The Memorial Dress > Artists Space 2007

This 4 minute video was created by Branka Bogdanov, Director of Film and Video at the ICA Boston for the Dress Codes exhibition in 1993.


G. Roger Denson

Of twentieth century myths, "the cure" is among those which both inspire and ensnare us. It inspires because its healing image and promise of longevity keep with our genetic code of staying death; it ensnares us in perpetuating the misleading faith that medicine can or should always deliver us from misery and pain. The generation born in the second half of the modern century grew up with a deluded confidence in their medicine, but the shock of AIDS made it clear how cruelly cures can still elude us. And so the truism that cures aren't simply "found" or "summoned" so much as they are "invented" took on a special significance as hundred of millions of AIDS deaths around the world impacted on the children of modernism.
In keeping with the postmodern, human-centered epistemology that holds that the world is invented and no world is independent or apart from human cognition and valuation, it can be said that no one knows how much a cure is a state of mind or an independent physical cause or if and how much it is their blending. There is no statistical disclosure as to what degree healing is determined by factors independent of the human will, whether or not a collective suggestion of healing comes before a cure, or if faith in a cure, as common sense deems, is its effect. No one knows therefore if modern medicine is really any less dependent on faith than the prescientific healing of shamans: no amount of hard fact or positivist data, no witness of surgical procedures or clinical technology, proves that scientific cures depend on anything more than the readiness of an individual or a civilization for the myth of scientific healing, just as societies were was once (and in some communities still are) ready for the myths of magical and miraculous cures.
The view that scientific medicine is mythical encourages us in the absence of a scientific cure for AIDS to search for our own cures and therapies. It does not, as it might first sound, condone an abandonment of science to wive's tales, superstition, or the occult, which do not, as a whole, admit their dogmatic and capricious natures; rather, it promotes the search for myths that yield practical and mitigating results while admitting their provisional nature and shortcomings. But in admitting the imperfections of science, another celebrated myth of healing - that of art - takes up the slack. For art has long been thought to provide a spiritual sustenance, no doubt as a vestige of its relatively recent emergence (along with science) from magic, ritual, and religion.
Unfortunately, logic compels us to ask, rather negatively, whether the lack of a collective (real) cure for a disease means that we, humanity, aren't yet ready for it, or don't work hard enough to invent it. This is the kind of thought that enrages, yet impels, AIDS activists and anyone who has lost a loved one from AIDS or who is HIV positive. But in the face of our anger, the cure takes on many meanings. We can argue confidently against Susan Sontag's celebrated opinion that "the remedy to the negative morality of disease lies in its demythification," that diseases (or for that matter, reality) can be described without metaphors, and that the healthiest way of being ill is one purified of metaphoric thinking. For there is no disease (or no reality) that isn't also a metaphor and not subject to mythification; everything, in the sense of knowing it, is an interpretation dressed in metaphor. If we are to remedy the negative social and moral effects of disease it is not through the abolishment of metaphor and myth (which is impossible) but through the construction of positive and practical metaphors and myths, something which both science and art do and do on a grand scale. In admitting that science is a pragmatic brand of myth we recognize (what Sontag clearly did not) that mythification is not the same as mystification. The effort to demystify disease is indeed imperative to our survival, but the attempt to demythify it is deluded and is a denial of the human role in the construction and valuation of the world.
Herein lies the magnificence of Hunter Reynold's mythopoetic adoption of the persona Patina du Prey and his production of objects that function as cathartic therapies and as existential memento mori. Readiness for art, Reynolds indicates, is a readiness for healing. Art is the myth that admits itself, the cure that acknowledges it emanates from the human will rather than from the cold, abrasive world. Reynolds poses as an inventor of cures in art; he is a Louis Pasteur and Jonas Salk of images and objects; Patina, on the other hand, is the administrating nurse, the (witch)doctor, shaman berdache, silent diva in the role of Florence Nightingale, Glenda the good witch sending us home. Reynolds as Patina, gazes at us silently as s/he appears, like an apparition, on the country path, in the garden of the villa, along the crowded promenade, in the center of the piazza, or rotating in the rotunda or church. It's Patina's outstretched arms that summon us to her medicines; Patina's unremitting gaze that heals and positively inverts the mythic gaze at the Medusa which obliterates men.
Patina du Prey rotating on a wheel in a bell gown is our Heracles dressed as a woman and bound to the omphalos (the cosmic wheel of the zodiac) belonging to Queen Omphale. If Heracles revolves in mimicry and codification of the revolutions of celestial bodies, Patina revolves in mimicry and codification of a civilization's urge to mythopoeticize. Heracles is dressed in the clothing of the queen's female slaves as part of his captivity, but not, as the modern patriarchal mind would have it, as part of his humiliation. This myth is a vestige from the time when male priests were thought to be more potently endowed when dressed as women. Reynolds conflates this history in Patina with the myth of Hermes, the original hermaphrodite, united in one body with Aphrodite to disperse medicinal, aesthetic, and occult wisdom all in one love-healing. Similarly, Reynold's objects are hermaphrodisia, in that they don't promote the bipolar genders of masculine and feminine; rather they imply the existence of multiple mixtures of genders that potentially are as varied as the individuals that define them. Remember that Patina's dresses aren't women's: their bodices, though conventionally of a feminine style, have been designed specifically to Reynold's masculine contours.
Invoking Patina's guise as transgendered, hermetic healer prepares us for Patina's other hermetic role, that of the Psychopomp, Conductor of Souls, the guide who leads us through an inner, tormented odyssey starting with the discovery of the HIV virus in one's bloodstream, on through the contraction of full blown AIDS, to the ineluctable crossing that is death. Barbara Walker writes about Hermes as a conflation of the identification of sex, art, and mortality: he was everywhere "called the Lord of Death in his union with the Lady of Life. Hermes had greater power over rebirth and reincarnation than the heavenly father Zeus...His feminine wisdom credited Hermes with the invention of civilized arts usually attributed to the Goddess." Similarly, as a mythic figure, Patina as hermaphrodite Psychopomp confers rebirth on those men and women who have died of AIDS, not just in loving memory, which for those who are bereaved he does magnanimously, but in the larger, collective arena, to a new corporeality in the space of gallery, church, promenade, piazza, or whatever place Patina's performances and objects inhabit.
As motifs, healing and rebirth unify Reynold's recent work. In his blood spot photographs, for example, images of Reynold's body are configured within the enlarged, round silhouettes of blood that fell from his body onto a flat surface. Allegorically, the blood spot series suggests that blood can be purified by making art from it. Blood is the symbolic terrain in which the study of biology reestablishes the mythical link between sex and death: here DNA, which contains the deterministic code of life and death, meets the HIV virus, an agent that activates and accelerates that code. In Reynolds' blood spots one can literally see the artist, just as hypothetically one can "find" the genetic makeup of each individual in his or her blood. But the blood spot's photographic representation also implies an unconventional ontology of the relationship of blood to photography, an ontology in which blood gives photography a life apart from semiology or physical presence. For photographs can increase blood pressure and accelerate the heart, engorge the penis and vaginal walls with blood, and stimulate ideas and emotions within the nervous system.
An ancient mythos is also recalled by the blood spot series, this time in association with Dionysus, the god never to be born from the womb of a woman. Robert Graves tells us that Hermes transferred the fetal Dionysus from the womb of the Moon goddess to Zeus's "thigh" (which Walker sees as an allegory for the penis). Much later, the young Dionysus had to be disguised as a girl to protect him from the wrath of Hera. But the young god was destined to be cannibalized, torn apart and consumed. During this savagery, a drop of Dionysus' blood fell to earth and mixed with the soil to generate a tree, from which the god sprung fully grown. This myth of resurrection has taken form in Reynold's blood spot photographs in which each image is a regeneration, a demi-incarnation, of the artist. Photography is the ultimate medium of regeneration in the sense that it resurrects the past and perpetuates memory. In Reynold's simulated and enlarged blood spots, the passing of the artist's life and form is sustained for all to see.
The photographic perpetuation of memory is treated by Reynolds in a variety of ways. Recently he covered antiquated hospital beds with "quilts" woven with photographs. In Jack Brusca's Bed of Angels, 1992, Reynolds composes a portrait quilt of a gay friend who's son and twin brothers were gay. The son died of AIDS and the brothers were all HIV positive. Brusca, who came out in the 1950s, had covered his studio wall with pictures of his friends, family, and lovers of thirty years. His "wall of angels'" he called it. It was a wall that Reynolds felt compelled to rephotograph. When Brusca had to be confined to a hospital while recovering from PCP, Reynolds made a quilt from the second generation images, bringing it to cover the empty bed adjacent to Brusca's in his hospital room.
Works like this and the blood spot collages are Reynold's equivalent of Proust's literary effort to rescue the life histories of those around him from the flux and obscurity of time. Like Proust's tea and petites madeleines, Reynold's blood spots and hospital beds trigger memories. But whereas Proust's catalysts are full of texture and charm and the imagery is of restrained gentility (the scents of orris root and currant bush, the urn shape of a Bohemian bowl), Reynolds object-catalysts are visually spare, arduous, associated with anxiety, illness, and death, and the images which they hold are often erotic. But in both Proust and Reynolds, the record is a collection of fragmented, dissimilar memories rather than a conjoined or continuous passage.
Again the intended effect is one of healing. Jack Brusca's Bed of Angels was designed to emotionally heal Brusca, and now it is intended to heal us from all the anxieties we carry with us about death, whether it be our own, our loved ones, or the faceless casualties that fill the history of the world. This is most poignantly embodied in the Mourning Flowers panels, The Quilt of Names, and Memorial Dress in which those men and women who died of AIDS are commemorated. As an untold number of myths that have survived the ages tell us, to name is to know. Revolving on the Memorial Dress, the names take on a mythic significance as they mirror the revolutions of the celestial wheel above. For centuries, the peoples of the earth encoded each of the luminous bodies they saw revolving on the nightly firmament with names that signified their histories. Georgio Di Santilana postulated that all the world's narratives containing revolving motifs can be traced back to the myths of various civilizations explaining the nightly sojourns of the stars and planets around the northern or southern axis. Patina spinning, like a slowed dervish enters this celestial motif to impact an image of aesthetic cleansing and healing. And in doing so s/he conceptually perpetuates the mythopoetic urge to immortalize the passage of life.

Memorial Dress 1993-2007