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Paintbrushes, pencils, a chisel…there’s reassuring timelessness to a list of artist’s tools. If you’re AA Bronson, though, that list might also include mudwort, rooster feathers and butt plugs. The Berlin resident is famous in art circles for works such as ‘Invocation of the Queer Spirits’, an ad hoc performance series in which Bronson and invited pals gather to call upon the spirits of the (gay, but not exclusively so) dead, wearing nothing but extravagant plumage. Regular chicken feathers won’t do – this is New Orleans voodoo he’s channelling – and the splendid tails are attached as if by magic (hence the butt plugs).
‘Everybody’s on a level playing field – you all feel like idiots,’ says the 68-year-old as he puts the finishing touches to what, incredibly, is his first solo show in London. Mirthful (and painful) as it may sound, though, there’s a huge dose of seriousness to Bronson’s art. With Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, he formed the artist’s group General Idea in Toronto in 1969. A coalition that grew out of the hippy era, they went on to make an extraordinarily vital body of work relating to sex and sexuality just as Aids began to ravage creative communities around the world. The three collaborated for 25 years until Partz and Zontal themselves died of Aids in 1994.
On show are works by General Idea, including a painting from the mid-1980s of gleefully copulating poodles, as well as one of the group’s black-on-black ‘Aids’ paintings, a grave co-opting of Robert Indiana’s ‘Love’ paintings from the 1960s. There’s also an exhibition within an exhibition – a reading room of queer zines from the past 40 years that reflects Bronson’s lifelong love of small-scale publishing. The artist himself appears butt-naked and painted bright red in a forest at New York’s traditional gay getaway Fire Island. For the past 15 years, Bronson has practised as a healer, a role he sees as entirely consistent being an artist. These days, he may feel to some extent like a custodian of the past, but Bronson’s bewitching work is a reminder of how we’re all shaped by our history. Looking for meaning is inevitable. The butt plugs are purely optional
How would you describe your work to someone who hasn’t seen it?
‘When people ask me that I sometimes just make up a fake answer, like: I paint landscapes!’
Evidently that’s not the case, but you’re in a landscape in the photograph in the lightbox. Where is it?
‘It’s a piece of woodland on Fire Island. There’s two little gay communities on Fire Island – Cherry Grove and the Pines. The Pines is all kind of decorators and fashion people who are full of themselves, and Cherry Grove is lesbians and people of colour and leather men and bearded young men, and they meet in the wilderness in between. It’s the only place where they’ll look at each other, so it’s like a cruising ground. But it also has a 50- or 60-year-old history as being a gathering place for gay men. During the period of Aids, many, many men went from New York to spend their last two or three weeks on Fire Island, and then there were many people who had their ashes scattered there, so I think of it as a magic forest. It’s a place of the spirits of the dead as well as, of course, the living.’
Why your devilish hue?
‘The work is part of a 2012 collaboration with an artist called Ryan Brewer. There are five or six pieces altogether and with this particular one I was talking to him about how, because of my age, I’m completely invisible. Even with all the cruising going on, nobody really notices that I exist, so he said, “Well, we could paint you red,” and it sort of went from there.’
How does being a healer and an artist work in practice?
‘When I first hung out my shingle as a practising healer, circa 2000, it was during a period in which I felt I had no identity. AA Bronson of General Idea was gone and I was not sure what I had become. My healing practice took off very quickly and soon I was working 40 hours a week as a healer – far to much for my own good, as it turned out. But I realised that my identity as AA Bronson, healer, had taken over and I began to turn that identity back into my art work. I’ve tried various methods of combining the two over the last 15 years, but in the end it comes down to the fact that I am an artist and a healer, I can’t help either of those things and in the end they are the same thing. When I put my hands on a client’s body, I feel I am at once a sculptor and a performer. When I put together an exhibition in a gallery, I feel I am involving myself in some broader form of healing, for a community, for a place, for the people I find myself with there.’
So, it’s serious? The butt plugs, rooster feathers and all?
‘It’s kind of everything at once. It’s a bit ironic but very serious at the same time.’
Do you do a lot of research in advance of an ‘Invocation’?
'Yes, lots. I’ve kind of broadened the word queer for my own benefit to include marginalised groups of peoples of various sorts. For example, doing it in Rotterdam, when were invoking the queer spirits we included the spirits of the slaves, because Rotterdam was maybe the largest slave trading centre in the world. So, I’m trying to recognise those groups of people through history, and then also things like various all male societies. When I did it in Banff in the Canadian Rockies, there’s the whole thing of the trappers and the explorers, the loggers and the cowboys In New Orleans there was pirates. I think I have come to question those sorts of societies in part, and I don't think I've said this in print before, because my father ran away from home at 14. He became a cook’s assistant in a logging camp and then when he got a bit older he became a cowboy, and he was a cowboy until the war broke out and then he joined the air force. I’ve always felt that it was a kind of queer context, he was always in these all male societies, and he was always more comfortable in all male societies. I have no idea what happened but it’s not your ordinary middle-class married life.’
Are you trying to heal London with this show?
‘In this case, I am not entirely sure what the link is to London or to the community in London. I could probably answer that better in a month or two! Obviously, when I incorporate an "Invocation" performance, the relationship is clearer. However, I do know that I am caught up in a web of relationships with the living and the dead, and that somehow those relationships are woven into this exhibition. My mind is on Derek Jarman at the moment, about him inviting me and my partners in General Idea to the launch of “Jubilee”, and us trailing through the streets in a group afterwards, until we eventually ended up in his very cold loft, where we feasted on baked potatoes.’
Any other London references?
‘The wallpaper is by Yeonjune Jung, a Korean artist living in London, who I’ve been working with for a couple of years. It depicts sites of gay trauma, most of them in London, like the Admiral Duncan, which was firebombed. I’ve tried to display the queer zines in a way that gave special weight to the British titles. What’s interesting in terms of the DIY stuff is that the zine scene starts with the punk scene in London in the ’70s. We produced a punk issue of File. Vivienne Westwood did a four-page spread for us. I went and met her. I expected her to say no but she immediately said yes and she sent the completed art work. Yoko Ono did the same. It was a funny idea to include Yoko Ono in a punk issue, but it sort of worked.’
Is the idea that people can come in and look through some of them?
‘Yes, some of the ones under glass are extremely rare, like Salivation Army. But with the ones on the wall we’ve asked the publishers to donate copies so people could see them and they’ve been very generous.’
Do you have your own zine?
‘I do have a zine, which is untitled, of found amateur pornography from the internet, kind of grouped by pose. It's like anthropology, in a way. But I actually didn’t include my own zines, I can’t believe that, I forgot to!’
Did queer zines flourish or flounder during the Aids era?
‘I think that’s when they started to really get going, like a response to the who idea of gay liberation combined with health, that idea of ‘let’s clean up the gay scene’, especially in the US, closing down all the saunas. They closed down huge numbers of video stores and thing like that in New York and I think it was a little bit of a response to that feeling of repression. Certainly in North America.’
So they’re always about more than sex?
'Yes, even something like Straight to Hell is not just a little sex mag, it has the very authentic voice of the person who does it, he’s very opinionated, there are always lots of political things in with the other things.’
That obviously chimes with what you were doing with General idea. How does it feel looking back on the work you made with Jorge and Felix?
‘It’s still very much part of who I am. Of the two poodle paintings, the other one is hanging in my apartment in Berlin, so I spend everyday with it. And I never grow tired of it. It’s not exactly nostalgia, it just feels like part of my life and I guess it’s also a way of remembering Jorge and Felix from General Idea everyday. They’re always a little bit present.’
The poodles still look perky!
‘They’re very perky, the colour is very fresh. It’s one of two paintings like this, they’re both styled as unfinished paintings from the General Idea Pavilion, each with nine poodles in compromising positions. And they’re based on Frank Stella’s protractor paintings of the 1960s. We queered Frank Stella in a sense, I suppose. We did them at a time when the press wouldn’t address sexuality within art, it was verboten, and we kept pushing harder and harder trying to get somebody to address sexuality.’
Is the ground floor gallery a kind of retrospective?
‘Yes and no, I’m working on a new piece that will go there. I have an alter ego named JX Williams, which is a name used in Hollywood. Whenever somebody doesn’t want to be credited on a film, then JX Williams is the pseudonym they insert, so there are many, many films that JX Williams worked on. I use it as a pseudonym for a whole body of work in which I take domestic objects and turn them into ritual implements, so it’s a little voodoo like – hammers and brooms and what have you.’
How does adopting the name work for you. Is it liberating?
‘It’s probably totally politically incorrect but I always say that my JX Williams is a 20-year-old black lesbian who lives in New Orleans.’
You were made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008. Does that mean you’re part of the establishment now?
‘The Governor General of Canada pointed out that all of us who have received this title are troublemakers, that we have been persistent in holding to our beliefs against all odds, and that persistence is a part of the reason for giving us the title.’
Any must-see London shows?
‘As a fellow Canadian, I’d like to see Ydessa Hendeles’s show at the ICA, I’m very curious about that.’
Any studio rituals?
‘Well, I do most of my work at home, but then when I have something bigger and messier that I need to do and I rent a space, then it sounds kind of silly, but I smudge it with sage. I psychically clean the space, that’s the first thing I do. I burn it and try to cover every inch of the space, inside cupboards, everywhere. I’m going to do one thing here in the gallery, which is to which is to spread the floor of the upstairs space with mudwort. It’s a herb with a long tradition of witchcraft. It is, quite literally, a ritual!’