GWANGJU, South Korea — I visited AA Bronson’s House of Shame with a feeling of intense excitement and curiosity. I am intrigued by the nature of the project, which seems to be an extraordinary field of forces that correspond to the place and time of its presentation but also to wider notions of collectivity and history. It is difficult to approach all its different layers, and what I propose to do here is to explore it from the angle of personal history, the production of collectivities and the representation of desires, all of which I see as key concepts in its inception and actualization.
AA Bronson’s House of Shame is a combination of works, artists, and projects which are conceptually connected and drawn together in a unique spatial configuration. In my first visit (out of many), I was struck by the ability of the works on display to dismantle the here and now of a singular experience. The House of Shame seems to collapse notions of temporality and space. The multiplicity of layers and events that are being presented offer a texture, which allows the project to exist in a state of continuous mutation. House of Shame represents the crystallization of many things, moments and concerns. However, this is a very dynamic environment where concepts, histories, and events interact. From the number of artists/collaborators whose work constitutes the basis of its manifestation, to the phenomena, lived events, and experiential processes that are in the core of its conception, AA Bronson’s House has managed to produce a machinic environment which signifies the potentials for artistic creation to resist the totality of society and includes in the form of a collectivity tools of action for the freeing-up of desire. I am particularly intrigued by this collaborative framework, the notions of collectivity that bind it together, and the subversive countercultural and alternative histories that run through it.
House of Shame is presented inside a Korean pagoda-type of structure, with an internal spiral layout. The three-storey building, known locally as the Spiral House, lies in the centre of the Biennale park in Gwangju, on top of a low hill just moments away from the Gwangju Biennale Halls. The building itself offers a unique aesthetic, combining traditional architecture and a barren interior, which is in stark contrast with the modernist structures of the Biennale Halls. It is the perfect container — a contradiction between style and content. The spiral layout of the space also serves as a unifying backdrop and exposes a narrative of assemblage and expansiveness.
AA Bronson is joined by Philip Aarons, Ryan Brewer Elijah Burgher, TM Davy, K8 Hardy, Richard John Jones, Yeonjune Jung, Bradford Kessler, Travis Meinolf, and Reima Hirvonen. All artists, in collaboration with Bronson, have contributed to creating an expositional outcome of multiple forms and practices. From the mystical and the occult, to the sexual and the erotic, to the collecting and representing of alternative subjectivities, struggles and survival tactics, House of Shame is full of symbols, full of potentials, full of irony and humor, which underline moments of history, trauma and hope. Rather than a singular unity, the project presents a fascinating diversity in mediums and outputs. Rather than a dominant figure AA Bronson becomes both the instigator and the commonality that brings all the practices together.
The setup of AA Bronson’s House of Shame began prior to the official opening of this year’s Biennale in the form of a live performance. The space was activated with Artemisia For My Great Grandfather (2014), a ritual executed the day before the Biennale’s opening. For the purposes of the performance, the interior floors of the Spiral House were covered in mugwort, an aromatic herb with a strong scent, which holds a significant position in Korean cleansing rituals. Mugwort, or Artemisia Principalis as it is known in botany, is widely used in Korea for its medicinal properties as a purifier and blood cleanser. AA Bronson uses the herb to purposefully connect to a local element. Evoking the figure of his grandfather, the artist extends the meaning and importance of the live event to issues that lie in a more personal domain of history.
The artist’s grandfather was an early Christian missionary to the Blackfoot Indians in North America. As a missionary he functioned within an apparatus, which essentially invested in the eclipsing of shamanic mystical traditions among the aboriginal peoples. The fundamental desire of missionaries was to dominate those social and religious practices that tended to function in the ontology of a spiritual mysticism, whose components were based on the unconscious, the occult and the distribution of unseen energies found in nature and the animal world. From a missionary’s perspective, such practices were adverse to the rational ideology and dogma of Christianity. Their rituals were emphatically open to to mutations of the self, the multiplicity of personal identity, flows of desire and connectivity through participation. They were very different from Christianity’s reductive humanism and its organization of power.
The missionaries’ ideas moved forward by engineering the limitation of shamanistic forms — which were looser structures, distinct and not always bound together and which tended to arise through collective engagement and participation. Being aware of this personal dimension of history, it seems to me that the process of purification and cleansing and the use of mugwort offers to AA Bronson the possibility to negotiate the repressive formulas of his ancestors – to return and undo personal history and to bridge the flow of repression and the flow of liberation. Artemisia For My Great Grandfather took place between a few invited participants and this loose formation of individuals became a platform which allowed the artist to penetrate the dominating forces of missionaries’ practices, only to modify and transform them. With the use of mugwort, which notates a sensitivity to the local attitudes of Korean shamanistic practices, the artist evokes the powers of ritual, in an attempt to destabilise and subvert the structure of repression that is part of his personal history. The combination of forces and participation as a form of artistic practice reinforce the antinomic attitudes that disturb and unsettle the personal and familiar system. By opening up the personal to ritualistic flows and shamanistic forms, AA Bronson generates a space of complexity where the expression of local attitudes, the experience of art and the manifestation of collectivities explores the potentials of history rethought in the present.
Precisely in the sense of the present and its potentials, the exhibition space seems to be functioning in a mode of endless fluctuation. It represents a non-hierarchical organisation of sorts where collectivity is being redirected into a purpose. Its internal structure revolves around the works conceived in dialogue with one another. There is a number of fascinating moments contained in the House of Shame. T.M. Davy’s portrait “AA in the Magic Forest” (2012), located in the entrance of the site and a series of three lightboxes, Red, Black, Gold, made by AA Bronson in collaboration with Ryan Brewer in 2011, present Bronson and Brewer as shamans living amongst the ashes of a queer population that were cremated in Fire Island, New York in the 1980s. The portraits are documents of a ritual which was performed publicly but without an invited audience, in Fire Island’s Magic Forest, a labyrinthine environment of trees and sex paths that connects the two gay communities of the island.
The forest has been a queer destination for more than sixty years. At the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, many went there to spend their final days. Brewer and Bronson tap into this history of alternative collectivities and the history of deviance and derangement. The artists threw themselves into a space of seclusion and desire, which protected kindred spirits in their permanent refusal to succumb to the escalating symptoms of disease. The transformation of alienation into desire and the creation of a social domain in seclusion represents the attempts to avoid repressive institutionalisation and to form alternatives to acute determinisms even in the face of death. The works question the normal, the healthy but also the mad, the unexpected. It seems obvious that deviance has acquired authority here and the subversive qualities of a counter-community erupt with euphoria, questioning reality, the potentials for the body to exist and also death, destruction and rebirth. Brewer and Bronson are like hierophants in a fluid reality, where the intensity of desire and cosmic energy ceaselessly permeate the accepted notion of irreversibility of destiny.
On the space above, eight large paintings by Elijah Burgher are suspended back to back across the room. Each of the paintings were realised as part of a ritual during which a sigil was created by the artist. Sigils are peculiar symbols, a type of pictorial signature of a spiritual entity. They are believed to have powerful qualities, charged with the will of their creator. In many ways sigils are the manifestation of an intention, representing the conjunction of thought processes and the metaphysic. Burgher evokes an awakened mental and spiritual equilibrium, a machine for empowerment defined by a nexus of abstracted elements that are demonstrated on the paintings. They occupy as they fragment space, orchestrating the movements of the viewer. They resemble hieroglyphs, heterogeneous formations whose identity escapes subjective coordinates and the world of familiar meaning. They are positioned on the edge between an action and its representation, opening up to a state of communication with the unfamiliar, the unknown.
The sigils can be seen as the product of a constant process for accessing knowledge, an entrance into a space which is simultaneously psychical and magical. Encountering what can easily be described as thoughtforms is a more punctual way to describe this experience. It is more about passing through portals, exiting and entering, rather than standing in front of an object to contemplate its meaning. Exploring the personal and the mystical, the production of wisdom and the condition of allowing oneself to find refuge in unconscious processes, Burgher seems to recognise the artist as an agent in the production of a futurity. Inasmuch as one can speak of immersive qualities, Burgher certainly produces a ground that opens up to a set of connections between the viewer, the creative processes of production and the works themselves.
The collaboration between AA Bronson and Bradford Kessler titled the “Return of the Prodigal Son” (2012) takes the form of a lightbox displayed on the same floor. In this work, Bronson and Kessler become the father and son of the familiar biblical parable. The work does not only signify the biblical reference but an art historical one. The “Return of the Prodigal Son” (1661–69) is one of the Rembrandt’s best-known works and an iconic painting highly regarded not only as a product of artistic mastery but for its phenomenal evocation of spirituality and its attention to the parable’s message of forgiveness and mercy.
Bronson and Kessler go beyond this simplified meaning in what seems to be an act of complexifying the reality of the return. Rather than reducing the process of the encounter to means of regression or a returning to a previous state of sorts, the two artists can be seen emerging out of a pool of paint, in an embrace. Both figures, as father and son in a becoming, are contaminated by the powerful forces of the desire to be together and therefore to be reborn in a outburst. Bronson’s and Kessler’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” is an attempt to bring out notions of transversality in the entire House of Shame, which means an expression of the capacity of collective entities to function together to modify and radically transform normative systems and mechanisms. The alternative meaning of the work in relation to its referential points, is to split open the structural logic of symbols and images, liberating the signifying chain, allowing it to function in a context where the collective capacity of desire to produce altered forms occupies central position.
The last floor brings together Yeonjune Jung with AA Bronson and Philip Aarons. Bronson and Jung created a wallpaper which in the first place seems rather traditional in style. However, upon closer inspection, the seemingly familiar patterns reveal processes of violence, trauma and tragedy, with queer subjects in the epicenter. Jung orchestrates a discussion on the struggle, social repression and violence facing the expression of queer subjectivities. This type of violence, the result of excessive processes for normalization, is still largely active in many parts of the world. It defines the axiomatic of a culture based on hatred and menace, when normativity seems to be threatened by queer flows. The unpredictable responses to this can unsettle and deeply disturb. The work comments on positions that nonchalantly accept this type of personal and social order. An order that prescribes the sinking of alternative desires in the domain of the familiar. It also asks for the viewers themselves to take a position in the ongoing struggle against forms of repression, in favor of the continuous necessity for tearing down the grounds of repressive ideologies.
Philip Aarons’s and AA Bronson’s collection of Queer Zines, spanning almost 40 years of queer visual culture, offers an arresting juxtaposition to Jung’s wallpaper. Highly provocative and sexually explicit output of both contemporary and historical publications charts queer underground mechanisms for the production and dissemination of image and text. It constructs a panorama of queer identity from the 1970s until today. In this sense, the collection is a large-scale experiment that traces the network and avenues of distribution of imagery of queer practices. Loaded with desire, bold irony and confidence, the experience is that of a project of liberation, a radical organisation of counter-cultural literature that challenges mainstream dogmatisms. It is resembling a time capsule, without though referring solely to historical understandings. It is more about small moments of subversion that make up great transformations and those crucial attempts to create minor collectivities that can eventually erupt, bringing a big rip to what is considered accepted and normative. A fantastic, joyous machine that turns from testimony to promise, connecting the imaginary with the possible.
Bringing into play a number of complex issues in the House of Shame, AA Bronson sets forth an affective machine of creativity, which operates in-between systems, rituals and potentials. The intensity of the environment and the spiral, helicoid structure signifying expansions, is fitting with the Biennale’s title Burning Down the House – a call for rethinking practices but also for rebirth and renewal. Full of symbols and forms AA Bronson’s House of Shame presents a rigorous redefinition to the conditions of subversive creative practices, which can be taken up as methods to reveal flights of imagination and mystery in social and artistic encounters and therefore potential. It is a dynamic environment which ruptures through regularity, functioning as a promise and hope at the moment of the encounter.