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The Trial of Sylvia Likens

Filmmaker Sophie Keir-Thompson was at Perkins Library recently for the one-day reconstruction of Kate Millett's environmental art installation, The Trial of Sylvia Likens, which is part of the Kate Millett Collection of Papers and Art Work held by the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture. The installation is a central element in Keir-Thompson's film, Kate Millett’s The Basement.

Kate Millett is often described as one of the most famous women in the world.  The 1970 publication of her enormously successful book, Sexual Politics, inspired women to challenge patriarchy, and established her as an international leader in feminism’s second wave. Subsequent publications secured her place as one of the most important American writers of her generation. 

What is less well known about Millett is that she is an artist, a sculptor; part of the Fluxus Movement that includes her good friend, Yoko Ono.  Millett describes herself as a “downtown New York artist who also writes books.”

Sophie Keir-Thompson met Millett in 1978 when Millett was constructing The Trial of Sylvia Likens.  They have since collaborated on various projects over a period of some 33 years. 

The Trial of Sylvia Likens is based on real events described in Millett’s book, The Basement, a compelling account of the life and 1965 death of  16-year-old Sylvia Likens.  Likens was cruelly tortured and murdered in a dingy basement in Indianapolis by a gang of teenagers and a woman in whose care she and her younger sister were placed while their parents toured the state fairs in the Midwest.

A single media account of this event changed Millett’s life, politicized her, haunted her, and haunts her still. She has said that it has formed the basis and the impetus for all her work.

In her film, Keir-Thompson explores the relationship between the artist and her subject - how the artist transforms and interprets events, images and emotions into a work of art. The film uses Millett’s interpretation and retelling of the story of Sylvia Likens by reconstructing events using, among other artifacts, The Trial of Sylvia Likens.

The film, produced in collaboration with North Carolina based-mbrstudio, incorporates a powerful narrative element using actors, one of whom is Millett herself.  The film includes interviews and interactions with Millett’s friends, critics, and contemporaries.

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Posted 23 April 2010

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Last modified April 26, 2010 4:46:50 PM EDT