BY Jonathan Griffin in Reviews | 01 JAN 07

A hush descends over the audience as a line of imposing feminine figures walk into the hall and sit down. In the semi-darkness they cast striking silhouettes; the tallest wears a huge wig, while another is shirtless, revealing a fragile, boyish torso. The first of these ‘13 NYC Beauties’, as they are billed, to join singer Antony Hegarty (from Antony and the Johnsons) on stage is dressed in a white bridal gown. When she steps up onto a slowly rotating pedestal to one side of the stage, her image is caught by two video cameras that relay footage of her head and shoulders onto a giant screen behind the band. As Antony’s words unfurl around their sumptuous score, so the model’s revolving image begins to dissolve into overlaid and fading versions of itself.

‘Turning’, a collaboration between Antony and the Johnsons and Charles Atlas, was premiered at the 2004 Whitney Biennial and performed in London last November as part of a European tour, preceding a screening of Atlas’ films at the Tate and an exhibition of his video portraits at Vilma Gold. Atlas and Hegarty are old friends; they met at the Pyramid Club, the New York home of the Blacklips Performance Cult, a ‘collective of 15 downtown artists, gender mutants and drug-addicted hybrids in various states of breakdown and toothlessness’ founded in 1992 by Antony with his friends Johanna Constantine and ‘Psychotic’ Eve. Many histories and mythologies are intertwined in ‘Turning’: the characters of New York’s underground post-Punk and drag scenes, the devastation of the AIDS epidemic and the extravagantly anarchic performances (both on stage and off), which flew in the face of the fear and horror felt within the gay community.

Nestled among this apocalyptic spirit were moments of heart-rending delicacy, and it was within this reflective and sombre tonal range that ‘Turning’ positioned itself. Many of the models whose portraits filled the screen were collaborators from the Blacklips days, but, despite their variously provocative outfits, they generally assumed demure poses while they rotated under the gaze of Atlas’ cameras. Constantine, wearing ghoulish bone-white and blood-red make-up, remained statuesque and downcast while Antony’s mournful song ‘Twilight’ spun around her. Other models were more active, occasionally making eye contact or smiling into the lens, revelling in the power of self-display. While it was clear that many of the participants were transvestites or transsexuals, the precise natures of their physiognomies were well hidden, and this indeterminacy made their identities all the more elusive.

Of course, any portrait treads a winding path between revelation of the subject and of the artist. Atlas’ video portraits do not so much delve beneath the surface as augment it with further layers of montaged imagery (such as slowly spinning flowers or light filtering through water) and digital effects, mastered live on stage by the artist himself. Perhaps the most affecting portrait was the last: a section of unedited video showing the transvestite activist Marsha P. Johnson giggling shyly in front of the camera. Johnson, who lends her name to Antony’s band, died in 1992 in highly suspicious circumstances after a Gay Pride march. ‘Turning’ was ultimately a paean to an idea of politically strident womanhood that is performed rather than innate. As such, it provided the powerfully plaintive music with an object for its yearning or, in the case of Marsha P. Johnson, a tragic reminder of what it had lost.

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.