might stand as his most literal riff on the torture of creative genius, it’s not the first time Kelly has channeled the demise of a misanthropic hero. “Solitary labor is a theme that’s come up in my work,” says the artist, who has also performed as Robinson Crusoe, Teddy Roosevelt, Superman, and—epically—Hercules. “I attempted to complete the 12 labors of Hercules,” recalls Kelly, who translated the mythic dictate to clean the Augean stables in a single day into a Philadelphian vernacular when he showed up to muck the stables in Northern Liberties. As a native and historically verified Philadelphian, Cope’s saga took arguably less adaptation.
But that doesn’t mean that Kelly declined to take certain creative liberties. While heavily researched, the set and costume design are also strictly stylized. As is only appropriate to the subject of dinosaurs, a certain amount of evolution came into play: “I actually went to the trouble of making a hair piece. I latched little extensions into a hair cap and it looked so terrifying!” The paper mache wig he now sports instead is both dashing and uncanny.
Cope may have dreamed of dinosaurs, but Kelly dreams of historical re-enactment with a surrealist twist. “In the end,” says Kelly, “I really want it to be more of a love letter.”
Next performance: May 19, 2-5pm. Napoleon Gallery, 319 N. 11th St. napoleonnapoleon.com
Jacque Liu: Milk Drunk, opening reception, May 18, 5-7pm. Pentimenti Gallery, 145 N. Second St. 215.625.9990. pentimenti.com