Tim Miller

at Beacon Street Theatre & Gallery, April 15-17

One of the most engaging aspects of performance art is that, most of the time, it’s so deeply personal. The artist onstage doesn’t so much play a character as some aspect of his or her self. This has its risks, of course. If the artist is a self-indulgent creep, we in the audience sit through an hour or so of torture. But if the artist is smart, charming, and driven–like Tim Miller–the performance can be transcendent.

My Queer Body, Miller’s newest work, made its Chicago debut to packed houses at Beacon Street Theatre recently, and the experience–funny, sad, provocative, and bold–still lingers. Miller, probably best known for the 1990 “defunding” controversy at the National Endowment for the Arts, is also a member of ACT UP in Los Angeles, where he’s based.

Because Miller’s personal joys and pains intersect directly with his politics–in My Queer Body the old adage that the personal is political, though feminist in origin, makes perfect sense–the piece has a fragile timeliness to it. When, for example, Miller denounces Jesse Helms (only once, and only in the context of a longer monologue about freedom and self-expression), the mention of the North Carolina senator seems like an ugly intrusion of the mundanely topical. Yet this interruption is also a subtle reminder of what’s really important: Helms, for all the trouble he causes, will not likely be remembered years from now, but the “we” that makes up Miller’s world will still be around.

“We” is very specifically gay men, but because Miller expounds on the trials and foibles of that “we” with so much love, confidence, and vulnerability, it comes to encompass not just homosexual men, but anyone who loves and whose love is at risk for any reason.

Miller tells us that the world makes no sense. For him, there is no explanation for why he’s still here–performing, staging demonstrations, having a relationship–while so many others die. “I’m still here, in my body,” he says, defining the trap of the senses in which he lives. “Every time I come, I think of all the men I loved who died of AIDS.”

Everything he feels, sees, smells, or tastes when making love is an inevitable mnemonic device. This is Miller’s nightmare: that pleasure and grief, ecstasy and loss, rapture and pain are inextricably linked. And he is too true to himself to allow himself to go numb. This man will feel everything, no matter the consequences.

Miller enters the performance space from the back for My Queer Body, starting off right away with little jokes about rear entries and gay men’s supposed superior sense of style. He goes off on what he calls a “psycho-sexual scavenger hunt,” searching out different body parts on audience members.

Miller yaks it up with the spectators, improvising on what we’re wearing, how we comb our hair, etc, but there’s more here than just comedy or self-effacement. The exercise is pretty daring: we’ve just met him and already he’s getting physical. The humor’s about getting comfortable, about getting close. This is foreplay.

Then he tells us a story about his first date with a boy, back in high school. The tale has a wonderful all-American quality to it. Miller, a native of Los Angeles, describes a southern California landscape that is constantly interrupted by neon-lit hamburger palaces, tourist traps, and other kitsch. His date with the boy suffers the same kinds of sudden intrusions: every flight of romance comes down hard with an awful temporal thud.

Later, we hear an adult tale about protesting the veto of a statewide gay and lesbian civil rights bill by California governor Pete Wilson and Miller’s eerie escape from the mayhem to the Amboy Crater out in the desert. Here in the piece Miller disrobes, covers himself with ashes, and begs the forces of the universe to show him what he’s made of, to show him his mettle.

At this point Miller stops the show, says he can’t finish the sequence the way he wanted to, and offers up some pulpy ending for those who demand an end of some kind. He stops the pretense of performing and runs off to sit in the lap of a woman in the audience. “This is the hard part,” he tells her. “I’m looking right at you, right at your eyes.” When he gets back onstage he explains that he can’t always see who’s looking at him. “All I know is that right now, I’m standing naked in front of 144 people in Chicago.” This is difficult, Miller tells us. This is embarrassing. This displays all his weaknesses. But that’s OK too. We must go on, he says, no matter the difficulties.

“Get hard,” he says to his naked penis, and to us it is an invocation, a reclaiming of all that is pleasurable and good, joyous and nourishing, about love and loving. “Get hard . . . because it feels good . . . because we must.”

For Miller, as anarchic as reality seems, there is no realm but that of the senses, the one here on earth and in this life. Whatever else is going on, whatever oppression and hate are heaped on him, his mission is to be himself, to love himself, to love his brothers (and his sisters, but by extension).

The end of My Queer Body is a fantasy sequence in the past tense about the future inauguration of the first black lesbian president. Miller recalls his commission, as the performance artist laureate of the nation, to create a queer cantata about the joys of male sex. What follows is graphic, unapologetic, and very funny.

What makes all this work is Miller’s great sense of humor, comedic timing, and personal investment in the issues and events he discusses. Even the bits that don’t quite work are OK because he is so enthralling a person, we’re willing to forgive.

If Miller’s reality seems a little shaky sometimes, it’s because, for him, it is. But My Queer Body isn’t about being lost, or about finding our way through the lies. It is instead a very strong projection of hope coming out of the middle of chaos.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/T. Charles Erickson.