November 29th, 2011 · Ryan Tracy
Justin Vivian Bond: The Fall of The House of Whimsy
A piano waits in the center of the room, keyboard open, with the score from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Climb Every Mountain” quietly mounted on its front.
Standing against a wall, a bookshelf is home to volumes by Lillian Hellman, James Purdy, Joan Didion and Jean Genet; biographies of the jazz singer Anita O’Day, Francis Bacon and Federico Fellini; tomes covering astrology and Weimar culture; and of course, a copy of The Paris Review.
A simple wooden chair is covered by a harried array of makeup; lipstick tubes, blush, shadow, mascara and a flirtatiously coy pair of adhesive eye lashes.
A stack of vinyl records leans behind a record player. I notice a little red light glowing on the turntable on which a black vinyl disc is already lying prepared, waiting to be played. I take the bait.
Soon the long Participant Inc gallery space is filled with “American Wedding,” the first song on Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s premiere LP, Dendrophile. Bond’s plangent voice announces a gritty declaration: “In America, I place my ring on your cock where it belongs.”
This is The Fall of The House of Whimsy, a rich and haunting exhibition of artifacts, media and ephemera from Mx. Bond’s soon- to- be- demolished Second Avenue apartment in New York. Everything in this exhibition is inviting, everything suggests, and everything is imbued with V’s (the proper pronoun for Mx. Bond) whimsically defiant queer sensibility.
Having been to that apartment myself on two occasions I recognized some of the now- homeless belongings, particularly a magnificently gilded Baroque vanity. Dislocated and overcome by a heap of books, photographs, trinkets and the like, its massive mirror reflects back not Mx. Bond or any one of the milieu of artists, intellectuals, lovers, friends and fairies who orbit in and out of V’s solar system, but the white gallery walls interrupted here and there by other dislocated objects that once in another time, in another spatial relation, constituted a home and the center of a singular and stylized universe.
To speak about Bond’s work is to speak about Bond’s life’s work, which encompasses not only stage and film performances, writings, watercolors, photography, music and fashion, but also the eponymous house that names this exhibition, a house that—in the fierce tradition of New York City’s queer drag houses—was a nexus of cultural production, sexual liberation and queer world-building.
If I’m gushing it’s because Mx. Bond, to many of us queers, is not just an artist and entertainer, but also a goddess, an oracle, a shaman, a sister, a grandma, an uncle, a brother and an authentic antidote to the deadly unimaginativeness of capitalist, gentrified, heteronormative culture that constitutes the “real,” “innocent” world of the everyday; an everyday that has literally felled the House of Whimsy.
The demolition of that house is truly a fall—from grace, from imagination, from communion, from resistance. What we are left with are diasporal objects that impart ghostly impressions, suggestions of what was and what might be. Bond’s watercolors, self-portraits and portraits of others, are light, aerie images whose figures seem either to be appearing or disappearing; one is not sure. And Bond’s photographs of the unoccupied interior spaces of V’s apartment evoke the spectral quality of Tony Just’s images (via José Esteban Muñoz) of public sex places scrubbed clean. One in particular, House of Whimsy, New Years Eve, succinctly captures the tragedy: A living room with a dozen multi-colored helium balloons crowding the ceiling, ribbons dangling below, all set for a celebration, but no one in sight. Yes, there are ghosts in these images, but there are also future lovers, future parties, future bodies. Even the one photograph with a human figure—a shoulder and the side of a face peek out from above a bed cover—already feels somehow memorial.
Bond’s project is to celebrate, and this exhibition does that—as much as it can. And the lives, moments, and ideas evoked by it are not just the providence of Bond’s singular life, but of all those who inhabited that world. So to Bond’s material evocation of the House of Whimsy, I would like to add my own ephemera, two memories: Making out with Michael Cunningham in the bathroom during a Christmas party (I can’t be the only one), and Justin passing me a beer from the kitchen during the demolition party at the House of Whimsy that took place during last summer’s Gay Pride weekend.
Viewing this exhibition on the heels of the dismantling of Zuccotti Park, the heart of the Occupy movement that has swept the world, and where Bond performed just last weekend during the transgender awareness event “Trans-form the Occupation,” I would be remise (and flat out wrong) not to draw a direct line between the two. Zuccotti is yet another fallen house; another site of communion, information, imagination, social cooperation, and democracy; another victim of capitalism’s policed domination of the planet. We need space to forge ideas and to build worlds. If we are to imagine together possibilities for better worlds, worlds with social justice, fair wages, housing and health care for all people; worlds where racism, sexism and homophobia are not used as social currency; worlds where creativity, expression and love are understood as the foundation for all work—I suggest we take a cue from one of Bond’s prescient incantations:
“Bring on some flight of fancy. Bring on a magic decree. Bring on a high-heeled trannie. Bring on fantasy…Take what you need and give a little back. That’s the new economy.”
All images courtesy Participant, Inc.
For more information about Ryan Tracy, visit ryantracy.com.