At the brief question and answer period that followed the premiere of the new documentary TURNING, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, spoke briefly about the difficulty of understanding what a work of art means, even to those involved in making it.
The documentary follows the European tour of TURNING, a work created by Antony and the Johnsons, along with 13 performer/models, and featuring video by artist Charles Atlas. The European tour took place in 2006, following a short run in 2004 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Well-reviewed in its original production and its 2006 tour, the live version of TURNING involved Antony singing over orchestrated music, with Atlas live-mixing video feeds of the models’ faces, each of whom stood, one at a time, atop a turning platform on the stage. For a full list of the performers, view the online credits.
The seemingly simple set-up of a concert with projected imagery of live models coalesced into a much more nuanced and rich experience when layers of meaning were added through Antony’s lyrics and the understanding that the women on the stage represent a spectrum of both beauty and femaleness, from androgyny to the hyper-feminine, some with touches of the psychedelic or the dark. In addition, a number of the women on stage identify as transgender, though in the live performance, unless you had done a bit of reading or known of them before arriving, you would have little understanding of each individual’s particular identity.
During one of the interviews featured in the documentary, performer/model Connie Fleming said this about the live performance: “It was about honoring all kinds of people, and it was really strong within the feminine. It was about the different facets… People got to look in and see the humanity.” Noting the “facets” within the work is probably the most apt description of both the performance and the documentary. Atlas’ multi-image video and the effect of being invited to glimpse so many different representations not only of the feminine but also of each performer is nothing so much as prismatic.
The primary difference between the documentary and the live performance is that the documentary features intimate, though brief, interviews of the models. Shot while the show was on tour, the performers speak about their identities and histories, as well as their relationship to the show and each other. In addition, footage from tour buses, airplanes, dressing rooms, and technical rehearsals reveal the less polished, less presentational selves of the performers that the live show highlights.
As Antony pointed out at the premiere, the documentary is a very different experience from the live work — something new onto itself. And though the briefness of the interviews left me and the friend I attended the screening with hungry for much more detail about each of the performers’ lives, maybe it’s appropriate that you come to know only a tiny bit about each of them. It’s perhaps a reminder that we know so little about most of the people we encounter, but that it’s essential to open up to their full humanity, to borrow Fleming’s word.
So much of the tension of the show relies on both asking and allowing the audience to look closely at another person. In our society, even today, decades into the feminist movement, women are still in the position of being seen as an object on display. Much has been written about the male gaze, or the gaze in general, but when you speak about those who live and operate outside of societal norms, that gaze becomes something else entirely. Being “othered” often involves being treated as a curiosity or an object of ridicule, it also involves being eroticized, being denigrated, being constantly subject to a derisive or negative gaze. And for some women and many transgendered or genderqueer people, close behind that negative gaze is the very real threat of violence. What TURNING (in both the performance and the documentary) seems to want to do is ask you to look long enough to step past othering and mental categorizations of the subjects; past initial judgments about beauty or femininity. It seems to ask you to see something more. And because it is a loving portrait of these women, in which they are able to take an active role, their agency and choice to participate represents a kind of counteraction to that gaze which isn’t possible on the streets or the subway.
What struck me most about the performance as I reflected back on the documentary the following day was that comment from Antony during the post-screening Q&A that I mentioned at the outset — his sense that the experience of the piece was very different for each performer; that the meaning was hard to pin down. My sense is that audience members also each take something very personal and dissimilar away from the show.
At the Q&A Antony described wanting to do the interviews for the documentary as the tour wound down precisely because of his sense that there was a kind of mystery to how and why the piece worked. That sentiment reminded me of so many people’s struggle to articulate what exactly art is, and what value it has in the world. Looking back on the documentary with Antony’s comment in mind it struck me that so much of art involves simply bringing together the right elements and allowing them to interact and react. With that thought in mind, I’ll end with two quotes from John Dewey’s 1934 book, Art as Experience:
“Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension.”
“For ‘taking in’ in any vital experience is something more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruction which may be painful.”
A list of upcoming screenings of TURNING can be found at turningfilm.com.