It’s noon on Sunday, and Kathryn Cornelius sits by the window at U Street’s Marvin. “I have five first dates today,” she says. She’s waiting for the first one; in six days, she’ll marry and divorce all five people, plus an additional two. It’s part of an art installation called “Save the Date” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, part of the museum’s “Take It to the Bridge” series.
The 33-year-old Binghamton, New York, native is an IT professional by day, but she’s been involved in performance art for about ten years, both nationally and internationally. She’s also taught classes in new media at George Washington University and currently teaches culture studies at the Corcoran College of Art & Design.
Cornelius looks ordinary enough, with dark brown bangs and brown eyes. She certainly doesn’t look like someone who might be getting divorced seven times in a single day—but then, who does? Her girl-next-door appearance seems to fall in line with what she’s exploring: all the different stereotypes that exist when it comes to marriage and divorce.
“The work is calling into question just how important that piece of paper is,” she says, referring to a marriage license. “This country does not recognize the right of everyone to have that piece of paper.” Though this fact motivates her, she doesn’t want the performance to be propelled by an agenda. Instead, she hopes the semi-scripted piece will take a private event and place it on a public pedestal. “I’m just hoping the piece starts a conversation,” she says.
The idea began about a month ago when Cornelius created a Tumblr account seeking potential suitors. For the past month, many different people have proposed to her. Of the various beaus- and brides-to-be, she chose six, with the seventh up for public vote via the Save the Date Facebook page. “We take all this private stuff . . . of looking for a suitor—think online dating—and put it in the public [realm],” she says.
Cornelius, who has never been married, is also somewhat driven by what she calls the “rhetoric of the marriage narrative.” She says that from a young age, girls are told to find a husband, and that’s simply how things work: “You’re either the princess who married the prince, or you’re the old maid.”
Cornelius continues to insist there’s no particular point she’s attempting to make with the piece, during which she’ll marry both men and women, but she does say she’s a strong proponent of gay rights. How the gay community is denied a “piece of paper” that will allow them to see a partner in the last hours of life at a hospital is beyond her. “Life is hard enough. Why make it harder?” she says.
Regardless, Cornelius says her overall goal is simple, if not always easy to achieve: “I want us to be as authentically joined together as possible.”
“Save the Date,” co-presented by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Washington Project for the Arts, happens this Saturday, August 11, from 10 to 5 at the Corcoran. For more information, and to meet Cornelius’s seven husbands- and wives-to-be, visit the project’s Tumblr.