Of Death and Disco Balls: Nightlife Art Favorite 


Oct 1 2015


La Galleria La MaMa

An oversized facsimile of Rush poppers, tipped over, pouring out its viscous contents: this example of underground gay iconography blown up to almost belligerent proportions perfectly represents the aims of Party Out of Bounds: Nightlife as Activism Since 1980, a new exhibition at La MaMa’s La Galleria. The group show, curated by Emily Colucci and Osman Can Yerebakan, gathers together works by a small yet distinct menagerie of queer artists. (The poppers sculpture, for example, is by none other than John Waters.) The exhibition shows how nightlife offers a magic circle, a safe space in the shadows beneath the dazzling light of the disco balls — here provided by Conrad Ventur’s sculpture, “Untitled (Amanda Lear, ‘Follow Me’)” (2015).

As Edward Castranova pointed out in Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, the magic circle can “be considered a shield of sorts, protecting the fantasy world from the outside world.” It is an escape, a membrane surrounding the politics of oppression that bombard us in our daily lives. Wearing lipstick and heels, for men, was not only embraced, but encouraged in the clubs and bars where we were not pariahs, but patrons. And more-so, the crux of our identity — sexuality — could be expressed “openly” (or, at least, secretly-not-in-secret) in the magic circle of nightlife spaces.

Straight people rarely have to endure the secret encounters gays have, and maybe this speaks to the stereotype and culture of the promiscuous gay male. Even at the beginning of the 21st century, before the advent of Grindr and Scruff and Hornet, young gay men had a difficult time finding partners without the sting of prejudice and threatening politics. Though heterosexist culture may frown upon the hidden gay male blowing someone in the park, or through some glory hole in a bathroom, these situations were necessities of expressing our sexuality. The dominant culture’s scorn emerges from never having to be in the closet, despite the covert sexual habits (extramarital affairs, swinging, a constellation of kinks) many straight people maintain.

It’s simply because gay sexuality has always been in the closet in this culture that we as a population can still be looked down upon. Now, with our federally instituted right to marry, we don’t “need” that underground playground to express our sexuality, having been granted access to the only “acceptable” form of sexuality: monogamous heteronormativity. And that’s why this exhibition is important. The work in Party Out of Bounds exists inside a magic circle protected from those dominant norms of sexuality and family. The show is a disjointed gathering of pieces by queer artists who had little in common but survival. Scott Ewalt’s “Gaiety Male Burlesk” (1994) certainly reflects the devils that queers were once perceived to be, haunting the cityscape with our phallic symbols, the red, glowing skin liable to break out at a moment’s notice. But this image is embraced in nightlife.

This small show is reflective of larger trends. Disparate works are joined together in a sweaty box, works with many different colors, styles, and messages. And yet, somehow, they all speak to the same ultimate motive and message: we deserve to live, and we deserve to live the way we are. No exceptions.

Posted by Zhe Tang on

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