Chris Sullivan discusses the emotions behind his epic Consuming Spirits, and reflects on being an animator.
Chris Sullivan’s experimental short films and theater pieces often begin like the setup for a dark joke: an alcoholic journalist driving a school bus hits a wayward nun and leaves her in the woods to die; a deranged psychiatrist presents a new form of Aggression Therapy©, designed to send the client through a nervous breakdown and into an emotional breakthrough. The resulting stories, told mainly through dialogue full of quick turns, absurd gestures, and subtle comic asides, swing abruptly from surreal comedy to vulnerable, heart-stopping examinations of emotional pain.
My first exposure to his groundbreaking experimental short films and theater pieces was the 2010 one-man show Mark the Encounter. I was immediately struck by the timing and buoyance of his complex storytelling, as Sullivan swept the audience through an expressionistic monologue-based passion play as he morphed characters, transforming from a vulnerable anti-hero feigning grief over his brother’s death to the aforementioned unhinged psychiatrist Daphne Richards, with Sullivan in deadpan drag, to a slick doctor condescendingly explaining an increasingly impossible fatal medical condition involving a “homuncluous” (which turns out to be a Peruvian mountain man setting up camp inside the client’s heart).
Since 2010, Sullivan—a professor of film, video, and new media at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago—has presented the longer theater piece Aggression Therapy along with The Outer Giants and Their Moon, an understated two-person play about romantic heartbreak aboard a space station. He’s also continued to produce short animations along with satirical essays and videos that skewer art-world affectations. For the past 15 years, he’s also been quietly on the film that is his most ambititous work to date: Consuming Spirits, a two-hour plus epic feature that combines found images, stop-animation, and multiple hand-drawn and tabletop animation processes.