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Queer Cinema From the Collection: Bronson’s Bests

AA Bronson was unsuccessful this past December at having his photograph Felix, June 5, 1994—a portrait of his partner and collaborator Felix Partz, moments after he had died of complications due to AIDS—withdrawn from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s gay-themed show “Hide/Seek.” Bronson’s attempt protested the controversial yanking of artist David Wojnarowicz’s short film A Fire in My Belly from that show, which had followed objections by the Catholic League and various Republican congressmen.

This failure has, for the moment, been overshadowed by two recent triumphs. On February 17, Bronson was named a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in Paris, an honour followed by the opening of “Haute Culture,” the first retrospective of Bronson’s lauded Toronto art trio General Idea (created with Partz and Jorge Zontal), at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. (In July, “Haute Culture” will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which holds most of the exhibited work in its collection.) Icing on the cake is Bronson’s forthcoming “Queer Cinema From the Collection: Today and Yesterday” program at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, opening this Friday for a week. It features General Idea videos, cult classics by Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, a spotlight on Toronto- and Paris-based artist Scott Treleaven, and, notably and first in order, a selection of work by emerging gay artists, many of them Canadian.

In reference to that last program, Bronson has written in his curatorial statement that “as queerness goes, we are only just beginning.” The sentiment is important, and seems peculiarly relevant in the context of Bronson’s recent entanglements and victories with the international art establishment. Appearing on CBC talk show Q in December, Bronson confirmed a statement made by “Hide/Seek” co-curator Jonathan Katz: that, although A Fire in My Belly had ostensibly been pulled because of blasphemy due to a scene in which ants crawl over a crucifix, the real reason was unquestionably homophobia. It’s a baffling, paradoxical assertion in light of the gay-rights developments that surrounded the controversy: just a few weeks after Wojnarowicz’s film was pulled, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, and one of autumn’s key talking points was the anti-gay-bullying campaign It Gets Better, launched by columnist Dan Savage. In an additional irony, the surtitle of the Smithsonian’s “Hide/Seek” was “Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”

Yet, as Bronson’s March 11 “New and Younger Talents” program evinces, the mainstream acceptance of homosexuality is still largely out of sync with traditional dynamics of queerness—that is, of truly challenging and subversive modes of difference, which have been so crucial to defining gay identities over the decades. It follows that many of Bronson’s choices for “New and Younger Talents” underline the lawlessness that has gone hand in hand with an historical understanding of gayness, particularly of gay sex. Two works—Fernando AriasPublic Inconvenience and William E. JonesMansfield 1962—look at tearooms or cottaging, a.k.a. public-bathroom sex. Arias’ perspective is contemporary (the act is, indeed, alive and well today) and Jones’, cleverly and touchingly, from the past. Yet Jones’ work, which shows heavily pixellated footage from police stings, all shot in the 1960s and found by the artist online, never seems remote. Its depiction of gay sex, all of it clothed and cautionary but still passionate, is a weird complement to the prolific exhibitionism of gay masculinity currently found online, which is explored in Bronson’s program by France’s Christophe Chemin.

Canadians Terence Koh, Keith Murray, Steve Reinke and Jeremy Laing and Will Munro all seem closer to Bronson’s and General Idea’s concept of queerness as an unflinching extension of sexuality into all aspects of life, especially style and aesthetics. Koh’s 4’27” shows an ambiguously gendered figure wearing nothing but thigh-high boots and a long black wig, gyrating against a white wall. The piece was included in Kunsthalle Wien’s “The Porn Identity” show in 2009, but is more a demonstration of all-around outrageousness than of directed titillation. Laing, a Toronto-based fashion designer and his friend Munro, the late artist and promoter, take Koh’s gesture more fully into laugh-out-loud surrealism. Their contribution is footage of a performance from 2004, for which they dressed as polymorphously perverse aliens, their many orifices ejaculating glitter when stimulated. (The title, Inside the Pavilion of Virginia Puff Paint, is likely an allusion to Bronson, Partz and Zontal’s Miss General Idea Pavilion project.)

Calgarian Keith Murray is also keen on gender play: in a definitive expression of queerness and an apparent parody of the binaries inherent in the gay-marriage movement, he married the “masculine and feminine aspects” of himself in a ceremony in Las Vegas in 2008. Murray’s contribution to Bronson’s program, The Dolly Shot, in which a Dolly Parton impersonator mouths the singer’s hit “I Will Always Love You,” is, with its swirling prismatic colours, a declaration of the mystical transcendence of non-normative sexualities and their attendant tastes. Steve Reinke’s Anthology of American Folk Song is all taste: a pastiche of visual and audio footage, from baby birthday parties and nudie pics to botany books and Patti Smith. As the video thoroughly attests, North America’s got no shortage of oddness; it’s the acknowledgment of this oddness as vital that remains obscure—something which Bronson’s legacy, including this MoMA program, is hell bent on changing.

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