The Temptation of AA Bronson, the artist's new show currently on display at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, is a jewel. I don't mean this in merely a qualitative sense – although the exhibition is breathtaking and beautiful in its own particular way. I mean this, much more significantly, as both a structural and conceptual descriptor.
The Temptation of AA Bronson pulls together works not only from Bronson, but from friends, acquaintances and collaborators past and present; there are about 30 artists spread over the two floors of Witte de With. Bronson curated his own Temptation, and the works that fill the exhibition space are all, in various ways, reflections of him: straightforward portraits, collaborative works and even speculative conversations with imagined forebears. "In my head, the show as a whole acts as a kind of self-portrait," says Bronson, the sole surviving member of influential Canadian art collaborative General Idea, and an immensely influential artist in his own right. "It's very hidden, there are many stories implicit in the works that nobody will ever hear."
In that sense, The Temptation of AA Bronson is a kind of an oblique, tangential mid-career retrospective. You grasp an image of the state of Bronson's current artistic practice, but by an accrual of facets, each catching the light in its particular way: a multitude of voices and images, creating a whole out of various reflections and refractions.
The Temptation of AA Bronson is, unsurprisingly, mythic in scope and form. Bronson has, after all, spent the years following the deaths of his General Idea partners reconstructing his artistic persona through an investigation into spiritual and shamanic practices. In addition to co-founding the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice (with Kathryn Reklis) at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he has become the den mother to a cohort of artists through his recent collaborative performance projects, the School for Young Shamans and Invocation of the Queer Spirits.
"I wanted to construct the show around spirituality and religion in its many different forms, in contemporary art, in particular my work, and the work of people I know and collaborate with," Bronson explains. "It's Gareth Long who proposed to me that the show should be called The Temptation of AA Bronson, after The Temptation of St. Anthony, by Flaubert. And he lent me his copy of the edition, which has the introduction by Michel Foucault."
The show itself is structured as a kind of mythic inward journey. The didactic texts, written by Long, borrow freely from Flaubert's book, and create a narrative thread that connect the various works in the exhibition. The viewer eavesdrops on conversations between Bronson and a fictional Hilarion, Virgil to Bronson's Dante, as they encounter one artist/deity after another.
For Witte de With, this kind of show is both a groundbreaking departure from a typical institutional presentation and a culmination and reflection of the aims of Defne Ayas, who took on the role of director in March, 2012. "For me, ancient knowledge systems are absolutely key. Every project we've done in the last year and a half has been about how much secularism has left us all lonely and alone – how the individual approach is collapsing, and how group dynamics are precious and how rituals are important."
For Bronson, the notion of a group dynamic has been the driving force of his entire career: "When Jorge [Zontal] and Felix [Partz, the other two members of General Idea] died, I found myself very solitary, I didn't know how to work as an individual artist. I was in this funny, weird moment of stasis. And then the hanged man appears, that piece [a triptych of Bronson suspended upside-down from his heels], which is really not knowing what I'm doing or where I'm going, or how to make art."
Through working at Printed Matter (an art books and multiples store in New York) and starting the NY Art Book Fair, Bronson slowly began to create his own community again, and he now finds himself at the centre of like-minded practitioners. In that sense, AA Bronson's Temptation is a kind of utopic inversion of St. Anthony's pests. "What Foucault says is that, in creating the book, Flaubert sets up St. Anthony as somebody who creates the presence of the temptations by having them appear before him as a series of visions. So although he's supposedly resisting the temptations, he also calls them into being."
The Witte de With show is rife with Bronson's invocations, artists who have both found both precedent and reflection in him, and vice versa. In the Ancestors Room, he converses with his inspirations and forebears – Robert Mapplethorpe, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol and others – via their artistic output, many culled from Bronson's personal collection. And in the Queer Zines room, Bronson displays an encyclopedic collection of handmade, photocopied zines. "In that whole exhibition, the most prominent group of zines is from Toronto. It's a kind of network: This person knew that person, this zine is in response to that zine. And their influence spread laterally, geographically, around the world."
It is via this crystalline structure – cells and blocks, solitary artists in various geographical corners, linking and clustering together courtesy of their mutual and affinities – that the show becomes deeply moving. It articulates the power and the necessity of community. "It's taken me a long time," Bronson says, "but what I've essentially done is now, I'm in the middle of all these connections, on various levels and of various sorts. And I find myself in this other land that's populated by all these nice people I know, that runs somehow parallel to the real world, and allows me to put up with the real world. That's how I experience it."
The Canadian element
While the network of AA Bronson's collaborators spans the globe, there is, of course, a particularly strong Canadian contingent, not the least of which being the other two members of General Idea, who are present in both photographic form and through a series of perverse drawings.
Other Canadian participants in The Temptation of AA Bronson are:
David Buchan (d. 1994)
A multimedia artist active in the seventies and eighties, Buchan worked for a decade at Art Metropole, the prints and multiples shop founded by General Idea.
Robert Flack (d. 1993)
A photo-montagist whose work combines sacred geometries and abstract religious iconographies with images of the body parts and close-cropped anatomies.
Stathacos's Rose Mandala occupies a half-gallery on the exhibition's first floor. Her hallucinatory Aura Photographs in turn ring the Mandala.
Long, Bronson's former assistant, created the exhibition's accompanying text and publication. It frames the viewer's experience of the show as a kind of picaresque mythological quest, in which we meet the various artists/deities that comprise Bronson's Temptation.
The internationally renowned artist confrontationally sexualizes the gallery space by installing twin cubicles (with lockable doors) in whose joint wall is drilled a generous glory hole.
Mr. and Mrs. Keith Murray
A single, multigendered entity does a cosmic lipsynch to Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You. The soundtrack permeates the third-floor galleries, beckoning the viewer like a siren call: Murray-as-Dolly-as-All-Mother, above all else, wishing us love.
Treleaven's influential late-nineties zine opus, This Is the Salivation Army, is front and centre in the Queer Zines section. He also collaborated with Bronson on Cabine, the tent in which Michael Dudeck did his opening-night performance.
A self-identified Witch Doctor and performance artist, Dudeck enacted an idiosyncratic, trance-like liturgical performance for the 31/2-hour duration of the opening.
The Temptation of AA Bronson runs until Jan. 5 at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam.