I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Reza Abdoh, the first large-scale retrospective of the late Iranian-American theater director’s work, is on view through September 3 at MoMA PS1. The comprehensive exhibition was co-organized by Bidoun’s Negar Azimi, Tiffany Malakooti, and Babak Radboy alongside MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach.
“I am in a beautiful garden. As I reach out to touch the flowers they wither under my hands. A nightmare feeling of desolation comes over me as a great dragon-shaped cloud darkens the earth. A few may get through the gate in time. Remember. Remember. We are bound to the past as we cling to the memory of the ruined city.”
—Reza and Salar Abdoh, Quotations from a Ruined City
I was never at any of the performances I’m going to reflect on. I was too young to see Reza Abdoh’s works live. As I attempt to respond to the late Iranian-American director and playwright’s legacy in my own scholarship and performance work, I can only experience his productions through documentation and conversations with those who were there, in downtown theaters and unconventional spaces where his works were performed in the ’80s and ’90s. This indirect contact has left me in search of what I’ve missed: witnessing the all-pervasive violent energy on Abdoh’s stage and among his audience; being unsettled and nauseated by the toxic atmosphere in Minimata (1989), his play about industrial mercury poisoning in Japan; being pushed through the empty slaughterhouses of New York’s meatpacking district in Father was a Peculiar Man (1990).
The more I research Abdoh’s radical works of experimental theater, the more my sense of missing out intensifies. Scholar Peggy Phelan notes that performance’s ontology is one of disappearance: “Without a copy, live performance plunges into visibility—in a maniacally charged present—and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control.” While it’s true that the original essence of a performance cannot be recorded or reproduced, I feel an impulse to conjure Abdoh’s affective force and determination in my own present moment. I find his works and those by other artists of color and from sexual minorities afflicted by AIDS—their legacies marked by disappearance, their archives often unpreserved—a source of instigation and catharsis.
When I discovered Abdoh’s work a decade ago, he was relatively unknown and an uncategorizable outlier among the countless artists lost to AIDS-related illnesses. Friends in the downtown theater community spoke of his performances with passion and urgency, as if remembering a profoundly moving dream. In their accounts, the works took on an air of myth, transcending their memories and the original live productions. I sensed an enigmatic, brutal sensuality, which spurred me to learn more.
Staging performances in lofts, hotels, storefronts, on the streets, and in proscenium theaters, Abdoh employed a pandemonium of methods, which he combined into scenes and gestures as disorienting as they were systematized with cinematic and conceptual rigor. Moral dilemmas, ancient to modern, were explored across rhizomatic narratives exposing the contradictions between good and evil, will and desire, disease and blame, nature and god. Abdoh adopted an eclectic and transnational range of theatrical forms—including Grand Guignol, Shi’i Muslim Ta’ziyeh plays, Dada performances, and Afro-Brazilian Capoeira—in his own unique formula of dense simultaneity, some productions having as many as fifty-two “rapid-fire” scenes. In Bogeyman (1991), for example, videos of idyllic prairie scenes were juxtaposed with live BDSM acts playing out on an enormous nine-square grid that the performers occupied over a series of fast-paced vignettes. Abdoh fused distinctive performance vocabularies and compressed them into kaleidoscopic montages.
As unfounded myths about how HIV spread stoked a climate of fear, Abdoh’s performers—visibly queer and sometimes naked—were an unapologetic presence during the ’80s and ’90s AIDS crisis, flouting the distorted narratives of biomedical risk that were used to police and contain queer bodies. This activation of a sense of danger, combined with Abdoh’s intense style of theatrical deconstruction, constituted a dialogue between postmodern theater and performance art, bridging the strategies of theater directors like Elizabeth LeCompte and Richard Foreman with performance artists like Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Ron Athey. By the time Abdoh founded his Dar A Luz company in 1991, he had a clear vision of his particular genre of horror, which deliriously staged Foucauldian disciplinary control as a process of evisceration. This approach provided the connective tissue of his labyrinthine source material—from TV advertisements to Serbian war torture transcripts to operatic arias. His diverse casts animated such material with the urgency of real-life crises, adding to the sense that these productions were not merely theatrical spectacles but unmediated events.
I remember 1992—I was nine years old—when my mother took me into a theater’s dressing room and introduced me to a man I thought was wearing monster makeup. In the car ride home, she explained to me the cause of the lesions on the performer’s body and told me all she could about the AIDS epidemic. That moment has stayed with me, a first chilling glimpse into the suffering of a previous generation.
Abdoh’s works are tragic because they reveal the illusory power of representation: when the lights come on after the play, its alleged fiction outs itself as reality. Like for the man I encountered backstage as a child, the horrors were not a role he performed but a defining part of his and countless artists’ daily lives.
Abdoh’s general absence from historical narratives of late twentieth-century performance art feels like a glaring omission given the scope of his activities and his unique methods for addressing the AIDS crisis. The climate of violent negligence and lack of political support during the epidemic was a central influence on Abdoh’s later work, from 1990 until 1995, when he died from an AIDS-related illness. Only as recently as 2015 has he become the subject of a documentary film (directed by Adam Soch) and some of Abdoh’s productions are now available for online viewing. A number of forces suppressed Abdoh’s legacy. His death at age thirty-two cut short a pivotal moment of increasing visibility in his career. Furthermore, not only was his work provocative and unabashedly queer (making it unfriendly to mainstream consumption), he also occupied a gray area between theater and performance art—which, despite close collaborations and methodological ties, were largely narrated as discreet practices and often cast interdisciplinary artists outside the dominant canons. This is not to say that Abdoh desired to fit squarely into a canon, or wished to join a mainstream context. On the contrary, his work was critical of legacies of notoriety, exemplified in his play The Law of Remains (1992), where he compared between Americans’ eager consumption of Andy Warhol’s exploitative appetite for fame and Jeffrey Dahmer’s sadistic obsession with and destruction of bodies. With confrontational works like this, Abdoh often received mixed reviews. The New York Times described The Law of Remains as chaotic and hard to follow, and argued that it sought to not only enlighten but to punish its audience.
It is significant and exciting that in 2018 MoMA PS1 is hosting New York City’s first retrospective of Abdoh’s work, at the same moment when more well-known and celebrated works addressing AIDS are being revisited, including Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on Broadway and a survey of David Wojnarowicz’s work at the Whitney Museum.
In a 1991 interview, Abdoh commented on the effect his HIV-positive diagnosis had on his work: “The very first thing I did when I found out […] was a video called Sleeping with the Devil. I became a lot more conscious of the body, the excoriation of the body as a tool.” His comment and the video he references point to the extent to which he borrowed suppression as a theatrical method, exposing the tools used to violate HIV-positive bodies. He had his performers scream, dance, and sing as they enacted the homophobic and racist constructions they faced in their daily lives. Abdoh’s characters often assaulted, tortured, and murdered each other, or described such acts in graphic and emotional detail, only to pop up moments later and dash to the next scene. In Bogeyman, actress Juliana Francis Kelly, dressed like the Bride of Frankenstein, performs a long monologue that shifts from expressing empathic maternal care to crazed violent indignation. In one scene, she describes a little girl sitting on Santa’s lap while a character behind her is being slipped into a body bag. Moments later Kelly shouts, “The kid is infected! That’s the problem with this family!” after which a naked actor in combat boots steps forward and shouts, “Round ’em up, soldier!” Then she recites a gory 1911 nursery rhyme as a battalion of nude men marches in unison. This onslaught of a scene feels like a farce accelerated until it breaks—the cruel assaults on the precarious bodies of the performers are no longer a series of individual acts but an endemic condition that shapes those subjected to it. By putting his actors under the spell of violence on the stage, Abdoh animated them with rage.
His productions were filled with characters that imply transformation—actors in ghostly drag-like makeup who perform as angels, evil specters, and monsters from ancient to modern underworlds. Abdoh’s sources expanded upon and obfuscated mythologies—the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, Orpheus and Eurydice, the bogeyman—to arrive at a symbiotic montage of contemporary archetypes. Theater often prevails as a site for manifesting otherworldly phenomena, but Abdoh’s works went beyond the magical stage, proceeding to inhabit and then shatter those identities considered supernaturally abject within the cultural imagination.
Having spent many hours in Abdoh’s archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center watching footage of his eighteen productions, I have a sense of being haunted, but in a way that feels reparative in its horror. I felt an intimacy with Abdoh, like having a conversation with someone who shifts your thinking. I found reading his papers and letters surprisingly emotional. His typed scripts, annotated with handwriting, underscore his integrity in organizing his work, while his notes and drawings reveal his urgent intent to use performance to undermine systematic homophobia and racism. For me, this became particularly evident viewing the material for A Story of Infamy—a production he was planning in 1994 before his untimely death—which was to address themes of illness and capital punishment.
Between 2006 and 2008, I interviewed several members of the Dar A Luz company. I had imagined them still emanating the fierce and tumultuous energy I had witnessed on video and meeting them I experienced the disorientation one feels when seeing a movie star on the street. They spoke of Abdoh’s death as the loss of a way of life, a spiritual loss, and I connected to their grief. One performer described seeing a parallel between performing in Abdoh’s works and being part of one of the die-ins organized by the advocacy group ACT UP in the late ’80s. Meeting the Dar A Luz members made the nearly thirty-year gap between the original performances and the present moment more perceptible to me than when I had watched Abdoh’s videos. AIDS politics has shifted substantially. Why do Abdoh’s works still feel so relevant to me? For the generation of queer people, myself included, who were children when AIDS emerged, there seems to be a gravitational pull toward the artistic production and activism that emerged out of that period of great loss.
Encountering the “ghosts” from Abdoh’s performances in his archive, it became clear to me that research wasn’t enough. In 2007, I was performing with The Living Theater on the Lower East Side. I found that their brand of political theater shared the stamina and passion of Abdoh’s radical work. The Living Theater were mounting a revival of their 1963 production The Brig, which was written by a former US Marine and was still their most famous piece. The play, which was captured on film by Jonas Mekas in 1964, reenacted a typical day in a US Marine Corps military prison. While I’m not aware of Abdoh publicly citing The Brig, two of his productions appeared to be in direct dialogue with it: in both Quotations from a Ruined City (1993) and The Law of Remains, Abdoh’s actors performed in large cages made of barbed wire or fencing, separating them from the audience. During the revival of The Brig at The Living Theater (and with the blessing of Judith Malina and the company) I staged a separate performance called A Short History of Werewolves on its set. Building on Abdoh’s provocative divide, I reversed the visual dramaturgy and placed the audience inside the cage, making them the prisoners of the ten performers moving around them. I trained the actors to manifest the burning potency of Abdoh’s performers.
A few years later, through a friend, I got acquainted with the actor Tony Torn, who worked extensively with Abdoh. Tony and I found creative kinship through our admiration of Abdoh in ways that didn’t feel separated from the past, like some of my interviews with other Dar A Luz members had. I ended up casting Tony in Mascot, a performance I created in 2013, which explored the animating force of props in theatrical settings through Freud’s theory of the sexual “fetish” as a pathological relationship to objects in his essay “The Sexual Aberrations.” One of the most memorable moments in Mascot came in Tony’s duet with Philly Abe, singing Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” Their melodramatic timbre drew out the song’s pessimistic take on falling in love until it took on a hedonistic pace, with Philly licking Tony’s bald head. The heightened emotional register reinforced the following scene, in which Philly manically engaged and transformed the props on stage. The duet’s temperaments continued to escalate, duplicate, and infect the performance with a tension like that found in Abdoh’s work—at once nightmarish and redemptive. But I wondered if I had gone too far, if my imagination was confined by a reproductive imperative to bring back his vision. Was this nostalgia? Would Abdoh object to this performance?
Abdoh had become an icon to me, an obsession, and my practice one of memorialization. His presence in my life and art altered me in the sense of what sociologist Avery Gordon describes as haunting—that which “changes you and refashions the social relations in which you are located.” I came to understand that the unstable space of imagination and memory—through which I sought to be with Abdoh’s work—allowed the past to reverberate and fracture my practice in the present.
This haunted temporality makes sense given that Abdoh’s work was deeply preoccupied with the entanglement of past and present—he sought to probe their proximity through performance. His carefully constructed cosmologies—dense with fragments derived from sources as unalike as the mystic poetry of Hafiz, settler colonialism, Blaxploitation films, the Bosnian genocide, and HIV infection—enact a temporal suspension that never resolves or reports on its objects. In Quotations from a Ruined City, a performance work he wrote with his brother Salar, the ruined city is conceptualized as a place that is neither in the present or the past, but is instead a center of gravity, a cancer that spreads through the body politic. A white picket fence surrounds a minimalist stage that serves to overexpose character archetypes that exist across a wide range of ruined cities: performers dressed as Puritan colonists, mummies, boy scouts, Appalachian farmers, and businessmen describe destruction and pestilence in places such as Hollywood, Bosnia, and Iraq. Vaudevillian dance, hospital bedsides, descriptions of torture, bickering wealthy gay men, and bodies being washed in coffins all blur together into a mythical and visually arresting theatrical constellation.
Quotations is my favorite work by Abdoh. It’s also the easiest to watch on video because the entire production soundtrack, including of all performers’ voices, was dubbed for the live performance. Speaking with his cast, I learned that this choice was made when Abdoh was growing ill and wasn’t able to be present at all rehearsals. Recording the dialogue allowed him to review and modify it repeatedly, despite his impaired state. Abdoh was known for being a meticulous director, and I’ve wondered if he was attempting to control the documentation, so people like myself could one day re-experience it in the exact form he wished.
With Quotations, Abdoh—while trying to catch up with the speed of life and approaching death—leaves us with a temporally disjunctive theatricality, providing clues for us to navigate the ruined city, and clues to be with him in the present. He imagines worlds of pleasure even within the darkest forces of supernatural negativity: picture the exhilaration of a wraith-like Orpheus riding a Harley Davidson on his descent into hell in The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice (1990).
Abdoh’s work fills me with “utopian longing,” a phrase used by José Esteban Muñoz, a queer mentor of mine who also passed too soon. Abdoh’s legacy is most radical as a horizon, as a destination and a propulsion. In Muñoz’s words, “We must vacate the here and now for a then and there. Individual transports are insufficient. We need to engage in a collective temporal distortion.”
Marc Arthur is an artist, writer, and PhD candidate in performance studies at New York University. He is also a contributing editor at Performa Magazine.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee