Antony Hegarty’s Feral Instincts

The uncompromising visionary behind Antony and the Johnsons opened the “Six Eyes” group show at Galerie Du Jour in Paris earlier this week and will take the stage at Coachella this weekend.

“Are you here?” asks the woman manning the door at TriBeCa’s Clocktower Gallery. “Yes, I am here,” I affirm. She’s an event publicist scanning her clipboard and guest list, but she could just as easily have been a choreographed part of Antony and the Johnson’s performance piece — a meditation on being present in an increasingly disappearing natural world — soon to begin 13 flights upstairs.

As a crowd including Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Michael Stipe and various art world celebrants sip red wine from plastic cups, Antony Hegarty and a cast of nine female singers clad in earthy khaki colors sings in hushed tones. Images of glistening blue blossoms from Colin Whitaker’s silent Night Flower films are projected on the loft walls.

The night ends with Hegarty and his choir gathering for an acapella version of “Another World,” a featured song on Antony and the Johnsons’ most recent album, The Crying Light. “I need another world, this one’s nearly gone,” he sings in the high-pitched, soul-stirring quaver that has won him a cult following (and in 2005, a Mercury Music Prize for best album for I Am A Bird Now.) The song may have been intended as a lament for our planet’s fragile ecosystem, but it also holds meaning to the artists and curators present this evening, many of who­m have seen their funding disappear in the current recession.

Yet the night is also a celebration of what’s possible in spite of that. The backup singers all come from Hegarty’s early’90s training ground, the Experimental Theater Wing at New York University. And aside from Hegarty’s shimmering silken gown (the base layer of a couture ensemble created for the transgendered singer by designer Henry Holland), the costumes were all self-made out of a few yards of raw fabric.

“We got lost in a little reverie,” says Hegarty, recalling the performance when we meet for scones and apricot tea at Podunk in the East Village, a local favorite gathering spot for Hegarty and the likes of CocoRosie and Natalie Portman. “The singing was like a colored breeze coming in from all sides, a kind of beautiful halo around the room, like a breath — the room breathing quietly behind you.” To Hegarty, how the performance piece played out in the midst of a chatty art world party was instructive, a reminder of how nature interfaces with the industrial world. “It’s like plants along the freeway; they’ll still be emanating their own tone, even if there’s tons of noise, even if we’re deaf to it.”

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Growing up transgendered, Hegarty knows well what it’s like to exist quietly as an outsider in the world at large, and the force of will it takes to stay true to one’s own integrity. Born in 1971 in Chicester, England, he was uprooted at 10 when his family moved to the suburbs of San Jose, California. Though he was always writing music and doing creative work, he looks back on those teenage years as a sort of Zen activity of biding his time until he found the freedom to fully blossom. “I was really preoccupied with trying to be thin enough that someone would fall in love with me,” he says of his teens. “I was about as hard core as you could be on one edge and about as [mainstream] on the other. I was somewhere between Christian Death singer Rozz Williams and a high school cheerleader.”

Arriving in the hippie-surf enclave of Santa Cruz for his undergraduate studies in the late ’80s, he began to find his footing as an artist, delving into performance art such as the Japanese experimental dance tradition of Butoh, where he was encouraged to “step into a salmon’s shoes and swim down the river or imagine you are dancing with a flower,” training that he would come to draw upon while making The Crying Light.

All of this was a cocooning phase, preparing Hegarty for his move to New York City in 1990, and the avant-garde downtown scene that welcomed him as a kindred spirit. Following in the outsize footsteps of drag/punk/performance artists like Leigh Bowery, Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias before him, Hegarty became a downtown nightlife fixture, first performing with the punk-cabaret collective the Blacklips, and eventually forming Antony and the Johnsons.

His cult of followers has grown from standing-room-only crowds at intimate New York clubs like the Pyramid and Joe’s Pub, attended by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, who’ve become good friends to him over the years (“my support network,” he refers to them), to a worldwide legion of devotees; The Crying Light debuted at No. 1 on the European Billboard charts. What makes him so special, in the words of Anderson, is his openheartedness — and a refreshing lack of irony. “It’s scary to be that vulnerable, to say things that are that truthful. It’s much easier to use irony. The striking thing about his work is that he doesn’t,” notes Anderson. “And the wonderful thing about his audience is that they’re willing to have their hearts broken. Sometimes people forget that the audience is actually really on your side and hoping you’ll go there — and he knows that really well.”

Hegarty was emboldened by his Mercury Prize for I Am A Bird Now, his sophomore release. “That ushered in this new period for me. I started to realize that people from all over the world with wildly divergent personal stories were finding ways to relate to my music. As a late-night, downtown New York performer, that came as a revelation to me.” Watching sold-out crowds in Ireland, full of “boys who look like soccer hooligans” with their arms around one another, singing lyrics like “You are my sister, and I love you,” at the top of their lungs during his shows was almost incomprehensible for Hegarty. “I didn’t think that the universal principle that music can cross great divides to unite people in a common emotional sense of truth necessarily applied to me. It gave me a real sense of purpose.”

After the intense soul-searching of his breakthrough album, during which he sought to identify “what about the self or the child inside a person is a treasure,” Hegarty has now turned his gaze outward. “In my recent work, I’m looking at the world around me—the natural world, the intangible world—and trying to see it differently,” he says, slathering a dollop of cream onto a scone. “I was raised in a Christian theology with very limiting ideas about what my relationship was to this place, what my goals should be in walking through my life, who I had to appease and how I had to get there. I realized quite young that all bets are off with me because I was gender variant, and according to my Christianity, I was going to hell. I could either go with that or start listening to my own feral impulses. Christianity and capitalism have a funny way of prying apart the sense of the sacred from the sense of the physical or the material.”

In his quest to be more in tune with the elements, he went so far as turning his Village apartment into a natural oasis, purchasing a trickling water fountain for $25 and filling his living quarters with potted trees. “I really wanted to create a forest in my room. Everyday I resist going to Petco to buy some birds and set them free—only because I know everything would get covered in bird shit,” he says with a laugh.

His search for his sense of place in the natural world extended to the body of artwork he made while writing and recording songs for the album. What started off as a sort of creative relief, an outlet to let loose, ended up aligning with thematic explorations in his music. After the artist Jack Pierson saw his drawings and invited him to participate in a group show in 2006, Hegarty was encouraged to take visual arts more seriously. A solo show entitled The Creek at London’s Isis Gallery this February brought together many of his pieces since then, and he recently curated the Six Eyes group show, including pieces by Peter Hujar, Kiki Smith, Barbara Cummard and Alice Onmally, along with his own works, at Agnes B’s Gallery Du Jour in Paris, which runs through mid-May. “I’ve always liked the idea of using my art pieces as a visual aid on the albums,” he says.“These pieces represent the color of my thinking right now.

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“I wanted to work with light and projection,” he continues, referring to the hand-drawn lines that cover a recent self-portrait shown here, a collaboration with photographer Don Felix Cervantes, with whom he’s worked for the past decade. “Those lines, for me, were like a spirit was embellished. I was interested in drawing what’s not being said or extracting something from the picture.” In the tinted line drawings of “Blue Ghost” and “Wooly Mammoth,” the lines are “more like a school of fish—small things coming together to form the design. Those line drawings are kind of exacting, but most of the drawings I do are kind of the opposite.”

In another body of work, Hegarty selected images from a trove of age-weathered magazines from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and looked for further meaning in them. Sometimes that entailed dunking the photo in the surf off the sandy dunes of the Hamptons, ripping pieces off, or drawing over it. “I was trying to pull something out of the dream world of the picture, pulling something through time towards me, towards the present,” he says of a piece like “Ice Ship.” (The process reminds me of his assessment of his personal style: “I like things with holes in them,” he says, tugging a finger through a distressed patch of his big wooly sweater. “I like the way things look when they’re falling apart. They look beautiful to me.”)

In Native American terminology, a transgendered person is referred to as a “two spirit.” Many of Hegarty’s art pieces, physical and aural, are fixated on the spirit world—some more literally than others. In one set of photographic portraits, Hegarty projected antique images of his great-grandmother over his own face. The results are a bit jarring—dark splotches cover much of his fleshy cheeks—and appropriately haunting.

“I like the idea that my family is a participant, that there is this unbroken line of life in me that goes back to the beginning of creation, through all of my ancestors,” Hegarty says. “Maybe something of their spirits has been retained through every generation. I’ve been thinking about my singing and about trying to open myself beyond my local sense of self. Maybe I could give voice to an ancestor, let my great-great-grandmother sing the song herself. It doesn’t have to be just about me. That idea can be very powerful. As an artist, it’s a rich reservoir of experiences to draw upon. You can stretch out beyond your local sense of self and invite ghosts to be a part of your process.”

ANTONY’S FAVORITE TEA ROOM: Podunk, New York City.

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