Tim Miller’s a visionary; Holly Hughes is an event planner. What could they possibly have in common? That may sound like the pitch for a new urban romance, but you won’t be downloading When Timmy Met Holly from your favorite movie website anytime soon. The roles described above are those the two performance artists embody, respectively, in their latest pieces, Miller in his solo, Lay of the Land (P.S.122), and Hughes in the collaboratively created Let Them Eat Cake (Dixon Place). Because the two works have so much in common, their extreme difference from one another fascinates.
Hughes’s piece, a sweet-natured, loosely structured celebration, relishes the joys of loving couples and the supportive community around them, though not without casting a sharp eye on the harsh realities that community must face. In contrast, Miller’s solo, for all its humor and its frequent lightness of touch, is dark, angry, aggrieved, and tautly focused. He, too, celebrates love and community, but he does so while out there alone. Hughes’s community is onstage, building the piece with her (she co-wrote it with Megan Carney, who directed, and with Moe Angelos, who also appears in it). When Hughes looks at the audience, she sees and greets friends there; the friends Miller sees in the audience include those who couldn’t make it because they’re dead, from homophobic violence or from AIDS. Miller is a Whitmanite; the community he evokes, though constantly embattled, extends cosmically, even reaching out to animals and visual-art icons. At the apex of his surreal vision, he imagines himself having to perform a Heimlich maneuver on the Statue of Liberty.
Liberty has good reason just at present to feel that she’s choking. Miller and Hughes are two of the four artists who, at the height of the early 1990s “culture wars,” sued when the NEA grants they had been awarded were withdrawn on the hazy grounds of a “general standards of decency” clause. (The other two were Karen Finley and John Fleck.) In a federal court decision, the four were awarded their grants, but the Supreme Court decided that the “general standards” language was valid as an “advisory” guideline—i.e., it’s valid if you think it’s valid. Under right-wing pressure, the NEA subsequently elected to dodge the problem by ceasing to fund individual artists altogether.
Hughes and Miller have continued their creative careers, while new issues have sprung up to preoccupy the world, but two decades later, gays still don’t have equal rights, and the culture wars have come again. Both shows mention, glancingly, the late David Wojnarowicz, who, 16 years after his death from AIDS, just became a renewed focus of controversy in Washington, D.C., where a four-minute excerpt from a video of his was removed from a show at the National Portrait Gallery after right-wing protests. That the removal took place on December 1, World AIDS Day, doesn’t improve any artists’ view of America’s current condition.
Lay of the Land begins in the dark, with Miller waving a flashlight through the audience, claiming he’s on the hunt for a lost BlackBerry. “I’m always losing things,” he declares, enumerating a list of missing objects that includes, as of the last election, his civil rights. As the piece goes on, leaping from contemporary events to childhood memories and onward into ornate Whitmanesque fantasies, he makes other enumerations, listing brutalized and victimized gays across the country, the U.S.’s wrongs against other minorities and other countries’ sovereignty—a geographical history of American injustice. And it’s all mixed up (except that it’s as lucid as the lines on a Mondrian) with his genuine passion for American constitutional principles, American culture, and even the most cornball American iconography. Surely no artist but Miller has ever confessed to the public his love affair with the bear on the California state flag.
While Prop. 8 still hovers, it’s hard for Miller or any gay man to feel an undiluted affection for California, or for other states where right-wingers are trying to repeal same-sex marriage laws, forbid them, or kick judges who rule in their favor out of office. Hughes’s amicable onstage party, which may have taken a few hints from Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married (1908), clarifies the context in which Miller’s fevered specifics burgeon. The event Hughes has ostensibly planned is a same-sex wedding, between two guys who, like Shaw’s bride and groom, ultimately bag the event (albeit for a thoroughly un-Shavian reason). The guests they keep waiting include critics of same-sex marriage from both radical and conservative viewpoints. But all disputes ultimately dissolve, and a same-sex marriage is celebrated nonetheless.
The dash of bitters in Hughes’s sugar cake, which also spurs the participants into action, is the historical context, delivered by a guest celebrity, downtown’s Carmelita Tropicana, in a fervent speech detailing the cases (Sharon Kowalski, Miguel Braschi) that shaped the issue, clarifying its importance for the gay community. “Marriage is a state-sanctioned institution.” For people to be viewed as full citizens, they must have equal access to any such institution. Since rightists view legality purely as a set of political maneuvers, without principle, the fight goes on. But meanwhile, so does the celebration, with Let Them Eat Cake‘s wedding party entering, draped in adorably silly cardboard cutouts, as emblems of the states where same-sex marriage is legal.
But it isn’t federally legal yet, and might not be for some years. The states that Hughes’s emblems traverse are mostly clustered far from those whose state-college football mascots come to Miller, in his vision, conspiring to rescue him from this or that rotten political decision quashing equality, overlooking hate crimes, subjugating politics to precisely the establishment of religion the framers feared. The land is troubled; too many children, taught that displays of affection within a single gender are dangerous, are killing themselves or being killed. And performance art is a very small flashlight in the darkness, looking for a sense of fairness that somehow got mislaid. We’re a very careless nation.