Do You Want To Funk: Disco Death and Roller Requiems in Mark Bradford’s ‘Deimos’

Installation view of Mark Bradford's Deimos in 'Be Strong Boquan' at Hauser & Wirth (all images courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York)

Installation view of Mark Bradford’s Deimos in ‘Be Strong Boquan’ at Hauser & Wirth (all images courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York)

I’m: Laughin’ and Lovin’
Livin’ and Givin’
Stylin’ and Smilin’
Huggin’ and Kissin’
Sylvester “Grateful”

Who would have thought that tossing orange and peach roller-skate wheels across a concrete floor to a disco tune could be so powerful? That a seemingly simple gesture could have such complex conceptual and political consequences?

In his current exhibition Be Strong Boquan at New York’s Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford does just that with his roller-remembrance video “Deimos.” The first artist to draw on the disco legacy of Hauser & Wirth’s physical space, which used to house the notorious roller disco club The Roxy, Bradford conjures the memories of the club, as well as its patrons, and the incalculable losses due to HIV/AIDS.

Mark Bradford, Killing the Goodbye, 2015 Mixed media on canvas

Mark Bradford, Killing the Goodbye, 2015
Mixed media on canvas

Titled based on a quote drawn from his installation “Spiderman,” which interrogates the decidedly non-PC act from Eddie Murphy’s 1983 special Delirious, Be Strong Boquan is Bradford’s first exhibition with the blue chip gallery. Not all artists can seamlessly transition to a gigantic gallery like Hauser & Wirth while maintaining the strength of their artistic vision, but Bradford accomplishes this feat masterfully, delving into issues of race, sexuality, HIV/AIDS and memory through his multidisciplinary show.

Aside from his multimedia installations “Spiderman” and “Deimos,” Be Strong Boquan also features Bradford’s well-known mixed-media paintings, which recall the body from muscles to T-cells to blood and scars. In addition, the exhibition portrays Bradford’s move into some new aesthetic territory with his sculptural canvas piece Waterfall, enacting a monumental rebirth through the reconstitution of a ripped-up painting.

Mark Bradford, Waterfall, 2015, Mixed media

Mark Bradford, Waterfall, 2015, Mixed media

However, at least for me, the most significant work in the exhibition is “Deimos.” Rather than look at Bradford’s exhibition as a whole, I want to focus solely on this video as it almost perfectly represents the memorialization of nightlife–a concept that my curatorial partner-in-crime (and Filthy Dreams contributor) Osman Can Yerebakan and I explored in our exhibition Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife as Activism Since 1980.

Dismantling roller-skates to just the wheels, Bradford’s “Deimos” employs the found remains of the Roxy–a storage closet full of skates–discovered by the gallery during the acquisition of the 18th Street location. Projected on an gigantic wall in the front of the exhibition, Bradford spins the wheels across the floor to the sounds of Queen of Disco Sylvester’s “Grateful,” which was recorded in 1978, the same year the Roxy opened.

Meditative and engrossing, Bradford slows Sylvester’s song down to a crawl, transforming the playful and thankful disco tune to a requiem. A haunting memorial to the past history of the gallery space, the ghosts that may still remain and the memory that is left, “Deimos” acts as a reminder to the losses due to HIV/AIDS, as well as the ever-changing city.

Mark Bradford, Deimos (film still), 2015 Digital video with audio

Mark Bradford, Deimos (film still), 2015
Digital video with audio

In an interview with the New York Times, Bradford explained his thought process behind the video. As Bradford describes, “I just really started to think about the Roxy and how we lost so many people around that time. The play between something super violent and something super beautiful: that’s where it came out of.”

Named for the Greek god of fear and dread, “Deimos” is both fun and foreboding, capturing the idealism and escapism of the late 1970s and early 1980s disco without the knowledge of the epidemic that was to come. Reflecting the halcyon days immediately before HIV/AIDS, the video also memorializes nightlife performers such as Sylvester who passed away due to complications from AIDS in 1988, as well as the Roxy’s patrons and the space itself.

In her study of nightlife Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making, Fiona Buckland defines a term “theater of memory” in response to a vivid description of walking to the Chelsea clubs by club goer Tito. Examining his performative retelling of his experiences, Buckland explains, “The present and remembered body were one and the same. In the same moment of performance, Tito embodied physical memories and through that embodiment interpreted the past through the present body, and interpreted and experience the present in what I call the theater of memory. In such a theater of memory, the past was restored and reinterpreted through movement” (18).

Understanding Bradford’s video as a form of this “theater of memory,” the wheels can be understood as two possible and highly political symbols. First, the solo wheels with no skates could be seen as a physical embodiment of absence, representations of lost clubs and club goers. With the lights on in the video, the club is clearly past last call, as the ghostly wheels continue to roll aimlessly and uselessly around the floor.

Or, closer to Buckland’s notion of memory and movement, the wheels could be symbols for the disappeared dancers themselves. Rolling, interacting, bouncing, bounding, flying, twisting and yes, even performers, the wheels act as dancers in a club, creating a performative space for the remembrance, restoration and reinterpretation of the past within the present Hauser & Wirth. A temporary memorial to the losses sustained during the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, “Deimos” allows for viewers to engage with continuing history that haunts spaces.

As Buckland writes, “Although memorials may be set up as part of the modern production of national AIDS memory, people also needed ‘environments of memory,’ not fixed and static, but dynamic and responsive to the changing demands of the present to reinterpret and restore the past through acts and performances” (177).

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