Kathryn Cornelius’s ‘Save the Date’ looks at disposable marriages


Local performance artist Kathryn Cornelius , who will wed and divorce seven suitors at the Corcoran Gallery of Art during a performance called Save-the-Date on August 11, poses for a photograph Sunday July 29, 2012 in Washington, DC. The ceremonies will take place on the Performance Bridge, above the glass entryway into the museum. This is part of a nine-week series called Take it to the Bridge. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

At 10 a.m. on Aug. 11, Kathryn Cornelius will wear a white gown and walk toward her betrothed to exchange vows before a crowd of assembled guests. An ordained minister will officiate, then the pair will drink champagne, cut the cake and gaze into each other’s eyes as they dance their first dance. And then they will divorce.

At 11 a.m. she’ll do it all over again with someone new. And at noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and every hour on the hour until she has wed and divorced seven people.

When it’s over, she’ll go home, take off the gown, let the spray tan fade. She will hope that those in attendance might think differently, now, about weddings, marriage, divorce, and the jangled mess of love and loathing in modern America. That they will be jarred into thinking about how easy it is for people to get married and divorced and married again — assuming the government has granted them that right.

Her performance art piece is called “Save the Date.” It will take place at the Corcoran Gallery of Art as part of the museum’s “Take It to the Bridge” series, co-sponsored by the Washington Project for the Arts. “The Bridge” is a 7-foot-by-7-foot plexiglass cube that was recently installed above the Corcoran’s entryway. Artists in the series will use the Bridge as both the space and inspiration for their installations or live performances.

Two weeks ago, Chajana Denharder attempted to sleep in the chamber. Upcoming projects include a performance piece that looks at stereotypes of Hispanic immigrants and an installation of screen prints that take advantage of light coming through the glass.

Cornelius, who is 33 and has been doing performance art since 2003, immediately knew she wanted to take part in the series when the call for proposals went out this spring. Her recent works have explored the language of pain, so she first thought she might do something on that. Then it hit her as she sat in the studio of her Columbia Heights home: weddings.

Throughout her arts career, Cornelius has scrutinized social institutions and constructs that generally go unquestioned. And few institutions are as ripe for inspection as 21st-century weddings. Within two hours of having the idea, her proposal was written.

Cornelius, who works as an information technology project manager by day, easily passes for Washington Everywoman in grayish-tan slacks and a cardigan. She is fluent in the language of theory that one picks up as an art history minor; her work pulsates with attitude, verve and intense relevance.

In an orange jumpsuit she once scrubbed the floors and sidewalks outside 14th Street galleries to represent how artists clean up neighborhoods, then get priced out of their studios by eager developers. In perhaps her most recognizable video, “Resolve,” she vacuums a beach to the hymn “Autumn” — reportedly the last song played by the band on the Titanic.

“Save the Date” examines the elaborate trappings of weddings by going through the prescribed motions of the ritual: carry the flowers, say “I do,” kiss. But she also intends for the piece to provoke questions about our attitudes toward commitment and marriage equality. Cornelius will wed people of both genders throughout the day.

“For me it comes down to, if the institution itself isn’t going away, be inclusive so that people can be with their loved ones when they’re in trouble in the hospital or they go to pass and they’ve built a life together,” she says. “I have a lot of sympathy and compassion for people who want to just be and live.”

Yet at the same time, she also questions the legitimacy of a document that deems two people bonded “till death,” when marriage is often treated as disposable. “The whole point is to question the idea of this piece of paper,” she says. “If there’s a crux of this piece, it’s that.”

Cornelius’s performance actually began more than a month ago, when she assumed the online identity of the frazzled bride and began documenting her journey to the altar on Twitter and Tumblr. She asked for marriage proposals, posted pictures of potential dresses and updated followers about the planning process.

“Great wedding planning meeting @CorcoranDC,” she tweeted in June. “But totally bummed I can’t put bows on the lions outside #itsmyday #bridezilla.”

She also tracked her attempt to lose weight for the big day and grew out her hair so it could be pulled into an up-do. She set up a “Honey Fund” — not to pay for a tropical getaway, but to defray the cost of flowers, the DJ and the requisite pre-wedding mani/pedi. She solicited suggestions for first-dance songs, as well as appropriate breakup music.

Cornelius, who is represented by the Curator’s Office gallery, picked the first six of her temporary spouses. The seventh will be chosen by audience members in the last hour of the performance.

Though the ceremonies will be officiated by an ordained minister, they of course won’t be legal. Cornelius dodges the question of legality. “It’s as legal as it needs to be for the piece to be an art piece,” she says. “Reality requires a suspension of disbelief. So does art.”

The “Bridge” was originally constructed for Holly Bass, a local performance artist who danced for seven hours in a piece called “Moneymaker.” In March, six men led by artist Jefferson Pinder rowed themselves to exhaustion at the Corcoran. Both performances were hugely well received, says Sarah Newman, the museum’s curator of contemporary art.

“We’re making [performance art] a much bigger priority in the future, and we are going to launch a major performance series later this year,” she adds.

“Save the Date” was a natural fit for the “Take It to the Bridge” series, which coincides with the Corcoran’s Free Summer Saturdays, because it brings both gravity and humor to a subject that feels personal to almost everyone, says Blair Murphy, programming director for the Washington Project for the Arts. And it’s especially appropriate given that the Corcoran is regularly rented out for lavish weddings throughout the year.

But it also provides serious social commentary, she adds. “Marriage is meant to be the private bond between two people but then becomes this public spectacle, with the way weddings are handled now.”

Save the Date

Saturday, Aug. 11, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. 202-639-1700, www.corcoran.edu. No admission fee on Saturdays through Sept. 1.

Ellen McCarthy is a feature writer for Style.
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