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Performance in Retrospect: Autobiography, Memoir, and History

When does autobiography become memoir, and memoir become history? This is a question I have been pondering lately in viewing the works of an aging generation of solo performance artists whose work depends on the immediacy and presence of a live audience. What happens when the performer is gone, as well as those in whom the performance has lived on in memory? In the aftermath at what point does memoir become mythology? And how does that affect historical representation? The difficulty of writing about a live performance that one has never seen is that it tends to lack the color and flavor, the visceral quality of the experience. Old videotapes can be misleading and the authenticity of having been there gives way to academic distance.

Unlike painters, sculptors, photographers, and even video and filmmakers, artists whose main body of work is live performance don’t have major museum retrospectives other than the occasional archival exhibition of documentation, which at best is still a mediated second-hand experience. It is especially difficult for the solo performance artist whose body of work is inseparable from his/her persona. Its legacy is an even greater challenge when the foundation of the work is grounded in the life-story, physicality and personality embodied by the performer. For example, Spalding Gray’s texts may be published, but no one else can perform them without it becoming parody. Unlike a ground-breaking choreographer, such as Merce Cunningham, who taught his distinctive movement vocabulary and technique to subsequent generations, the solo performance artist has no progeny. You don’t have to be Merce to perform his solos. But you do have to be Tim Miller to do his.

This brings me to New York performance artist JOHN KELLY’s recent performance Time No Line that functioned as a solo performance retrospective. Kelly’s journals and notebooks — an ongoing personal narrative of his internal thoughts, observations, ideas, struggles, experiences, travels, relationships, and creative processes beginning in 1971 –- are the primary source material for his life’s work. They are also the script for Time No Line, a performance that is not simply a memoir or a documentation of events, but a means to place the work within a the larger historical context that he has been an active participant in. Kelly is the source through which the audience traverses five decades of personal and cultural evolution from multiple points in time both past and present.

Kelly’s story begins in the 1970s in the early days of the Gay Rights movement, and in the midst of the art/life discourse when so many artists were using their bodies as subject/object. He played the East Village club scene of the early 1980s, survived the AIDS crisis and culture wars at the end of the decade and early 1990s, and went on to create award winning works dealing with cultural, gender and identity issues, presented at major museums, theaters and festivals. But the telling is not chronological. It follows a circuitous route of discovery and experimentation in the search for identity. Within an episodic structure alternating between direct reading from the journals, and short re-enactments in a variety of “character” roles combined with text and image video projections, Kelly places himself in the interesting position of both physical performer in which his body is the emotive instrument, and as a commentator on his own material. The narration navigates the highs and lows, and self-questioning in the different stages of a life seesawing between striving and doubt, determination and loss, in the search for himself. It is both an introspective voice and a critical one, laced with moments of spiky humor and ironic asides, as well as a pervasive darkness and sorrow.

The performance unfolds in the same way that memory works in real life. Names, words, dates, music trigger images and emotions that come alive, those first life-changing encounters with sex, great art, a city and a cultural community that become the springboards for our own self-discovery and work. The Cockettes in 1971 was an awakening. He was only seventeen, a yearning lonely outsider from Bayonne, NJ. The ballet seen on TV inspired him to take dance lessons from a Rockette. Then went on to American Ballet Theater School in the 1970s, danced in Petroushka, Swan Lake, Traces. A video shows him standing in water in a dress. Kelly takes the stage and shadows the video. He goes through the moves in the guise of himself as a young ballet dancer. Then returns to the desk at the far side of the stage and reads from the journal. He tells us that the stage felt like home. He worked hard to master what he came to realize was unattainable. It was too late for ballet. He had no mentor, had a breakdown and walked out in his early 20s.

PHOTO: STEVE GUNTHER

He turned to visual art and began over, doing self-portraits in a mirror, searching for his identity in his face, using his body as raw material. The drawings are projected while Kelly draws with chalk on the floor of the stage. He went on to art school at Parsons and became enamored with the work of Egon Schiele, a personage whom he will portray years later. But for the moment he is looking for himself.

PHOTO: STEVE GUNTHER

Kelly returns to the journals, pages of which are intermittently projected on the screen throughout. Hungry for experience he plunged into the lifestyle of the bars, clubs and casual sex of the 1970s New York downtown gay scene in all its art world regalia. Kelly’s words vividly evoke the decade in all its youthful creative intensity and urgency when art and life was about risk-taking and boundary-breaking experimentation, not commerce. He met David Hockney at a house on Fire Island, discovered opera and became passionately obsessed with Maria Callas whom he saw as his spirit guide. He performed in East Village clubs where he had an epiphany upon seeing a lip-syncing Nina Hagen drag performance, and found himself. In the 1980s he investigated various personas and drag. Pursuing his obsession with Maria Callas, he invented and inhabited Dagmar Onassis the fictional daughter of Callas and Aristotle Onassis. And went on to do many Joni Mitchell drag performances over the years,

PHOTOS: STEVE GUNTHER

Following a video of Joni Mitchell being interviewed on the Tavis Smiley show, Kelly comes onstage in full costume and performs a version of Mitchell singing The Last Time I Saw Richard. Mitchell’s music has a way of conjuring up an ache in your chest and Kelly’s rendition, is both strangely heart-wrenching and perversely funny in its expression of love lost. It is the perfect transition back to the journals.

Between readings from the notebooks Kelly unfurls a red rope –his timeline—and continues doing diagrammatic drawings on the floor that accumulate as a series of “maps”, building layer upon layer of pathways into the darker terrain of the next half of the performance.

PHOTO: STEVE GUNTHER

Kelly delves deep into the personal tragedy and trauma of the AIDS epidemic, the insurmountable scale of loss and grief experienced by a whole community, and the politics surrounding the crisis. He interweaves his own losses with the empowerment of an arising activism. The death of his first love Bill Schwedler, the names of friends, the hospitals and IVs, the blood count tests, the diagnoses, the dread and the terror, the ACT UP march at St. Patrick’s cathedral, the vigil in Washington, D.C.. the homophobia and the NEA 4 controversy, are brought to life with poetry, passion and pathos. It was a time when we all went to too many memorials and mourned all those lives of unfinished potential. For the survivors there is no escape from that history of loss and struggle, and Kelly’s work is infused with the quest for love in the face of death.

PHOTO: STEVE GUNTHER

AIDS changed the ways he would investigate matters of identity and mortality, and Kelly’s performances expanded into new forms. In addition to his solos channeling Antonin Artaud and Egon Schiele among others, he took on the role of director, writer, choreographer and designer, as well as performer of multimedia musical theatrical works. He drew inspiration from historical art and literature such as the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which he reset in the Great Depression (Find My Way Home), and the life of Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio (The Escape Artist) as seen through the imagination of a hallucinating injured trapeze artist on a hospital gurney.

Bringing us back to the present, Kelly concludes by speaking directly to the audience about the missing histories, an entire generation of artists wiped out, and along with them a generation gap and a missing dialogue. “There are so few left to tell their stories…” and he sees that history as being threatened by cultural amnesia. Now in his sixties Kelly speaks with quiet resolve and humility about his duty as a survivor, an artist, and a gay man to acknowledge and celebrate this story. The place to keep it alive is on stage, and so his story becomes a part of a living history. As a mini-retrospective Time No Line also serves as a memorial.

PHOTO: STEVE GUNTHER

* * *

Despite the fact that John Kelly and TIM MILLER are both gay men of the same generation for whom that identity has been central to their work, they are literally as different as night and day in how they have responded to the same times and places and similar historic events. The ways in which his autobiography has shaped Kelly’s work stands in sharp contrast to the form it has taken in Miller’s. Kelly’s melancholic introspection is full of ghosts and shadows, compared to Miller’s cheerful buoyant exposition. This is clearly demonstrated in Miller’s latest solo performance The Body in the O on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Highways, the performance space he co-founded with Linda Frye Burnham in Santa Monica, CA in 1989. Although Miller has created twenty-eight solo performances over several decades, performed many times over all across America, Australia and Europe, they really constitute one long on-going body of work, much like an epic autobiographical novel with twenty-eight chapters and more to come.

Miller, the performer and storyteller, stands at the center of his own grand life adventure in which he celebrates his youthful self-discovery, activism and gay rights advocacy, finds true love, and ultimately triumphs over adversity. Like any good raconteur, he retells anecdotes with variations, gives them a new spin in different chapters. The boy in the O of the Hollywood sign is the same one we were introduced to decades ago, but from the altered perspective of age and recollection. Reframed in a slightly different context the old story triggers entirely new associations. And so the latest performance The Body in the O is a full speed, often hilarious and joyful trip down memory’s highway and back again. The picture of robust glowing health, still buff and eternally youthful in spite of the graying locks, Miller’s intense physicality is inseparable from his narrative repartee which he performs non-stop in rapid-fire bursts. Despite the seemingly improvisational style of his delivery Miller’s texts are rigorously constructed and loaded with literary devices – simile, alliteration, metaphor and Joycean stream of consciousness rather than any linear chronology.

And so it begins with a rap on the letter O and a photo of himself at twenty-five in 1984 posed in hot pants and crop top in the O of the Hollywood sign. “H is for homo. O for orgasm.“ And his dad died suddenly five days after the photo was taken. He’ll come back to that later. “A body in the O. O for Frida his rescue dog. The O of wedding rings, the O of HO, the O of WOOD” (which is where he posed.) “The wooden O of the theater space,“ of people gathering together to take on the battles of our time – racism, economic injustice. Unlike Kelly, success came easily and early to Miller who took his all-American, California bred, golden boy good-looks and exuberant sunny personality to New York for a few years before returning to L.A. Throughout his life Miller has consistently addressed political and social issues. He made his identity and experience as a young gay man in the era of the AIDS epidemic a cornerstone of his work. In this latest episode he reminisces with pride about getting arrested, handcuffed and jailed in the days of ACT-UP protests and Freedom of Expression rallies.

The major ongoing theme woven throughout this work is Miller’s battle for marriage equality and the twenty-year struggle with Homeland Security to keep his Australian-born partner Alistair in the USA. Miller takes us through the advances and setbacks with equal parts of melodrama and comedy, frenetic heart-pounding anxiety and an anti-climactic yet triumphant romantic victory. Along the way are tangential flashbacks, a parallel family history, plenty of wordplay, and a lot of laughter. Despite all the trials and tribulations Miller remains a persistently confident optimist, undeterred by adversity, buoyed by his belief that goodness and righteousness will prevail despite evidence to the contrary.

He recounts standing in front of the Homeland Security office in New York waiting for Alistair to go through yet another interview, when Frida takes an unceremonious dump in front of the doors. Holy shit! Not regular firm dog poop but a mass of goo and slime, and he doesn’t have a plastic bag so he (fittingly) scoops it up with the Homeland Security Summons paper.

He takes us through a high-pitched account of his wedding day June 26th 2013, waiting anxiously for the Supreme Court decision that will make it legal, rushing off to teach a workshop on Queer Body Art at the New Museum, sending Alistair to Canal Street to buy rings (they’re TOO big!), and breathlessly arriving at City Hall to find it packed with a “gay wedding panorama of bi-nationals, a Queer U.N!“ And what comes to mind is a line from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America – “We will be citizens.” Finally, the City Clerk serendipitously named Angel Lopez marries them in an anti-climactic seventy-four seconds. Afterwards, outside in the hot sunny New York June afternoon, Miller confesses he broke down and sobbed “proving that WASPs have emotional lives!” And then their friend Ken Watanabe threw ten pounds of white rice at them.

With the name Angel as his vehicle, Miller makes a U-turn into American history and his own genealogy. He discovered his great-great grandfather named Billy Angell was born in 1842, fought against slavery in the Civil War, survived, married in Jerusalem, NY, lived to be very old, and most importantly didn’t die of a heart attack like his great grandfather, grandfather, and father. An anxiety fraught stream of associations through family histories, his father’s sudden heart failure, his own imagined symptoms and panic attacks, and the relief of seeing an eco-cardiogram of his heart – “the throbbing O of my aorta like a fish mouth” — lead to a riff on the Rose Hill Cemetery where his ancestors are buried, juxtaposed with the Rose Hill Theater where he met Alistair in London. And he rewinds his way back to love, mortality and matters of the heart. “What is a queer heart?” he asks, relieved that he doesn’t have his Dad’s faulty one.

A true romantic at heart, each new chapter in his solo serial performances is a testament to love. And so we come full circle back to where Miller started at the office of Homeland Security and Alistair’s (hopefully) final interview for a Green Card. He is prepared for a confrontation “like in a Law and Order episode.” They are armed with nineteen years of evidence of a life together – photo albums, family trees, marriage certificate. And then suddenly with no fuss at all Alistair is APPROVED! The battle is over.

Miller is a totally engaging performer whose energy and humor is infectious, even uplifting. And his legacy lies in the social bond he makes with his audience around the issues he is passionate about. Despite their vast differences in style and temperament, both Kelly and Miller ‘s art documents the emergence of gay identity and culture into popular culture, along with the battle for equal rights. And like Kelly, he ends the evening with an impassioned plea for the importance of live performance as a social act, the passing on of an oral history, and the theater space as a place for creating community. Miller has confronted the ephemerality and mortality of his performance work by publishing the stories, along with essays in a series of books, the latest of which is A Body in the O. But they are not performance scripts, and never can be. Unlike Kelly’s multimedia theater works, no one else can perform them. Miller’s performances remain locked in time in the mind’s eye of the beholder and their shared experience. And his books exist as a medium unto themselves, memoirs that will create their own mythologies and history beyond the lifetime of the artist.

Cover photo by Steve Gunther
Photos of Tim Miller’s performance at Highways were not available.

John Kelly: Time No Line
REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles. April 25-27, 2019

Tim Miller : A Body in the O
Highways, Santa Monica, CA. May 4, 2019

A Body in the O, University of Wisconsin Press 2019

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Written by

Jacki Apple is a Los Angeles-based visual, performance, and media artist, designer, writer, composer, curator and producer whose work has been presented internationally. Her critical writings have been featured in numerous publications including High Performance, The Drama Review, Art Journal, and Artweek since 1983. A contributing writer to Fabrik since 2011, she is Professor Emerita at Art Center College of Design.

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