Kathryn Cornelius: Let’s Not Ever Be Strangers Again

"The Awakening" | Kathryn Cornelius | video, 9:52 minutes | courtesy of Curator's Office

“The Awakening” | Kathryn Cornelius | video, 9:52 minutes | courtesy of Curator’s Office

Maybe one day, Kathryn Cornelius will meet her future spouse. She might fall deeply in love and tie the knot. And it will be for the first time, even if she’s played the bride on seven occasions before.

Last summer for the Corcoran Gallery’s “Take It to the Bridge” performance art series, Cornelius married and divorced seven suitors selected through Tumblr as part of an art piece titled “Save the Date.” Partly, the performance was meant to question the presumed sanctity of legal marriages given the disposable marriages that pervade popular culture. “The whole point is to question the idea of this piece of paper,” she told the Washington Post at the time, referring to marriage licenses that can seem awfully hollow. “If there’s a crux of this piece, it’s that.”

Her current show at Curator’s Office, “Let’s Not Ever Be Strangers Again,” greets gallery visitors with video documentation of last summer’s daylong event at the Corcoran. Its wedding-video tropes are familiar: There’s the nostalgic photo montage of the bride getting ready; footage of guests dancing in a conga line to Top 40 hits; guests scrambling awkwardly for the tossed bouquet. But just as important is the documentation that’s missing from the show: seven marriage certificates.

The ceremonies from “Save the Date” were not legally binding, probably because marrying and divorcing seven people in one day would have been logistically impossible. A marriage license application in D.C. requires a waiting period of three days and filing for divorce comes with a waiting period of at least six months, not counting the legal rigmarole. State-sanctioned marriage, the kind Cornelius aims to critique, is not quite that easy, as it turns out.

The issue of legitimacy is important here because what seems to be central to “Let’s Not Ever Be Strangers Again” is the audience’s emotional response to the wedding symbolism in the show. Take the sound piece “Blood, Sweat, and Tears.” It’s partly composed of the wedding gown Cornelius wore for “Save the Date.” The dress, soiled and turned inside out, hangs high from the ceiling of the gallery. As the title and the stains imply, we’re meant to understand the ceremonies from “Save the Date” as emotional journeys that led Cornelius here. But without a bond broken—in this case a broken legal contract in lieu of real love lost—the wedding symbolism carries the emotional heft of a theater prop.

In an Italian gallery in 1974, performance artist Marina Abramović laid on a table 72 objects, some used to elicit pleasure, others to inflict pain. For the next six hours she asked her audience to use these objects on her as they pleased. Some chose to cut her, if only slightly, with a scalpel she had provided. Abramović didn’t offer a dull scalpel and ask us to imagine the outcome of using a sharp one; the scalpel was sharp, and Abramovic was ready to bare the scars. In “Let’s Not Ever Be Strangers Again” and “Save the Date,” Cornelius is handing us a plastic knife and asking us to imagine a razor blade. She would like us to imagine marriage and divorce, and then imagine subsequent loss. It’s a tough sell.

This article was originally published in the Washington City Paper.

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