FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2022

2022 Festival Archive: Marsian De Lellis

Marsian De Lellis:
Object of Her Affection

January 27-29, 2022

Links Hall

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

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The Deflation of Melodrama in Marsian De Lellis’s Object of Her Affection

An Essay by Marissa Fenley

Marsian De Lellis’s absurdist love story, Object of Her Affection, follows Andrea, an object-sexual, through her many affairs with inanimate things—a blanket, a gun, the Berlin Wall—until her precarious attachments to unconventional objects of affection results in a deadly fall from the roof of her lover, a condemned apartment building. De Lellis’s piece, which was inspired by the documentary Strange Love: Married to the Eiffel Tower, does not lead us to understand Andrea’s object-sexuality (the sexual attraction to inanimate objects) as the source of the piece’s absurdism. Rather, De Lellis makes absurd the melodramatic love plot that continues to structure Andrea’s romantic attachments to things. De Lellis masterfully performs their one-person show with a vast array of puppets and props, manipulating a world of miniatures, spread out across several tables. They erect a scene where Andrea negotiates her romantic fantasies and desires for belonging in the world through the intimate and solitary act of playing with dolls. There is a haunting loneliness to De Lellis’s dramaturgy. As Andrea recounts her love story, De Lillis acts out a desire for reciprocity that Andrea can only find in objects. And yet, stuck in the melodramatic love plot, the objects of Andrea’s affection are determined by the genre as sources of ambivalence, disappointment, discontent and longing. 

Melodramas position love as both an inevitable source of suffering as well as the promise of its end. And like all genres, melodrama offers emotional generality—the sense that love is, ultimately, something that is felt the same way by everyone. In this way, Andrea positions object-sexuality as an orientation towards love like any other and can thus conform to the same narrative expectations. And yet, in the opening of their play, De Lellis warns us of the ultimate failure of melodrama to adequately mediate Andrea’s love story. Object of Her Affection opens on a “gruesome scene” of a woman in the “prime of her life, dying—splat—on the sidewalk.” A puppet of Andrea, sprawled on the concrete, tells us: “I’ve heard some people say that it’s better to have lost in love. But some of us are just lost… And some of us—are losers.” The dying Andrea goes on to recount her story, in her last breaths. On the one hand, she announces a structuring melodramatic conceit—that it is better to have loved and lost than to stop the whole business and have no more melodramas. However, she also warns us that sometimes such loss is not luminous—that patina of dignity that melodrama supplies to suffering—but just means you’re a loser. 

One the hand, De Lellis’s witty deflation of the melodramatic contract is wonderfully comedic. De Lellis does not miss an opportunity to make an object-related play on words—“They may have thought I was off the wall… But I was in love with one”— or sexual innuendo: “[he] pleaded with me to elevator all the way up to his top floor, just so I could go down on him.” However, the sophistication in De Lellis’s storytelling comes from their ability to highlight the absurdity of the tropes that circulate within stories of normative sexual development: Andrea has an innocent sexual awakening with her Blankey; falls for the “bad boy,” Marlin, her grandfather’s hunting rifle; develops a celebrity crush on the Berlin Wall; has a threesome with the Twin Towers; dates the emotionally unavailable Statue of Liberty; finds herself in a love triangle with the Golden Gate bridge; contracts an STD (tetanus from a rusty nail); and finally settles for Roy, a condemned apartment building. All such errant love affairs would be legitimized if they led to monogamous companionship, a nuclear family and social visibility as a “couple.” Andrea pursues each of these love plots, with the hopes of arriving at the final destination of the “couple form,” something that is ultimately unavailable to her. “But, Libby,” Andrea laments to the Statue of Liberty, “we can never really have children together. I mean sure we could adopt a highway, but youʼd never leave the island.”

As De Lellis deflates the expectations of the melodramatic plot, Andrea’s profound non-belonging seeps through. Without a proper genre, Andrea’s story lacks sufficient articulation. De Lellis ultimately does not make a sentimental plea on Andrea’s behalf to allow her to join our ranks as one of the many in the quest for love. Instead, De Lellis leaves a haunting absence where a genre should be—a “not yet” set of conditions that would have allowed Andrea access to emotional generality, participation in a collective fantasy, and a life that could have been lived amongst others (both people and things). DeLellis writes on their own relationship to the piece: 

As a queer, nonbinary person, object sexuality resonates with something deep inside that’s been festering: on the one hand sexual minorities are making strides. On the other, LGBT identity feels like it’s being gentrified in a heteronormative push towards respectability politics. Either way, I sure hope Amy’s [the subject of Strange Love] up to date on her tetanus shots.

DeLellis is unwilling to “gentrify” (or “genrify,” to coin a term) Andrea’s love story, while still giving it space of resonance within a world of recognizable tropes and figures. And in so doing, DeLellis refuses to reduce the uniqueness of Andrea’s story to a set of coherent politics. Or, in their own words: Object-sexuals “don’t so much want a place at the table as they may long for a relationship with one.” DeLellis troubles the very aspiration to “representation”—a vague evaluative category so often applied to minoritarian stories. 

As Object of Her Affection comes to a close, Andrea bleeds out onto the concrete. She asks: “Are we ever really in love? Any of us? Or is it just a made-up fairy tale in our heads that we project onto the objects of our desire?” We remember Andrea’s opening claim: Maybe there is no difference between having loved and lost and having never loved at all.

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Duke University Press, 2008

De Lellis, Marsian. “Objects and Desire in the Windy City.” Puppet Life, Spring 2022 https://www.laguildofpuppetry.org/puppet-life.

Play Video

View Marsian De Lellis’ presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Marsian De Lellis at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 22, 2022, Marsian De Lellis was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Staging the Non-Human Character; Animal, Alien, or Architecture.”

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held online through Howlround.

Transcript of Marsian's Presentation

Hello, can you hear me? Hi, thanks. I'm Marsian De Lellis. Let me adjust that. My pronouns are they and them. Josh, please play slide one. This is the Chicago Puppet Theater Festival logo. As you can see, we're in partnership with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Performance Department. I make installations and performances with dolls and puppets that memorialize obsessional lives. Here's a couple of examples of previous productions. Josh, please play slide two. Growing up, Linda was an ensemble actor, puppetry performance in which a woman who believes she's the daughter of a famous ice cream mogul, must come to terms with her troubled past. It's tough when you think you're the heir to the throne of the Carvel cake ice cream empire.

Josh, please play slide three. In “Bride of Wildenstein, The Musical,” an aging socialite, gross fur and claws to recapture her philandering game hunter husband’s attention. This performance was inspired by tabloid accounts of the real life Catwoman Jocelyn Wildenstein. That’s her right there. Next. I believe I was picked for this panel because I for sure identify with alien and I check off the architecture box with the piece I’m bringing to the festival, “Object of Her Affection.” A solo object and puppet performance art piece centered on a woman who in her search for true love develops intimate relationships with inanimate objects. I’m going to be talking about the creation and development of “Object of Her Affection.” I’m interested in querying puppetry as a space to understand, explore, and negotiate sexual identity, and trouble binary gender construction. Next slide. “Object of Her Affection” follows the emotional journey of protagonist Andrea Lowe, after she has mysteriously fallen from a building. In her last moment, she reflects on her meaningful relationship, starting with her first love, a baby’s blanket who she trauma bonds with. As an adolescent, she loses her virginity to a bad boy hunting rifle and subsequently becomes infatuated with the Berlin wall. As Andrea evolves, so do her desires. In adulthood, she forms doomed relationships with monumental structures, a high profile statue, tragic twin skyscrapers, and a bridge who cheats. Each of these relationships has a profound effect shaping Andrea’s views on life and love. Finally, Andrea finds solace in Roy, a crumbling tenement who ultimately fails her. There she is in the lower left-hand corner, stroking Roy’s bricks. Next. In this unconventional love story, I use puppets and performing objects as a primary through line to explore the synesthetic relationship between objects and personalities, in ways that objects can occupy more than one meaning at any given time. “Object of Her Affection” is a visual narrative about human beings, flesh and blood, developing intimate relationships with inanimate things and the universal development and loss of relationships we encounter on our journey through life. Please play slide seven. The research behind the ideas and objective for reflection dates back to 2010. My wheels started spinning when I stumbled upon footage of a woman who wanted to marry an amusement park ride. This is Amy Wolfe, looking at a video of her love interest 1,001 Nacht. In the next clip from the documentary, “Strange Love: Married to the Eiffel Tower,” which aired on BBC. Amy meets with 1,001 Nacht in person after a five month wall, accompanied by her friend Erika Eiffel. Please play the next slide.

Oh my God. After five months, it’s good to see you. He’s just so noble, so proud, so strong. I not only love him for a sexual attraction. I mean, we’re not talking about fetish here. I love him as a mate. I love the roundness of his counterweights at the top. I love him for the narrowness of his jibs. I love him for the elegant lines of his gondola, which is now covered up for the winter. I like the ribbing up underneath his-

Yeah.

Name display there too, the parallel line lines that are coming down. Let me see where I’m talking.

Oh yes, I see you.

Yeah, I love that. I’m thinking, oh geez, you know what I’m thinking about.

Next. Directed by Angie Escaprotroska, “The Documentary Profiles, the Lives of Objective Sexuals,” including Amy Wolfe and her display of affection with 1,001 Nacht, the name of the amusement park ride. While her story’s unusual, there’s something relatable about her earnestness and refreshing about her authenticity. As an artist who recontextualizes objects and puppets, I’m constantly thinking about animism and the suspension of disbelief.

You smell good. God, you smell so good.

As if we’re non-binary person, object sexuality relates with something deep inside that’s been festering. On the one hand, sexual minorities are making strides, on the other, LGBT identity feels like it’s being gentrified and a heteronormative push towards respectability politics. I really hope she’s up to date on her tetanus shots. Next slide.

It’s never really goodbye to anyone, because 1,001 Nacht, as I have told you many times before, and I will many times repeat it. I love you.

Next slide.

My birth mother has since rejected me. If I cannot be free to love the very symbol of freedom, then where is freedom?

You bet I was fascinated by the concept of object sexuality. There was something appealing about the emotional, physical, and romantic desire towards inanimate objects. Object sexuality explodes traditional categorizations of sexual identity and turns are often cliches about love inside out. Object sexuals fall in love with things rather than humans. They don’t so much wanna place at the table as they may long for a relationship with one. I wanted to know more as I delved into the research. I also learned about Erika Eiffel, another of the documentaries, more articulate subjects. There she is sitting on a fence. Next.

Would you believe that a woman fell in love with the Eiffel Tower and then she married the Eiffel Tower? She took on the last name of the Eiffel Tower, her last name is now Eiffel. I’m not kidding. Check this.

You’re steel, I’m flesh. You’re rust, I bleed. You stand so tall, I look so meek. You’re cold, I’m warm. You shine, I sing. And though we seem an unlikely pair, this woman, and your spire, we have built a bring from me to you, my tower, I admire.

So Erika, that was you marrying the Eiffel Tower.

Erika appeared on a number of top shows in the early 2000s. She was even featured in another documentary, “Animism, People Who Fall in Love with Objects 2013,” where she discussed her tumultuous situationship with the Eiffel Tower. Next slide.

This is simply how I am made. So it’s how I’m wired up. I’m in love with the Eiffel Tower. I just felt that everything was right for me. I know people don’t get it, but I do love her. Objective sexuality is developing significant physical and emotional relationships with objects. For me, it’s completely natural and it feels very, very pure and right. I feel alive. I feel amazing when I can have these moments with my darling. The Eiffel Tower Management wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.

Big surprise. She had a falling out with the park service and then the relationship deteriorated. But she moved on and so did I. Next slide. I also reviewed a number of episodes of my strange addiction that touched upon objectophilia and related identities, including a woman who married a Ferris wheel and a man who had intimate relationships with his car.

I tie you flesh to steel. I Linda, take you Bruce.

I, Linda, take you Bruce.

In this sacred marriage.

In this sacred marriage.

I love Bruce for what he is. He’s made a fiberglass, steel, aluminum. I love his mechanical aspects.

Everyone has to go real life. They’re looking for love. That’s just that quest for love that I’m doing in my own way.

Next. In 2011, I put together “Object Fetish,” an artist talk about the role of fantasy in our daily interactions with objects. My multimedia presentation covered puppetry adjacent topics like ferries, the rise of high-end sex dolls and masking. And it made some waves at the University of Connecticut for the puppetry and post dramatic performance conference. When I showed graphic clips from “Plushie Schwartz Does Fire Island,” a whimsical romantic comedy about a gay bear on a weekend jaunt to fire island and his drug fueled sexual encounter with a beached octopus. There he is, I believe he’s doing special K, right there, yeah. But a dry lecture didn’t really encapsulate my investment in the material. There was something more to it that felt deeply personal, this universal need to find love or something like it. Please play the next slide. I thought about my own life mining my own autobiographical material from a safe distance. During a retreat at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 2012, I began the script. Something about merging my own experiences with the stories of people who fall in love with skyscrapers into a hybrid narrative made it more accessible for me to get to deeper truths. Next. After a series of readings and performance excerpts, I teamed up with Director Michele Spears to determine staging and scale. In 2014, we presented versions of the performance for test audiences at Automata, a performance gallery in Los Angeles that specializes in experimental puppetry, object theater and contemporary arts practices, and the Roy and Edna Disney, CalArts Theater But back to the research, I couldn’t get enough of Amy’s mom and married to the Eiffel Tower. Next.

This is not all my collection, this is just, I’d say three quarters of my collection. I have about 50 different sets of dolls. As far as I’m concerned, they’re better than having a man in my bedroom.

She believes that she was born this way, and I’m convinced it’s everything that’s happened along the way that has brought her to the point that she knows these objects won’t hurt her. They won’t talk back to her. They won’t threaten her. She feels safe with the objects. I think she’ll never know what it’s like to be loved by another human being, to be physically in contact with another human being. My heart breaks that she’ll never know this, and it’s kind of difficult for me to accept this. But what choice do I have? She’s my daughter and I love her.

Next. I just loved Amy’s mom. She served as the inspiration for Andrea’s grandmother in “Object of Her Affection.” But I wanted to explore her world more. In 2016, the City of Los Angeles awarded me the COLA Artist fellowship. So I made in/animate objects, a macabre installation of grandma’s rag dolls that formed the second half of an installation performance tip tick with Object of her Affection. The installation focused on the excesses of grandma years after Andrea fell from Roy, the building she was in love with. I created over 1,200 distressed dolls with a pop-up team of collaborators that testified to the insatiable need for love at the heart of the obsessional life. I kept stitching more dolls. It was kind of addictive, and began showing them at Track 16 Gallery where I displayed them in grids, clustered on a panel and entombed in glass display cases. Here’s a few of them. Please play the next slide. In 2018, I partnered with Los Angeles Performance Practice for the premiere of “Object of Her Affection” at Automata with support from the Henson Foundation and Foundation for Contemporary Arts. I’m back in Chicago performing at Links Hall. If you’re also here in Chicago, I hope you’ll brave the weather to come see “Object of Her Affection” this Thursday through Saturday, January 27th through 29th at 7:00 PM. And if you’re in another city, have resources, a well-equipped venue and infrastructure. Find me on the internet and we can talk. I yield my time.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 27-29, 2022
Links Hall, Studio A
3111 N. Western Ave in Roscoe Village

Created and performed by Marsian De Lellis and developed with director Michele Spears, Object of Her Affection is an unconventional love story that follows the emotional journey of one Andrea Lowe, after she has fallen, mysteriously, from a building. De Lellis endearingly demonstrates their artistic passion for animating the inanimate, as they craft the story of a heroine whose Object Sexuality reveals the way that objects quietly hold multiple personalities, and sometimes multiple hearts.

Image Gallery

Past Performances and Further Reading