ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands — With his wild-man beard, piratical silver earrings, heavy-rimmed specs and abiding interest in the occult, it wasn’t clear just how an unscheduled interview with sexagenarian AA Bronson would unfold. But in matter of fact, he was as gracious as his appearance was grizzled.
He was to be found at the Witte de With, Rotterdam, at the opening of his largest ever solo show in Europe. “Frankly, most of my history is in Europe,” he says. “For me it’s always more interesting to work here, because the relationship to contemporary art is more sophisticated.”
“It’s also not so rooted in the marketplace as it is, especially in New York. In New York it’s all about buying and selling and when you’re doing something which isn’t really about the marketplace then it becomes difficult for people to comprehend why you’re doing it.”
He laughs as he says this, as well he might. To an average collector, this show — featuring archive materials, collaborative pieces, and a mile wide streak of queer politics — might be difficult to navigate. The launch saw half a dozen wholly unsaleable performances.
“I think things are changing rapidly, but certainly North American collectors want the weight of ‘serious’ art, which means, for example, they don’t buy groups and don’t buy women very much,” he says. “I think in North America collectors mistrust the subject of sexuality.”
Despite shows in the US at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in 2001 and at MIT in 2002, the Canada-born artist is skeptical about stateside funding arrangements. He says: “The way that it works in the US is the museums are controlled by the trustees, who are the ones with funding, more than the government. So it’s the trustees who have ultimate final say on everything.”
“It’s not very philanthropic, because they want to show the artists they collect to enhance the value of their collections,” he says. The current show is sponsored by the government of Alberta in Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Austrian Ministry of Culture.
But Bronson needs open minded supporters. Offered the show at Witte de With, he claims to have warned it would not be a “normal exhibition.” Along with those archive pieces, solo work and collaborations, there are many on display he admits are friends.
In fact, the space we spoke in was hung with a series of the obscene tantric drawings which Bronson worked on in the 1980s along with his cohorts in the artist group General Idea. Like many who populate this show, two of the former members of this triumvirate (Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz) have sadly passed on. But perhaps they were manifest. Bronson is, it should be said, fresh from a midnight séance.
With another dry chuckle, he talks about his curatorial approach, thus: “All you have to do is be completely irresponsible. I don’t try to keep critical distance. I try to do the opposite: immerse myself in it and also have it represent my life and my relationships in some way, and that’s actually easier to do than critical distance. I think of it as a feminist show.”
It soon emerges the artist has an aversion to critical, patriarchal even rational mindsets, as demonstrated by his support of Union Theological Seminary, the only feminist school of theology in the US. “The president is a woman. The dean is a woman. More than half the professors are women and more than half the students are women,” he tells me.
In recent years, Bronson himself has enrolled there to learn about Christianity. Already an initiate into tantric practices and well-versed in pagan beliefs, it was perhaps ironic that this artist from a family of Anglican priests should leave it so late.
Such interests may even be traced back to an English great-grandfather who crossed the ocean with a mission to convert Blackfoot Indians. This ancestor might be looking down with a mixture of approval and bemusement, given that Bronson now directs the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice.
“I realized that the relationship between the approach to social justice in the art world and in the theological world, especially at Union, was rather similar,” he says.
Taking funding advice from the Warhol Foundation, the enterprising artist has since set up a lecture program which has exposed theology students to the likes of Alfredo Jaar, Paul Chan, and Marina Abramović. Indeed, he took groups of students to Abramović’s show at the Museum of Modern Art, and several revisited time and time again.
“There’s now quite a strong interface between contemporary art and this Christian religious group,” he says, while adding that in the US it is usually “totally verboten that any artist would have anything to do with Christianity. Tibetan Buddhism: fine, but not Christianity”.
But then when asked if, despite much lurid evidence to the contrary, The Temptation of AA Bronson might be a Christian show, the artist says not: “I think I’ve been now long enough with a seminary to say confidently that I’m not a Christian.”
There is after all the small matter of that midnight séance. So the conversation returns to performance art and the recent collaboration of his friend Abramović with a rapper worth $500 million.
“Obviously Marina did that by turning to the world of celebrity and entertainment and in a way incorporating herself into that world and maybe that’s what’s going to happen, I don’t know,” he says.
“She’s raised a lot of money for her school [the Marina Abramovic Institute] and she knows how to do that,” he adds. “I need to wait five or ten years before I make any judgments.”
But he does describe this as an “interesting moment”: the resurgence of performance art “when it seemed like nothing could happen which wasn’t about buying and selling.” It has indeed re-emerged again today in Rotterdam, where nothing is for sale.
One thing looks sure, AA Bronson is tempted by neither ready cash nor platinum-selling hip hop stars. As for fame? He has plenty for a would-be religious hermit, and more good friends than his temptations might suggest.
The Temptation of AA Bronson, for which Hyperallergic is the media sponsor, can be seen at Witte de With (Witte de Withstraat 50, Rotterdam) through January 5, 2014.
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