It is not surprising that AA Bronson had a difficult birth, as it is said that an early brush with mortality is a common occurrence, if not a prerequisite, for shamans. He survived, and forwent a career as an architect to become a founding member of the seminal activist art collective General Idea in Toronto. After the group's demise fifteen years ago, AA found a new, solo identity as a healer while continuing to make art. Perhaps the artist whose work and life are most inseparable since Beuys, the 63-year-old remains as influential and involved as ever. At his weekend house on Fire Island, surrounded by the spirits of Halston, Warhol and others who summered in the Pines, he talked to Suleman Anaya about the embodied experience, dying, love, and India.
interview by SULEMAN ANAYA
SULEMAN ANAYA: You have described your work as a meditation on loss and trauma. Did unhappy personal experiences inform the spirituality that is so evident in your work?
I think I've always been a spiritual person, it is something that has just been there for me right from the beginning, and that is somehow related to the body. From a very early age I was reading things like Madame Blavatsky and especially body-mind stuff, both in psychology but also from the point of view of Eastern religions, so the idea of stepping beyond the body-mind division has always been important to me. And all my life I have been interested in the subject of healing, especially the more magical ways in which healing can take place. I was very unhappy for most of my childhood-- a very sensitive, isolated child. My later life brought some suffering, too. Certainly, being with someone when they die takes you right to that place of spirituality.
You lost your partners Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal in 1994, after living and working with them for 25 years as a single collective identity, General Idea. How did that affect your understanding of yourself?
I was also with my father when he died in 1987 and with a friend who died of AIDS the same year. Those experiences take one to another sense of what is reality. It's very hard to put this into words, but it's a kind of embodied experience being with someone when they die, it's something that you experience in your own body.
Can you explain, what exactly do you mean when you say the experience was "embodied"?
On a very simple level, that it was truly physical. I had a physical experience of my father's dying. I experienced it with my body so I knew it, I knew something that I didn't know before but I couldn't put it into rational terms. And I think if you're someone who is very empathetic—or as I like to make a distinction and call it "empathic", meaning somebody who can sense what is going on in somebody else's body—and if you open yourself to that experience, your experience of what life is about can completely shift. I practiced a form of Tibetan visualization for 14 years, and when you're visualizing something happening inside your body and sensing it, perceiving this transformation inside your body, that's an embodied act. Similarly, I was just reading a book about Gnostic Christianity and the word Gnosis means knowledge but in the sense of embodied knowledge; so for example if you know somebody because you're friends and because you had sex with them and that sort of thing, it's an embodied knowledge; whereas if you know something because you've read about it, it's an analytic knowledge, an entirely different kind of knowledge. The interesting thing about being with my father when he died and then Jorge and Felix is that I always felt completely comfortable being present to their dying process. It didn't scare me. When I was born, my mother and I both nearly died and I can’t help the feeling sometimes that that experience --which of course I have no memory of-- somehow informs my later life without me knowing exactly how.
You are probably the only Canadian who has been indoctrinated into an advanced Tantric technique during an intensive ten-day retreat in Tibet by a master of the Dalai Lama. Exactly how does the visualization work?
(Actually, there are other Canadians!) There's a text that goes with each visualization and in a way it's the visualization itself. Essentially you visualize yourself and make offerings to a deity, which enters your body, so that you become one with the deity and take on his attributes. When I say God it's not God in the sense of a Christian God, but more like the Jungian archetypes. And like Hinduism, there's hundreds or thousands of Gods, andthey're each just a particular manifestation of the God-head, of something larger. The individual Gods are a way of focusing on a particular set of attributes. The Yamantaka, which was the particular form I learned, is from the Tantric level of the Tibetan teachings, and is one of the wrathful deities, usually visualized surrounded by flames, with horns and a blue face. To Western minds, all this can easily appear like devil-worship, and while it does have a very powerful energy, it's really about overcoming obstacles and, in fact, often associated with cultural people. There are two central images that I find interesting, one is that when you visualize yourself in the body of the God you're in the middle of a very elaborate architecture and you have to visualize the entire construction, which is a kind of 3-dimensional mandala with you in the center. So you surround yourself with this extremely complex labyrinth, and there's a whole text which describes it piece by piece so you can put it together in your head. The other aspect is that there's actually physical transformations that happen, so, for example, there might be heat rising from your groin up into the ice around the heart and the heat melts the ice which then flows down and puts out the flames in the groin. There are manyelemental transformations in the body that you go through, so as you're visualizing you're actually feeling these quite powerful shifts within the interior of the body. Its deeply transforming.
Self-Nudity is a recurring element in your work, it almost seems like an obsession. What strikes me, however, is the utter lack of vanity in your naked self-portraits. What is it about?
There certainly is a repetition of nudity from my twenties to the present. In a way I feel like my life is this kind of search, this process of trying to be who I am, to drop away as much as possible all the different constrictions that society puts on us, or that we take on thinking we need them, or that our parents put on us, or our culture puts on us. It is like layers of the onion, in that as you go deeper and deeper into yourself, you actually become more and more complex in your idea of yourself. And I think that being naked, symbolically, is the simplest way of dropping away a lot of unnecessary stuff, beginning with the cultural implications of the clothes you chose to wear.
Let's talk about your most recent major project, during which you happen to be naked too, the Invocation of the Queer Spirits series. I'm curious as to what exactly happens during these séances, that seem to be shrouded in mystery?
We've had four so far, the first one in Banff in the Canadian Rockies; then in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans; the third séance was in Winnipeg; and the latest one took place in an old Victorian officer's house on Governor's Island in New York Harbor. The séances unfold in a ritualistic way, similar to gatherings common in various ceremonial-magic traditions. There's a text we write beforehand inviting the spirits of all the various histories specific to the place, but also adding those who have committed suicide because of their sexuality, those who have been killed because of their sexuality, and so on. That text is read aloud and we are indeed naked. Starting in New Orleans we also added buttplugs, and rooster feathers that we tie to the plugs, to create a kind of tail. The feathers are a reference to the use of roosters in Voodoo, and also to the Mardi Gras Indians, a tradition in the black community in which elaborate constructions of feathers and beads are used in the public manifestation of the spirits of the ancestors. The buttplugs ground you, keeping you in your body and physically present. You need to be who you are in that situation, and being naked with a silly feather-tail attached to your behind helps to take away any arrogance and presumptions that you might otherwise bring with you. We gatherin a circle that we make out of whatever materials we have at hand; on Governor’s Island that was 12 convex mirrors. We sit with a bottle of Whiskey and some fruit which we pass around the circle clockwise, and we share as we talk about whatever comes up. The talking has a life of its own, with the only rule being that we stay in the here and now, do not talk about the past or about the future and try not to talk about other people. We do this until the séance seems to have come to completion.
How do you know the séance is completed and if it was effective?
It is something you just feel. As for results, it doesn't really matter as it's more about the process. What always happens and was particularly strong on Governor's Island is a complete loss of time. You think you've been there for a few hours when in fact it's been much longer. The last séance, for instance, started at dusk and didn't come to completion until past four in the morning. We thought that about three or four hours had gone by but in fact it was seven. I think that radical transformation of time is a sign that we were in the presence of something. We were definitely in an altered state and that comes to me from spirit presence. When I sense spirit presence, I have to go into an altered state in order to experience it.
There seems to be a strong sense of place to the séances. The locations so far, beginning with Banff but also New Orleans in particular, all have long, layered histories with various groups of people that spent time there and in many cases endured some sort of tribulation. When you visit for the first time, do you pick up an energy that tells you that there will be significant spirit presence?
That is absolutely true. Banff is a very beautiful location, but it's also unique because it has this sort of shamanistic past. Native peoples never lived there, they would only go there for ritual gatherings; it was considered too powerful a place to live. And in the times I had been there in the past I had often had a very strong physical reaction to the place, there were violent headaches and periods where I could hardly walk due to pain. It's this history that led to the first invocation of the queer spirits. Banff is in many ways an all-male place, its past has seen railway workers, explorers, trappers, traders, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and an important hospitality industry. A lot of people have passed through there and a lot of people worked there, in fields that are often dominated by gay people. So thinking about everything from shamanism to all-male environments like the military, my friend Peter Hobbs and I decided it would be nice to name these unnamed histories, and to put them together as a kind of picture in a form of séance. The second invocation took place in New Orleans, and we chose the location after I visited the city's Ninth Ward. The first time I was there, I felt like the air was dense with tears, and someone I was with started crying without knowing why. It was just an incredible feeling that came over us. We wereactually able to visualize physical tears hanging in the air.
Does that mean you became sad?
When I was younger I would have thought that I had been overcome by an immense sadness, but now that I am older I experience it as if the sadness is hanging in the air around me, that it's not mine. It's a bodily thing again, I experience it through my body, but I experience it as being outside of myself. It's what I refer to as being an empath, it's beyond being empathic, where you're just feeling the thing the other person feels. A true empath can be feeling tremendously sad and have no idea why and it can be a stranger sitting next to them who is going through some internal emotional thing. It's like being a radio antenna in a way, picking up stuff.
That sounds like a bane as much a as a gift.
It can be tremendously difficult. It's a matter of discernment, of being able to discern what is yours from what is not yours, because in an empathic moment you are not feeling the difference between what is outside and what is inside, they become merged.
If it's what I'm thinking of, it must be particularly tricky to be very empathic when you fall in love?
Absolutely. People have trouble with intimacy and love as it is, and if you're empathic as well, it becomes even more complicated. If you can't determine what's your and what's somebody else's reality, then when you fall in love you can totally get swept away. Which of course is part of the appeal, and falling in love is the great empathic moment in everyone's life.
I read a diary entry you wrote almost ten years ago about having sex one morning, and the way you described it I thought was very poignant, you speak of energy that shot upward from your groins, causing you to cry but also to feel a complete emotional clarity, a sort of lightness. It made me think of how, when one is in love, the act of sex can seem transcendental, full of sensation that goes beyond simple nerve-endings. And there's that same suspension of time we talked about. Is sex spiritual to you?
Well there's of course the idea and experience of what's referred to as a full-body orgasm, in which the orgasm is so spread into every fiber of the being that it's usually not centered around ejaculation or the penis. But in a larger sense, I do think Sex is spiritual and I think it's a shame that Christianity has gotten rid of it as an essential component of spirituality. Again talking in terms of the embodied experience, the actual experience of sex --if one opens oneself to it fully as a way of engaging with another human being-- is such a profound one, it gives us so much. But unfortunately in our North American culture sex is framed in a very odd way, outside of spirituality, and it's defined instead in our consumerist society, as a basis for marketing and so on, when really it's ultimately a deeply spiritual experience. I believe even the most earth-bound, gritty kind of sexual excitement has a spiritual component to it.
Your photograph of Felix Partz lying in bed dressed in his favorite, brightly colored clothes, hours after he died, must be among the most beautiful images I have ever seen, regardless of subject matter. Still, some would deem a portrait of a deceased person clearly ravaged by illness surrounded by "fun" earthly objects to be disrespectful, too graphic or otherwise reprehensible. It seems to me that your choice to photograph him in that way, while perfectly natural, has little to do with current Western attitudes toward death. Do your ideas on the subject --the Dead and their representation-- come from other periods and cultures?
In general I am fascinated by cultures in which the dead and the living are equal, like the Afro-Caribbean religions we researched for the second Invocation. More specifically, in the late Eighties, I came into possession of a book about the representation of death in art history, "Tomb Sculpture" by Erwin Panofsky. I felt an attraction to this book, without knowing why. I was offered it from the estate of a firend who died of AIDS, and I took it but then hardly looked at it for years. It was only after Felix and Jorge died that I came to look at it more closely. In particular, I focused on a period of the Renaissance in Southern Germany when important people who died were represented, not with all their finery and jewels as had always been the case, but naked, several days into the death process, maybe worms crawling out of the eye sockets, really showing the decay of the body. And it was considered to be a more spiritual representation of death. I very much relate to that notion. But I took that photograph of Felix before reading the book, so it wasn't really an influence. A few years later, I created my own coffin with a life-sized photo of myself, naked of course, on the cover. It came from that book.
Are there other artists from the past with whom you identify or see a lineage from your work to theirs? Your work seems related to the idea of the Sublime, which I have always found very intriguing.
Certainly Turner is someone who I admire. Within the English language, he actually discovered the Sublime, while painting in North Wales. All the Romantic poets went up to the Lake District, which was quite wild by British standards of the time, to experience nature, even though at the time nature was considered to be sort of the enemy, you tamed it but you didn't throw yourself off into it. But Turner would go further and spent time in the mountains in what is now called Snowdon National Park. The mountainscape is not very big but feels amazingly vast, bigger than the Rockies or the Alps. It's a very ancient, transformative place, and I think there's definitely a strong presence of spirit there with all the druid leftovers and standing rocks.
Speaking of places that are important to you, is there somewhere that you would like to go or return to in this life?
India, in general. I've been twice and the sense of spirituality there is so profound in so many different places and ways. But the idea of getting sick in India is totally scary, so I'm afraid that I may already be too old to go back. The first time I went is the time I met the Dalai Lama and went through the Yamantaka initiation-- those 10 days in Dharamsala were maybe the biggest moment in my life. The second time I went to the south, to Mamalapuram and Kanchipuram. Mamalapuram is a town with the oldest stone temples in India and Kanchipuram is one of the seven holy cities and in particular has a lot of Shiva temples, which are extraordinary.
I find it interesting that you said you might be too old to go to India and that the idea of getting sick scares you. Is that something that preoccupies you or you're afraid of, disease and ultimately your own death? It's interesting because you were so intimately involved in the passing of people who were very close to you, and you seemed so prepared, present and --as you yourself said-- calm for it.
I feel old. I feel much older than I physically am. I don't really understand what it's all about, because I am almost stupidly productive.