GWANGJU, South Korea — For the past several years, AA Bronson’s work has drawn on the acute awareness of radical pedagogies and alternative economies that he developed as a member of the Canadian artists collective General Idea. His recent projects have formed a complex set of methodologies rooted in ritual, religion, publishing, and queer mysticism. For this year’s Gwangju Biennial, curator Jessica Morgan has offered Bronson the special opportunity of occupying a three-storey pagoda built to commemorate victims of Gwangju’s 1980 pro-democracy uprising. Transforming the structure into the “House of Shame,” an arena for shamanistic ceremony and queer underground publications, he has created a dazzling space for a community of radical spirits, past and present. AA Bronson met with me in the pagoda to discuss the project.
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Stuart Comer: This is Stuart Comer and Jenny Schlenzka with AA Bronson at the Gwangju Biennale on September the third, 2014, on a very humid day in South Korea.
AA Bronson: … a normal day in Gwangju!
SC: The Gwangju Biennale is titled Burning Down the House.The curator, Jessica Morgan, wants to position Korea as a country that’s looking towards the future, not just the past. She suggested in the press conference earlier today that in Europe we tend to look backwards at history and for this biennale she wanted to think less about archiving, and those kinds of practices, and more about looking forward. But this project — AA Bronson’s HOUSE OF SHAME — is recuperating secret pasts, and unofficial histories. It’s also, as far as I can recall, the first time you’ve occupied a structure like this pagoda. You’ve constructed tents and created environments to stage different kinds of invocations and rituals and spiritual exercises, but this is new.
AA: Well actually, one of the Invocation of the Queer Spirits took place in an abandoned Army Navy store in Winnipeg, for example. So I’ve occupied entire buildings for performances. But as an exhibition, it’s true, this is the first time I’ve occupied an entire existing building.
SC: Tell me about your the use of this pagoda.
AA: The pagoda was built along with the park that surrounds it, and the Gwangju Biennale itself, to commemorate the 241 people who were killed in the pro-democracy Gwangju Uprising in 1980, an event that is central to Gwangju’s identity and to Jessica’s choices of works for this Biennale. And since so much of my work is built around the spirits of the dead, I think that’s part of the reason Jessica invited me to work with this pagoda. With its three floors and 3,000 square feet of space, and its spiral staircase at the core, it was designed as a lookout from which you could survey the park, and the Biennale buildings, and remember the dead.
SC: Let’s speak about this tug of war between the past and the future, and how it relates to your work as AA Bronson. I know people constantly ask you this question: but in terms of working through your past with General Idea, working through the deaths of your generation, the people who impacted you quite heavily, how do you take that experience 20–30 years on, and produce a work like this, that is in dialogue with a completely different culture, with deaths from a completely different situation? Do you think that there’s something universal in what could be considered a very specific concern, which is queer spirituality, queer witchcraft — very clandestine histories that have informed your work? And by making those public, particularly in a biennial like this, in the context of a pro-democracy movement that ended in terrible deaths — where does that equation start to lead, do you think?
AA: This isn’t exactly an answer, but one of the things I think about is how, for example, the “Red,” “Black,” and “Gold” [all 2011] pieces on this floor, began from the ashes of people who died of AIDS, people who asked that their ashes be scattered in the Magic Forest between Cherry Grove and the Pines on Fire Island, near New York City, during this period of death in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The three works are collaborations with a much younger artist, Ryan Brewer. In a way, the three works inject the past into the future. And trauma is always like this, it creates a vacuum, a loss of memory, a silence from which we must move forward. I didn’t want to recreate my situation with General Idea [1969–1994], by working with people from my own generation. The work in this building consists of my collaborations with a much younger generation of artists, together with works by much younger friends, like Yeonjune Jung, who did the wallpaper on the third floor.
SC: What is the major difference for you between the kind of collaboration you had with Jorge and Felix in General Idea, and the kind of collaboration you can have with people from a younger generation, who are somehow dealing with you and your legacy simultaneously? It’s a different kind of relationship.
AA: Well, in the collaborations between Jorge and Felix, we were increasingly working as a single being. After the first seven years, we always said we were one mind. My collaborations now are very different. I try to look over the shoulder of the younger artist and see what they’re doing, and try to bring it into focus or magnify it in some way in terms of what we can do together. So that’s why I think there’s such a visual diversity amongst my collaborations, because it’s often like doing work in the style of the younger artist, even though it’s a collaboration.
SC: The performances and, you could say, rituals that you did with General Idea — they occupied a different cultural register. At what point did you start to become invested in working with shamanistic practices or spiritual practices, or creating collaborations that involved quasi-religious ritual?
AA: Frankly, I’ve been involved with that most of my life. But it was only, I guess, through the period of deaths in the late 1980s and early ’90s that I got to a point where I could allow myself to present that part of myself publicly, and then to incorporate it into my work. I wasn’t really incorporating ritual or spirituality openly into my work until about 2000 or something like that. Well into my 50s.
SC: I’m curious about the mugwort that you’ve densely scattered across the floors throughout the pagoda. You mentioned that this is a very symbolic plant for Korea, and you also mentioned that Korea and Mongolia were origin sites for shamanism. Did you dedicate a lot of time to research into shamanistic practices for this project specifically?
AA: Mythologically, mugwort is the “Mother” of Korea. I did a lot of reading on Korean shamanism for this project. But I already knew a lot about shamanism. It’s something that I’ve been interested in for a very long time. Shamanism is maybe a misleading term for my concerns, because it’s a bit narrow. For example, Santeria really interests me. It’s a Christian religion, not technically shamanistic. There’s a crossover through an engagement with the spirits of the dead. And the spirit world interests me.
SC: And you have other collaborations here, also shot on Fire Island [“Blue” (2011) and “White” (2012), both with Ryan Brewer], in what you consider a spirit forest or magical forest. If we think about the siting of this pagoda in particular, about the kinds of spirits that might occupy this site, or how this project might be a dialogue with spirits and ghosts within your own personal life … is that something you wanted to facilitate or engage with?
AA: One of the things that interests me is the homophobia of Korea. The spirits that we invoked last night, in the Invocation of the Queer Spirits (Gwangju), here in this little space under the stairwell, in the sphincter of the building, were the 241 dead from the pro-democracy uprising but also all those who have been murdered or committed suicide because of their sexuality, all those who have lived hidden lives, who couldn’t be public about who they were, all the people who died of HIV and AIDS. There’s a long list of marginalized populations, hidden communities. We invited all those marginalized communities to join us here. It’s a symbolic thing. I’m not sure they all crowded into this little space [laughs]. We were remembering all those groups of people.
SC: In the wake of the initial stages of the AIDS epidemic, there certainly was this urgent need, not just desire, but need: to archive, remember, to bear witness, to try to get the pieces together …
AA: Actually, one of the important things about the Invocation of the Queer Spirits ritual is that there’s no living audience, and there’s no documentation. So there’s no archiving. It’s entirely about being present, and present to the future and the past, and it’s about being in community with the other people who are there, and being in community with the dead as well as the living.
SC: I’m really interested in the balancing act between the archive of Queer Zines [with Philip Aarons] that you present on the top floor, and the rituals that are happening here in the nucleus of the space.
AA: Part of the reason for including Queer Zines is that Korea is a zine-crazy country. I wanted to play off the homophobia on the one hand with the interest in zine production on the other hand. Queer Zines also acts as a kind of illustration of a hidden community. It’s under the surface: the zines represent a network of personal connections that form an amorphous underground community that is just as important as more visible communities. I wrapped it in wallpaper by the Korean artist Yeonjune Jung, who is based in London. The wallpaper depicts various traumas of queer life, from lynchings and bombings of gay bars to arrests in public parks.
SC: For me, Queer Zines documents an urban subculture that manifests through mechanical reproduction. Coming two floors down, things are much more physical, directly tangible: the smell of the mugwort and the texture of all the tapestries evoke a pre-industrial world. It is palpably a spirit world. People often talk about the legitimation and professionalization of queer culture as having killed off certain magical elements of it. To what extent do you feel this project should remain in the spirit world, or not try to formalize or publicize things too much?
AA: Well I’m always interested in and focused on trying to do exhibitions and performances that don’t fit well within the art market or the art system. First of all, collaborations don’t work in the marketplace, any dealer can tell you that. Here, for example, [points at an installation facing them] I’ve put a collaboration between me and Ryan Brewer, and then framed it within a collaboration between myself and Richard John Jones, and then put mugwort on the floor, so it becomes a kind of total environment in which the individual elements can’t be discerned, and therefore marketing becomes difficult. My overall project here is hard to formally define. And this piece [the remnants of the Invocation of the Queer Spirits (Gwangju)], for example: it’s hard to tell the difference between the piece and the mise en scene; where does the work start or end? Are the fabric panels a part of the work or are they not? Is the bottle of whisky part of the work or is it not? I like those ambiguities.
JS: I’m curious if you could describe the actual rituals that you’ve been doing?
AA: Well, the piece that I’m supposedly performing at this minute, called “Artemisia for my Great-Grandfather,” is a durational action. It consists of me spreading mugwort, a kind of Artemesia, to cover the first two floors of the Pagoda. The backstory is that my great-grandfather was the first missionary to the Blackfoot Indians at a time that predates a Canadian/US border. He was very focused on trying to destroy the shamanic practices of the Blackfoot Indians. For example, he worked together with the military and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to outlaw the Sun Dance, which he considered barbaric. You may know about the Sun Dance, the ritual by which boys became men. From that point on, aboriginal boys could not become men, they had to stay boys. The day that the Sun Dance was outlawed, a friendly native warned my great-grandfather that he should leave, and he and his wife and children fled under cover of darkness. His house, his school, and his church were all burned to the ground that night. By coincidence, this happened in 1895, the same year that the Japanese invaded Korea and outlawed Shamanism, then the primary religion of Korea. I feel that I carry the family burden of my great grandfather’s misguided and racist focus on destroying aboriginal shamanism. My act of spreading mugwort, the most important herb in Korean shamanism, is a kind of penance. I spread herbs today for five hours, and I’ll continue tomorrow for most of the day.
SC: Have you managed to reach out and connect with the queer community in Korea at all yet? Or do you hope to? Or do you think the piece will reach them?
AA: I tried to find zines from South Korea to include in Queer Zines. I found a blog by a Korean lesbian, where she talks a lot about queer zines. But they always come from Tokyo or Hong Kong, none of them seemed to come from Korea. And that was the only place that I found any mention of Korean queer zines at all. I know people in Seoul in the zine world, and they don’t seem to know much either. So in terms of the local scene, I don’t know much, my research was unsuccessful. I think a lot of the young queer Korean artists leave the country. Yeonjune Jung, for example, lives in London. I tracked down seven or eight queer Korean artists, and not one of them lives in Korea. So that was interesting, too.
SC: So, having done the exhibition at Witte de With [The Temptation of AA Bronson, 2012], and also projects with Union Theological Seminary in New York City — you’re constantly now working through different kinds of institutions: religious institutions as well as art institutions. And with this project, you’ve started to include institutions in other cultures, in other countries. It’s really interesting, I think, to watch where this will develop, in terms of your ongoing practice of balancing the spiritual and the secular.
AA: I have a way of inventing my own institutions: The Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice in New York, Art Metropole a long time ago, the NY Art Book Fair and so on. And I have an imaginary institution, AA Bronson’s School for Young Shamans. Maybe one day I’ll actually open it.
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AA Bronson’s HOUSE OF SHAME continues until November 9 at the Gwangju Biennale (111 Biennale-ro, yongbong-dong, Buk-gu, Gwangju , 500-845, South Korea). Hyperallergic is the media sponsor for HOUSE OF SHAME.