The spirit of Justin Bieber loomed large over the rehearsal — projected onto a screen, standing amid a swirling galaxy of stars. Bieber (played by Luke Smithers) wore a pair of white angel wings, white boxer-briefs, and an air of blank derision. Occasionally, he interrupted the scene beneath him to insult the artist, Felix Bernstein. “Wanna suck my dick?” Bieber would ask. “Dream on.” Bernstein staggered across the stage in a hysterical frenzy and collapsed to the concrete floor, but this was intentional — his choreographer, Emily Skillings, was miming the movement for him as a cue. The musicians plucked along, led by composer Rron Karahoda. The Queer Youth Chorus sat behind a rack of costumes, making gargling sounds with their avant-garde choirmaster, Shelley Hirsch. So far, preparation for Bernstein’s opera Bieber Bathos Elegy (premiering at the Whitney on January 15) was running smoothly.
At 23, Bernstein is very young to be debuting anything at the Whitney, much less this grand a spectacle, of which he is both creator and star. YouTube sensation, child opera singer, performance artist, critic, Ph.D. student, scion of one of the biggest names in American poetry, Bernstein is many things — but above all he is ambitious. In 2015 he published a book of criticism that the New York Times called “blistering”; he will release a book of poetry in 2016. He has held a fellowship at the New Museum and currently holds an artist residency at Pioneer Works. Even so, the debut of this opera marks a turning point in the young artist’s career, after which it will be hard to dismiss him as merely precocious.
Bernstein began his ascent as a teenage YouTube performer, posting videos of himself — often in makeup and costumes — talking to the camera or playing demented versions of characters like Amy Winehouse and Minnie Mouse. “He could make a picture a week, like the Warhol Factory, and it was all him all the time,” says critic and Poets Theater founder Kevin Killian. “I didn’t get everything he was doing, but I still think of him as one of the bright lights of the next generation.” Combining the sexual anarchy of the Cockettes and the deadpan zaniness of Strangers With Candy, these videos outline the queer themes, lo-fi aesthetic, and parodic approach Bernstein would develop in subsequent work. He brought his trademark style to an appearance at the 2012 Whitney Biennial and pushed it further in his film Unchained Melody, which filmmaker and California Institute of the Arts professor Lewis Klahr called “an epic coming-of-age story…in the house of Kuchar…while being completely of its own age and time.”
Though the old avant-garde has hailed Bernstein as the next big thing, he doesn’t think of his work as cutting-edge: “I’m very old-fashioned, with very campy tastes,” he says. But unlike his forerunners’, Bernstein’s tastes have been forged in the hot cauldron of the internet. Bieber Bathos Elegy stages the way our inner lives are increasingly experienced and represented through online detritus. The projections are not separate from the characters onstage; rather, they inhabit the same phantasmagoric universe in which hypertext reference and reality commingle.
“The whole time I’m working with projections, and today I felt, Those are my objects. They’re like dolls,” Bernstein explained. Rehearsal had wrapped for the day and now the artist was trying to unwind. “To some extent, it’s as if the computer has an unconscious and you’re discovering things in it.” He paused to take a bite of director Gabe Rubin’s banana bread. “I would say my major sexual relations, and my major relation to my dead sister, is all mediated by the computer.” Bernstein’s sister, Emma, died in 2008.
“He’s now the age she was when she died,” says Bernstein’s mother, painter Susan Bee. Adds his father, the poet Charles Bernstein: “There’s certainly a sense that he’s making her present after her death. In a way, that’s what an elegy is.”
Both parents are supportive of their son’s project, though they’ve remained hands-off. He lives in an apartment above theirs and has been holding rehearsals in their basement for over a year, but he won’t let them see the show until its premiere. “He keeps us on a need-to-know basis,” Charles says. “It’s so embarrassing, but I actually do not know who Justin Bieber is exactly. I couldn’t identify what he looks like, or his music.”
“We have to go to Lowe’s to buy a ladder — our role is very concrete,” his mother adds.
Asked whether their son might have advantages over other emerging artists, Charles Bernstein shrugs. “I’m in the center of a certain periphery of poetry,” he admits, referring to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement he helped inaugurate. “But he’s a different generation. It’s not even clear that he’s even part of his own contemporary group that he writes about. Felix is certainly iconoclastic, whether he’s at the Whitney Museum or in the basement.”
At first blush Bernstein seems like the ultimate insider, but as a critic and artist he presents himself as a misunderstood outsider, and he suspects that his interdisciplinary style may leave some audiences confused. “[In] classes at Bard, they thought it was too campy,” he complains. “When I was in a drag club it was too angry. And in a poetry context it was not chill enough. So I felt very fucked over — and that’s good, but only if certain people can appreciate it.” Though he plays an enfant terrible, Bernstein is just as much an alter kocker.
Packing up his gear, the artist was hesitant to discuss what might come after Bieber. Bernstein looked exhausted and even thinner than usual, wearing a baggy shirt that read “DON’T SLEEP” across the chest; he still had days of rehearsal to slog through. The show had sold out, but Bernstein dismissed the idea of a big break. “I’m trying not to think about after,” he said. “I’ll feel a lot better when this is over.”