Performance artist puts body of work in path of bigotry

August 29, 1994|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff Writer

After all these years on planet Earth, it would appear a routine matter: mounting a stage and telling stories about your life.

You would explain what it's like to be gay and shunned, to watch your friends die by the bushel, to continue in lust and love. You would toss your vital statistics in the faces of cringing gay-bashers and complacent pols who just don't understand: We are all human, we all bleed, we all seek love. And slowly, the walls might crumble, and your differences accepted, yea celebrated.

No such luck. Not that Tim Miller, performance artist and self-described "loud obnoxious fag" hasn't given it his best shot. Since 1982, he has championed "queer culture" in a series of autobiographical monologues inflected with "really, really funny humor, good juicy sex stories and poetic musings."

Tonight, at the Maryland Art Place, Mr. Miller, one of the notorious "N.E.A. Four," whose fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts were canceled in 1990 and later reinstated, performs his solo piece, "My Queer Body" --much of it while nude.

"My Queer Body" begins at conception, a defining moment for Mr. Miller in which he imagines himself as "one queer little sperm" swimming upstream, deflecting an army of unfriendly sperm.

From there, he takes his audience on a coming-of-age journey: a childhood marred by ridicule, his first date with a boy, life and love in the time of AIDS.

"I want to use all my faculties as a human and as a performer to delight people, scare them a little bit, draw them in, inspire them," says Mr. Miller by phone from his home in Venice, Calif.

In "My Queer Body," Mr. Miller vents, preens, quips, mourns, suffers. When there's nothing left to do, he strips, performs a number of sight gags and then sits on the lap of someone in the audience.

It is unburnished work, self-deprecating and self-loving, a bit desperate in tone. The piece comes across as if Mr. Miller were performing before his bedroom mirror and not in an intimate theater.

His is an engaging form of exhibitionism, perhaps, as he professes, liberating for the sexually repressed masses, but unlikely to score political points with his nemesis Jesse Helms, the ultra-conservative senator from North Carolina.

In fact, Miller, 35, has probably had more impact on the country's aesthetic landscape as an artistic martyr than as an artist.

When the endowment rescinded funding to Mr. Miller and three other performance artists, citing the allegedly obscene content of their work, they became symbols of a raging debate over the nature and role of art, especially government-funded art.

The quartet sued and last year their grants were reinstated. This year, Mr. Miller, a Whittier, Calif., native, was the recipient of yet another grant from the endowment.

Controversy is nothing new to Mr. Miller, however. Long before his encounter with Mr. Helms et al., he was a fiery AIDS activist, arrested on several occasions for acts of civil disobedience performed with the Los Angeles contingent of ACT UP, the confrontational AIDS advocacy group.

As a California Arts Council artist-in-residence, he has led free weekly performance workshops, including one for gay men. He also teaches in the graduate theater program at the University of California in Los Angeles.

A co-founder of two lively performance spaces -- P.S. 122 in New York and Highways in Los Angeles -- Mr. Miller has been an ardent supporter of progressive, innovative theater and the work of minority artists. The nation's political power balance can be righted only when the disenfranchised -- women, people of color, gays, lesbians and others commonly left out of the loop -- have the courage and voice to come forward and tell life stories, he says.

Also this week, Mr. Miller will speak at the NorthEast Performing Arts Conference, a talent showcase for presenters that will draw representatives from such theaters as the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Baltimore's Mechanic Theater. At a seminar tomorrow in the Hyatt Regency hotel on the Inner Harbor, Mr. Miller will discuss "taking risks with art and with audiences."

Soon thereafter, he leaves for Glasgow, Scotland, to direct a two-week performance workshop for gay men. Ultimately, that is where Mr. Miller's sense of self rests: with his brethren.

"My strongest identity at this point is a gay man in late imperial America, during the AIDS crisis," he says. "Certainly, as a gay man [who has] lived in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco, I've hit all the capitals of the plague -- that has a huge defining [effect] on me."

PERFORMANCE ART

What: Tim Miller performs "My Queer Body"

When: 9:30 p.m. tonight

Where: 14Karat Cabaret at Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga St.

Admission: $8

Information: (410) 962-8565

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