Photo Essays

Rose Petal Mandalas, Queer Trauma, and Spiritually Intense Blowjobs

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VIENNA — Figure 1: The artist AA Bronson invited me to make this photo essay of his two exhibitions at the Kunstvereins in Grazer and Salzburg. I was thrilled to be included in both exhibitions, with my photos and my new book FH of jockstraps and penises. But how to tell the story of these two complex exhibitions, filled with so many works by AA and his friends and collaborators, including installations, collaborative works, performances, and even an exhibition within the exhibition? The picture above is AA at the Grazer Kunstverein, holding the headdress to Michael Dudeck’s remarkable performance “Fish M/Other (Ape Witch).” In the background is a painting by Keith Boadwee, an homage to General Idea titled “GIGI (General Idea Gastro-Intestinal)” (2015). Keith painted this little masterpiece by squirting paint from his sphincter.

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Figure 2: The Salzburg Kunstverein is a big shoebox of a space suffering from a bad ’70s renovation and primitive lighting. Inspired by Kyoto’s famous Rioan-ji Zen garden, AA created this quiet and meditative installation, which includes his works and collaborations with his husband Mark Jan Krayenhoff van de Leur, Adrian Hermanides, Gareth Long, JX Williams, and myself. Ebe Oke created the sublime soundscape “FIELD I” that binds the room together. Ebe’s vocal performance at the opening — he sat in the red and white “FOLLY” — married musical and religious traditions of Medieval Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism.

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Figure 3: From the viewing platform that encircles the space, we see a family of taxidermied deer feeding on the mugwort that defines the space. Mugwort is an herb with a long history of magical, medicinal, and culinary uses in cultures ranging from the Druids of the British Isles across Europe and Asia to the shamans of Korea. In the background, an enormous antique Chinese urn on a complex wooden stand becomes a container for “Family Secrets.” On the wall, a sledgehammer by JX Williams, the lesbian priestess from New Orleans, is titled “Stick to Hit the Devil 2.” (“Stick to Hit the Devil 1” was shown earlier this year at Maureen Paley in London, and “Stick to Hit the Devil 3” is in the Grazer Kunsverein.)

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Figure 4: Ebe Oke reads a poem by his friend and ally Antler at the preview, with text that features spiritually intense blowjobs. At his feet is Chrysanne Stathacos’s mandala of rose petals and mirror, twinned to a similar installation at the Grazer Kunstverein. In the background is AA’s performance costume “Artemesia for My Great-Grandfather,” the robe he wears when he spreads the mugwort (a form of artemesia). The performance is without an audience and is a meditation on communities of the dead from the region: the Jews of the Holocaust and the women and gay men burned as witches during the Inquisition.

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Figure 5: Krist Gruijthuijsen, Director of the Grazer Kunstverein, addresses the crowd during the opening of AA Bronson’s Sacre du Printemps. The themes of dance, choreography, and durational performance were always present in this project: they queered the traditional object-quality of the exhibition spaces with the scent and sound of human sexuality and the presence of pure spirit (AA told me to say it like that). Perhaps Krist is channeling the spirits of the two dancers whose memories animate this exhibition, Freddie Herko and Vaslav Nijinsky.

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Figure 6: Chrysanne Stathacos’s “Rose Mirror Mandala – (twin)” welcomes viewers to the labyrinth that follows. First created for the Dalai Lama, the installation is also a kind of performance: Chrysanne tears petals from living roses and reassembles them into a mandala throughout the opening, chatting with the public about what she’s doing. It is a kind of public service, AA says. In Salzburg, the mandala was almost entirely red and white; here it is yellow and pink. Further into the exhibition are Chrysanne’s 27 portraits of Indian sadhus, or holy men, photographed using an aura camera. Out of view here is Yeonjune Jung’s wallpaper of British sites of queer trauma, “What a Beautiful World.”

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Figure 7: In the foreground is a collaboration between AA and Nic Chaffin. Made in the cruising woods on Fire Island, the canvas records 2½ hours of walking naked in circles while meditating on the many dead of AIDS whose ashes have been scattered there. Is it a performance or a ritual — or is there a difference? In the rear, “Cabine,” a collaboration between AA and Scott Treleaven, in the form of a fortune-teller’s tent, is the container for Michael Dudeck’s dramatic performance.

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Figure 8: Michael Dudeck performed “Fish M/Other (Ape Witch),” naked and cradling a large dead fish, through the duration of the opening. The vocal element of the performance seemed to knit together Hebrew ritual and Hindu chant. On his head, Dudeck wore an elaborate headdress in the shape of a monkey-head, with tendrils of latex condoms filled with white powder.

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Figure 9: A structure of sigil paintings by Elijah Burgher acted as a potential site for ritual. Elijah creates each painting by sitting on a canvas dropcloth on the floor, meditating on an intention and then embodying it in a sigil, a kind of magical emblem that he paints upon the canvas. Mugwort covered the floor. In the adjacent gallery, Igshaan Adams performed in his own tent-like structure, a circular labyrinth of veils. He sat in the center, himself also veiled, at first performing Islamic chants of purification, then vocally moving energy down into his heart. The effect was guttural, at times reminiscent of Tibetan throat chanting.

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Figure 10: Queer Zines is the exhibition within the exhibition. Curated by AA Bronson and Philip Aarons, the collection includes some 150 titles. Many can be read onsite. Dating from the ’70s to today, the zines define a queer culture that attempts to position itself outside of gay liberation and assimilation. Together with the zines are a dress made of jockstraps by K8 Hardy and a life-sized poster of a naked man by Christopher Schulz. AA tells me that K8 Hardy tried to baptize the jockstrap dress by wearing it to one of Fire Island’s infamous all-day beach parties, but she was thrown off the dance floor. She baptized it by walking into the Atlantic Ocean instead.

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Figure 11: My two photographs, “Untitled (Lovers),” are the key to the two exhibitions, AA tells me. The pair of them stand at the head of the Salzburg exhibition, like photographs of the King and the Queen in a Victorian schoolroom. I won’t interpret the images — one of a jockstrap, the other of a flaming jockstrap — but the same images appear on the cover of my new book FH, which is featured in Salzburg and was launched at the opening. The book opens with AA’s sonnet, “Ode to a Dancer,” which refers both to Freddy Herko (my subject) and Nijinsky (AA’s subject). The poem ends with this Shakespearean couplet: But what of Freddie’s turn about the room / Before he threw himself into the gloom? At the end of the book is my annotation: “FH jumped to his death from the fifth-floor window of his ex-lover Johnny Dodd’s apartment at 5 Cornelia Street at 5:00 pm on October 27, 1964.”

AA Bronson’s Garden of Earthly Delights continues at Salzburger Kunstverein through November 22. AA Bronson’s Sacre du Printemps continues at Grazer Kunstverein through November 29.

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