It’s hard to talk about spirituality in the US today without bringing up a lot of baggage — conflicts between religions about who has it right or who is the most righteous, not to mention all the stereotypes that accompany each religion and its practitioners. And it’s certainly not easy to talk about religion and contemporary visual art, as visual art is so often assumed to be above or outside or beyond religion somehow. Despite the fact that just about every pre-1900 work that anyone who has ever taken any kind of art history course has had to study either directly or obliquely references one religion or another, even if only the religions of monarchy and capitalism. Religion in contemporary art that gets bought and sold and discussed on sites like this or in glossy magazine is, by and large, a subject that is assumed to be worthy of derision or bald critique, or at the very least used to create ironic gestures.
But AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs’ book Queer Spirits, published by Creative Time, is not to be dismissed as a mockery or an ironic turn, though certainly there are elements of absurdity and indulgence in it. The book documents a series of five performances, each titled “Invocation of the Queer Spirits,” that Bronson and Hobbs conducted in various locations over the course of two years. Beginning in a small cabin at the Banff Center for the Arts with a private ritual the two men conducted together, they then repeated and varied the performance, bringing in new participants for each subsequent event, in New Orleans, Winnipeg, Governors Island (NY), and Fire Island (NY).
What were these performances exactly? Ultimately, as the book reveals, only those who were present know what happened during each Invocation. The book itself contains brief glimpses through photographs, scribbled notes, and other source materials of what came before and after each performance. From these remnants it’s clear that each time a small group of men gathered in a private space, and drawing from their own experiences of spirituality and aided by alcohol, erotic potential, and perhaps more, they undertook to call upon communities, both alive and dead, that have been hidden or erased by history of the past and present. In the case of Fire Island, for instance, the Invocation not only included the queer communities that have for decades gathered there, but also the native hunters who fished its waters before the Europeans arrived, the black slaves that were temporarily held on its shores before being sold into servitude, the European explorers and pirates who made temporary landfall there, as well as writers and artists who made that sliver of land a temporary home or office.
Despite what could seem like obscurity or ridiculousness in these performances, the book reveals instead a kind of private archive of experience, as well as a series of works that are firmly rooted in a rich and complex understanding of the role of art. Sure you could look in from the outside, particularly through contemporary-art-market-colored-glasses, and say that Bronson is just a funny old codger getting his jollies by concocting makeshift rituals from a hodgepodge of indigenous religions. But what most people who are in any way connected to the queer community will recognize is an attempt to tap in to a long history of building new spiritualities, traditions, and connections in a world whose dominant structures and faiths utterly reject the existence of anyone who isn’t heterosexual or who doesn’t fit into the dominant gender binary. Bronson and Hobbs’ Invocations both literally and figuratively call upon adapted mourning rituals for those who died of AIDS, spiritualities realized and practiced within queer separatist communities, millennia of people murdered after being accused of committing witchcraft, sorcery, or heresies of any kind, and so many others who, being outside the dominant culture, seek communion in their own ways and on their own terms.
By personalizing and grounding the work in lived experience, I read part of Bronson and Hobbs’ motive in this work as a desire to transcend the persistent push in our culture to separate art from the every day and the highly personal. There’s such a strong drive in so much of arts criticism and at so many art institutions to set art out as something unique onto itself, above the individual(s) who created, an insistence that true Art is universal and removed from the dirt and shit and failures and conflict and sex and boredom, and yes, sometimes, religion, of so many of our everyday experiences. By creating an intensely private experience that draws together a wider archive of queer experience and history, a search for outsider spirituality, as well as the quotidian desires for pleasure, fulfillment, and release, and then sharing the remnants of that experience, we readers are given a chance to indulgently and earnestly explore our own archives, desires, and beliefs. And because reading is such a private experience, the book seems to goad an exploration of both the discomforting and secretive. For that alone is seems worth a look.
Anyone interested in performance, queer experience, archives, documentation, or art that meshes with life should find something in this highly tactile volume. And I would recommend following it up with some reading by the scholar Ellen Dissanayake, who does a fantastic job of trying to create a new way of talking and thinking about art that focuses on art as a behavior exhibited by all humans, rather than a pursuit reserved for the few. Or you could also look at Kay Turner‘s book on women’s altars (including some notes on lesbian altars), Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars.
AA Bronson and Peter Hobbs’ Queer Spirits is available on the Creative Time website and other online booksellers.