The Memorial Dress
Patina du Prey's Memorial Dress
Artists Space 1993-2007
The Following Essay was written by Frank Wagner in 1993 as part of the creation and first exhibition of the Memorial Dress made possible by the generous support
NGBK in Berlin Germany,
Making a Difference*
Hunter Reynolds and Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress
By Frank Wagner, January 1996
Translator: Barbara Agnes Reeves
Hunter Reynolds has silk-screened the names of 25,000 people who have died of AIDS on to black fabric and has had a festive ball gown tailored from it. His alter ego Patina du Prey models it for us. With exquisite Japanese make-up, including a teardrop drawn under her right eye, she stands on o rotating disc in the middle of a black pedestal whose edges are draped with the same fabric to conceal the mechanical working of a life-sized music box: which is what Patina resembles on her stage. Patina du Prey begins an enraptured, affected dance in place, eyes opened wide, focused on all yet recognizing none: a travesty of mourning, symbolic of the boundless sorrow over the people destroyed by this cruel health disaster. In Patina’s absence, the dress, fitted onto a dressmaker’s dummy, continues to turn on its own. Compounding the grief is the misery of the lifeless object, whose grace, elegance and splendor are merely superficial.
No rag is too tacky for a drag queen. The more outrageous the outfit, the better. Hunter Reynolds combines popular props, such as the nostalgic music box designed to rock into sweet sleep, grave wreath ribbons associated with mourning rites, dark earnest clothing, homages to mass dead like commemorative plaques and memorial cemeteries – whose ability to overwhelm is directly proportionate to the size of the field and the number of crosses – with the somewhat risqué entertainment of travesty theatre. People always like to laugh at men in women’s clothes, and if it’s done well, they might even get some appreciative applause – always making sure that what’s happening onstage remains at a safe distance. It’s easy to reassure yourself that you’re different from those up there: the queens, the fags, the perverse. But Hunter Reynolds, alias Patina du Prey, sets his full stakes on this performative act of differentiation. He is happy to be different from the rest; to lie diagonally in the riverbed of the Mainstream; to feel a sense of belonging with the Others: the Queens, the Fags, the Perverse.
This is what lends the majesty to his actions, which vary dramatically from many other forms of public mourning, whether they be conservative or full of creative fantasy. Patina du Prey’s “Memorial Dress” has nothing to do with the endless rows of white wooden or stone crosses which make up a memorial cemetery. Commemorative plaques, wailing walls, and names engraved into cobblestones, in terms of their technique of listing names in the Cenotaphic tradition, are certainly related to the memorial form developed by Hunter Reynolds; but the specialized transformation into material for a dress which is worn by a man is what makes this gesture of mourning and remembrance so special. An individualization has occurred here: a completely personal form of dealing with human loss has been found. Cross-dressing evokes an uncanny friction and energy which may seem disrespectful to some, and which might cause an uncomfortable feeling upon viewing. In contrast to the anonymous listing of names which erase individualism and flatten out difference in height, age, sex, race, idiosyncracies, preferences, and desires, Hunter Reynolds has created a living, lively monument which provides expression to the bewilderment of the immense loss suffered; but by including Patina du Prey’s idiosyncracies, he does not do away with those of the dead he is memorializing. All names fit on one dress – this in itself spurns the pomp and crocodile tears which some feel the need to cry in public. Patina du Prey has the guts to unite all of these names, taken from the Names Project Quilts and adding those which have been mentioned to her during performances and presentations of the dress, be they fags, junkies, or bleeders; be they homosexuals, heterosexuals, or hemophiliacs; be they people who received contaminated blood transfusions, or be they children of HIV-positive parents.
Her performance is a public demonstration for the right to be perceived and recognized for what you are or claim to be – both before and after Death – and for the responsibility to fully recognize the idiosyncracies of others.
The artistic figure of Patinas du Prey and her performance, the staging of the scene and her swirling arm movements, do not allow grief without distance. This “undignified”, but calculated and seriously presented alienation gives rise to a free space of dignity and intimacy, far removed from humiliating and discouraging compassion; it is the responsibility of the viewer and observer to fill that space. The concentrated form of individual stylization, bound thematically to sympathetic grief and commemorating both individuals and masses, bring about a confrontation which allows memories to come to the surface. Memories of things in common and common experiences; memories of those dead and those in the midst of the process; memories of the suffering that so many had to experience: pneumonia, meningitis, toxoplasmosis, holes in the intestines, blindness, mental derangement; memories of the toughness with which so many fought the disease; of fantasy, hope, despair, and Death. The images are created in one’s own head, without messing around in the insides of others, and without being stimulated by voyeurism into lives of strangers. Patina du Prey’s individual gesture possesses this advantage over the Quilt’s massive listing and displaying of lives. Hunter Reynolds does not wish to overwhelm or overtax; his stage character wants to excel and be taken seriously for just what she is: a dancing doll on a small stage, like a music box.
This little performed drama is urgently necessary in these times of normalization, where the shock of the disease is giving way to a growing indifference. AIDS has become a part of our everyday life. Mutual encouragement and optimism are important, but they increasingly giving way to stark reality and increasing resignation, since no long-term therapies with good chances of success exist; even the longtime Survivors are dying, and the dying goes on.
There is a real danger inherent in accepting the disease as a given and not continuing to fight against it. The pressure exerted by AIDS activists has eased. Most of the press is devoted to those who die of AIDS. More and more deaths, memorial services again and again, longer and longer lists of the names of AIDS dead, in more and more ordered form, solemnly and decently presented. With Patina du Prey and her memorial dress, Hunter Reynolds has created a symbolic figure, which will hopefully prevent us from self-resignation and help us come to terms with it all.
Patina transcends all principles of propriety. She dispenses with all rules of invasion of privacy and has spurred Hunter Reynolds to publish the entries, some of them highly personal, from this memorial book which accompanies the performances. Making private things public: Patina du Prey is following the basic strategy of all human rights and emancipatory movements. This includes the fight against AIDS as well.
Frank Wagner, January 1996
Translator: Barbara Agnes Reeves
*Quoted from the Memorial Book which accompanies Patina du Prey’s performances.