AA Bronson and Carlos Motta on Queer Politics, Mentors, and Eroticism

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Last night a crowd of artists, critics, and curators packed into Williamsburg bar the Bedford for Brooklyn art blogazine Hyperallergic‘s second Art Talk event with artists AA Bronson and Carlos Motta, titled “The Body, Spirit, Sex, Community, Magic, and the Other.” The two artists, who had first met last summer and are currently preparing a happening at the abandoned Tropicana swimming pool in Rotterdam — to coincide with Bronson’s major exhibition “The Temptation of A.A. Bronson” at Witte de With — spoke for about an hour, discussing Bronson’s previous and recent work, the lack of mentors for queer artists, and the importance of politics to their respective practices.

Bronson, a Canadian artist and the only surviving member of the seminal collective General Idea — his partners Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal both died of AIDS in 1994 — is currently based in Berlin. He has been preparing his Rotterdam show while also serving as a highly sought-after mentor for a younger generation of artists, a role he considers to be in extreme contrast to the treatment of queer men in the United States. “As a queer man,” he said, “it’s hard to find yourself in a position of being someone of value.”

“There’s a sort of rebel attitude to your work,” Motta told Bronson. “I think as a younger artist that’s something to look up to.”

“Thanks for putting me on the spot,” Bronson joked. “I find myself in this odd position of being called upon as a mentor — although perhaps ‘mentor’ is too formal of a word. I’ve been limiting myself to five new faces per week.”

By way of responding to a question from Motta about the role of eroticism in his work, Bronson discussed a recent photo shoot with a young artist that ended with Bronson, his partner, and the younger man posing for a series of nude portraits.

“We found ourselves in this ritual queer space,” he said. It was not a sexual space, but it was an erotic space. Eroticism infuses all that we do and all that we are; it’s sort of like perfume… Anyone that refuses to acknowledge that is in a sense refusing to be human.”

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Motta later asked Bronson about one of his most famous and arresting works, “Felix Partz, June 5, 1994” (1994, above), a portrait of his partner three hours after his death.

“As he [Felix] got close to death he started wearing brighter colors and more patterns, as if making up for his lack of life,” Bronson recalled. “I had no idea how to make an artwork again because I had been making collaborative artworks for 25 years. I realized I needed to start making art again and all I had to work with was the fact of their deaths. I knew I wanted to put this image out into the public realm.”

Asked about the role of queer politics in his life and work, particularly in light of the ongoing fight for gay marriage, Bronson was decidedly ambivalent.

“The politics are very strange because they’re so polarized,” he said. “I’m from a generation that thought of queerness as being against gay liberation, of wanting to remain outsiders.”

As the talk came to a close, an audience member asked Bronson what interests him in art.

“I always find about art that the only art I’m interested in is the art that I don’t understand,” he offered. “That often means that there’s contradiction in the work, two opposing ideas that coexist.”

“The Temptation of A.A. Bronson” runs September 5-January 6, 2014 at Witte de With. His performance with Carlos Motta takes place on November 2 and is open to the public.

— Benjamin Sutton

(Photo by the author.)