AA Bronson talks gay rights, religion and the destructive nature of power as he opens a new exhibition entitled White Flag in Berlin, reimagining the American flag for a post 9/11 world.
Photography Piotr Porebski
AA Bronson's fingerprints can be found all over the art world. Starting with the collective General Idea in the late 60s, he pioneered conceptual art and took a radical and queer subversion of the media and popular culture.
His work has always dealt with many themes, from community to communes to fringe identities and use of wit and irony, though standing out are the subjects of death and spirituality. He's the artist behind One Year and One Day of AZT, a powerful and heart breaking piece on the AIDS epidemic, and Felix Partz, June 5, 1994, a photographic tribute to his collaborator in General Idea, who had died of AIDS. He also created the highly entertaining and original installation, Invocation Of The Queer Spirits, where naked séances were held in sites of specific historic relevance around the world, and the exhibition, School For Young Shamans, where Bronson assumed the role of beardy mentor to young artists. Bronson also founded the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice, and the New York Art Book Fair, an annual gathering of underground presses and zine makers.
Today's exhibition expresses Bronson's feelings towards America, post 9/11, and the way the world seems like a theatre where the relationship between Islam and Christianity is often the main act. We caught up with Bronson to talk about his new work and get some words of wisdom from the artist who has been both witness to and centre-stage in some of the biggest watershed moments modern society has ever seen.
Where are you right now?
I am sitting in my rambling apartment in Charlottenburg, in my adopted home of Berlin, at a big worktable with my husband, the architect Mark Jan Krayenhoff van de Leur. Mark was recently diagnosed with Lymphoma and has begun chemotherapy. Yesterday his beard began to fall out in handfuls. It's a big, long, glorious white beard, so we're sorry to see it go. We moved to Berlin on Valentine's Day two years ago to undertake a one-year residency; we stayed because we came to love and value this city, its intense history, rich cultural life, and extreme egalitarianism. It is very quiet at the moment, except for the sound of Mark's fingers tapping his computer.
Why have you chosen the American flag for this work?
I lived in New York for 28 years, briefly in the 70s, and permanently from 1986. New York was where we came, as young gay artists to find out who we were. It was a place where we could become the people we wanted to be. By the 90s all that began to change. New York now seems like a safe haven for the rich; a giant shopping centre for money and power. Then on September 11, 2001, I was in Toronto when my flight home to New York was cancelled. I watched on television as the airplanes punctured the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, and then as the towers collapsed. It was seven days before I could rejoin Mark in Manhattan. What I found there is inscribed indelibly on my brain: a thick chalky dust of glass, concrete, paper, asbestos and human flesh that covered everything; and American flags, everywhere. Within a month I had purchased my first flag on eBay.
I made 10 paintings, each constructed of a used American flag, mounted on raw linen, and coated in layers of an antique preparation of rabbit skin glue, Champagne chalk, and honey. This compound was, historically, used to prepare the ground upon which a painting was made. But here the ground becomes the painting itself, shrouding each flag—with their history implicit in torn edges, holes and rips—in a dusty poetic silence.
Americans are famously obsessed with their flag, even disposing of used flags through burial or cremation. But my form of burial is more akin to 9/11 itself, kind of burying it alive, transforming it into an emblem of loss and mourning, not only for 9/11 but also for the America I once knew.
I'm taken by the dark romance of the White Flag/Cemetery Iris metaphor that you've titled this exhibition after…
The title describes the paintings, but it also alludes to the plant, White Flag, or Cemetery Iris, a white flower popular in Muslim and Christian cemeteries that's been cultivated for over 3500 years. I've been working with poisonous plants for the last few years, plants associated with witchcraft, magic and medicine. White Flag is highly poisonous, invasive, and infertile. Indigenous to North Africa and the Middle East it travelled with the Muslims to Spain and then with the Spanish to America. It's strange that a flower with such a long history in Muslim cemeteries has now come to represent Christian cemeteries as well!
Can you describe your own spirituality for us?
I like to think of Jesus as a Trans manifestation of ultimate Love-energy, and a smile comes to my face. Or perhaps for me God takes the form of the fiery burning love of the Yamantaka in Tibetan Buddhism: transgendered, transformative, the wrathful manifestation of wisdom.
Structured religions can inflict deep existential wounds upon gay youths who are just finding out who they are, how was your journey with this?
I come from a family of Anglican priests. My great-grandfather was the first missionary to the Blackfoot nation, and founded the first residential school in Western Canada. My father grew up on an Indian reservation, and I think the amount of psychic damage that my family has inflicted on the Blackfoot nation is unspeakable and immeasurable. I was brought up as a Sunday School fanatic until I was seven when I walked away from Christianity. But before I left I received an award for perfect attendance and an illustrated book of bible stories in which Samson was pictured as a big buff muscleman with long blonde hair. He was naked, and a handsome lion conveniently hid his genitals. I hid the book at the bottom of a drawer and then covertly pulled it out to gaze upon Samson's male splendour. It is then that I began reading obsessively on "alternative" spiritualties, on Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, but also witchcraft, magic, palmistry, tarot and astrology. I especially liked yoga, which at that time was always depicted being performed by dark intense men with almost no clothes on. I think that I already knew that sex and spirituality were intricately and intimately interconnected. I'm not sure if that answers your question, but that is my story.
What's your relationship like to Berlin's famous gay scene?
In Berlin we have three different Pride days on consecutive weekends: the St. Christopher's Day Parade, which I would say is for homonormative homos, those who want to find an acknowledged place for themselves in society; Kreuzberg Pride, which is for a younger and more varied crowd, I would say for those who want absolute freedom to be who they are without the pressure to fit into society; and finally the Disability and Mad Pride. I love the fact that Berlin can equally support these three forms of queerness. The Disability and Mad Pride is clothed in a sort of outsider anarchism that appeals to me.
Have you ever had the chance to meet with gay artists from the Middle East?
I have gay friends and acquaintances from Turkey, Iran, Palestine and the UAE, so yes. Although not all of them are artists, they are all involved with the arts. Most of them are Muslims. The last few decades have seen a flood of arts workers, administrators, and even dealers entering the "international' art scene, beginning with the first International Istanbul Biennial of 1987. European and American art schools all have a much more international student roster these days, too, and the effects will snowball.
What's the most powerful change you have witnessed during your career?
I have seen so many radical changes over the 50 years of my adult life that I hardly know where to start—the fall of the Berlin Wall comes to mind. But one of my favourites was the day that a bureaucrat in Ottawa decided that the official definition of the word 'spouse' in Canadian law was discriminatory and changed it, thus changing 65 laws overnight, without parliamentary debate and without the kind of wrangling that continues in America today to legalise same-sex marriage.
Finish the following sentence: The power of meaningful change begins with...
I'm not comfortable with the word power. It brings to mind the adage: "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." The most meaningful change involves deconstruction of power. For example, microloans to women in India have brought huge changes to sanitation, to longevity, to infant mortality, and to the position of women in Indian society, not to mention banking. I'm hard put to find equivalent examples in the art world or the LGBQ world. It seems to me that the use of war metaphors, from fighting discrimination to fighting poverty, does little to change our way of thinking and reinforces the we/they divide. And the art world is the last stronghold of the pirate mentality, the last unregulated market, so enough said about that!
Text Sarah Hay
Photography courtesy Esther Schipper Berlin