At the MoMA PS1 museum and exhibition space in Long Island City, New York, last month, an eyebrow-raising installation featured a spartan room housing two live rescue cats. The felines or “pieces” had names: “Cat Made Out of Orangutan Flesh and Vitamin Water” and “Reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.” As adorable and kittenish as each one was, I’m not sure either qualified as a work of art. However, performing inside a large, geodesic dome in the museum’s courtyard that afternoon was a living masterpiece. Clad only in a black slip and performing spoken word inspired by the film Play It as It Lays was legendary singer, author and cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond.
Bond is often recognized as Kiki, the delightfully boozy, bitchy and world-weary half of former cabaret duo Kiki and Herb and also as the salon mistress in Shortbus. But lately the trans-identified artist (who prefers the gender neutral pronoun v instead of he or she) has expanded v’s repertoire to include an album, Dendrophile, a memoir, Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels and an upcoming ensemble film, Sunset Stories. Bond hits CIMM Fest April 14 as part of Michelle Tea’s traveling queer caravan Sister Spit and will host a party afterward at Beauty Bar.
When we speak via telephone, it’s at the end of a monthlong run for Bond at Joe’s Pub in New York. To watch Bond perform is to see a singer and entertainer completely at home in a cabaret setting. “It’s a contextualizing of myself and my views of the world,” says Bond of v’s solo shows. “I think it’s good for people in my audience because [they] generally share the same world view that I have and they don’t see it expressed too much in mainstream culture.”
After being displaced recently by a forever-gentrifying New York, the longtime Manhattan resident is finally settling into a new pad in the same East Village building v inhabited years ago. “I’m not one of those people who resents change,” Bond says. “What I don’t like is when people try to erase history because I feel the history of New York and the neighborhoods are much richer than what the people moving in are bringing to them in many cases. I don’t expect everybody to have the same appreciation for those things that I do, but you can’t help be[ing] sad when you see things go.”
The change Bond’s fans are getting used to is the laying to rest of Kiki, the cabaret drag alter ego Bond cocreated and expertly perfected with Kenny Mellman in the late ’80s and retired in 2008. Kiki was a masterful impression of a feisty and immovable diva past her prime. “The reason Kiki was so great for me was because when I was young I had all these things that I wanted to say and I felt as a young person I didn’t have a leg to stand on,” Bond says. “I had to age in order to have the voice that I wanted to have in the first place, so I kind of hid behind that one while the real one matured. It’s been an interesting revelation that I was faking something until it became real.”
At CIMM Fest, Bond will both read from Tango and also host the after-party at Beauty Bar. Don’t miss it. “Being a host is just second nature to me,” Bond says. “A succesive group of superficial interactions is one of the things that I was built for. It’s like the world is my living room.”
“Around here they ask a lot of questions,” Bond says at the top of the solo piece at MoMA PS1. Even after spending a half hour in Bond’s world, I have many more myself.
Bond appears with Sister Spit April 14 as part of the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival.