Art / Music

No More Shall We Part: Finding Everyday Utopia With Perfume Genius and Félix González-Torres

Moment from Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away” video

“Lord, stay by me
Don’t go down
I’ll never be free
If I’m not free now”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “And No More Shall We Part”

“It’s almost embarrassing to acknowledge how good things are…There’s something abnormal about it,” reflects Perfume Genius‘s Mike Hadreas in an interview with FADER. With the release of his new album this week No Shape, a transcendent ode to romanticism, love and domesticity as redemption, Perfume Genius raises the question: What does utopia sound like? Is it lush sonic landscapes peppered with strings like No Shape? Or is it the simple ticking of two synchronized, barely touching wall-mounted clocks on view in Félix González-Torres’s current exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery?

While these two cultural objects could not seem more different, juxtaposing conceptual minimalism with decadent maximalism, Perfume Genius’ album and certain works in Félix González-Torres’s show portray everyday yet ephemeral romance. While this love may not last forever–both Félix González-Torres and Perfume Genius have a taste for the temporary, both their works allow for a momentary glance at a queer utopia, as theorized by José Esteban Muñoz.

“Even your going/Let it find you/Even in hiding/Find it knows you/Rocking you to sleep/From the Otherside,” croons Hadreas in the opening track “Otherside,” which bursts unexpectedly (and I mean, unexpectedly, I almost fell down the stairs of my apartment building listening to it) into what Filthy Dreams’s other co-founder Marion likes to call fairy dust strings. It’s a call from the beyond, whether a nearly religious invocation of paradise or an expression of arriving at the other side of darkness to happiness or at least, contentment.

With this bold, slap-in-the-face intro, No Shape seems like a complete 180 from Perfume Genius’s seething, defiant last album Too Bright, which conjured spirits with its defiant queen-iness, disgust at the body and narration of bad and, as Heather Love would say, backward feelings. In No Shape, Perfume Genius, instead, scores redemption, the other side of the coin from Too Bright’s nihilism.

Old Perfume Genius

Naturally, the self-loathing inherent in Too Bright didn’t vanish entirely in No Shape. But, it has transformed into a more ethereal desire to disappear, like in songs such as “Wreath” in which Hadreas almost gleefully sings “Burn off every trace/I want to hover with no shape.” While still an almost Leo Bersani-like drive to self-shattering, it’s not quite the same as Too Bright’s disturbing “My Body,” which features lyrics like “I wear my body like a rotted peach/You can have it if you handle the stink.” Yum!

While Hadreas may have found relational bliss on No Shape, as with all Perfume Genius albums, there’s an all-enveloping intensity to the new album, especially in tracks like “Die 4 You,” which finds Hadreas narrating all-consuming love through the lens of autoerotic asphyxiation. He croons, “Each and every breath I spend/You are collecting/Limit every second left/Until I’m off balance…Oh, my love/Take your time.” “I thought it was braver to make something that tries to approach happiness. But even though the songs might sound upbeat, the lyrics are like, ‘The only peace I will find is if I die,” says Hadreas in his interview with FADER. Laura Snapes writes in her spot-on review of the album for Pitchfork: “Rather than an entreaty from one lover to another, it seems to be a duet between Hadreas’ dueling impulses—the one that wants to dissolve, and the one adjusting to the realization that this is what the long haul looks like, as close to contentment as it gets. It’s not possible to transform into air, but love and sex may offer the closest analog to that weightless freedom he dreams of.”

However, despite the Freudian death drive that appears in certain songs like “Wreath,” other songs approach ecstatic romantic highs like as “Slip Away.” Hadreas gleefully and breathily croons, “Don’t hold back, I want to break free/God is singing through your body/And I’m carried by the sound/Every jump, every single beat/They were born from your body/And I’m carried by the sound.” This admittedly saccharine form of adoration and love, as well as transcendence through tender domesticity, is still quite rare in depictions of queer love. Writer Alex Frank writes in FADER:

“This is what makes Perfume Genius’s new music such a radical departure from the kind of portrayals of LGBTQ life that we’re used to hearing about in, say, the violent youth-obsessed novels of Dennis Cooper or the doomed nihilistic teenage films of Gregg Araki. Even Brokeback Mountain, the canonical gay film, ends with two men who can never admit that they should be together, with one character dying alone on the prairie and the other mourning him forever. But it’s easy to perish in art, and much harder to persist in life, as Mike has. It might not be as dramatic to survive, but it also means you get to not die. Mike has already processed a lot of trauma in his work, and though he wrote most of the album before the most recent presidential election, its timing couldn’t be better: here is a way to endure, less operatic than the chaos of youth but no less fertile.”

Hadreas’ invocation of beats from his lover’s body reminded me of one of my favorite inclusions in David Zwirner’s current exhibition of Félix González-Torres’s work–Untitled (Perfect Lovers). The exhibition, as a whole, is a bit expected–running through all the FGT hits that you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, can probably name–the candy, the stacks of paper, the beaded curtain, the go go box…While I love FGT’s work, there’s a point of exhaustion when every institution already has at least one of his works on display. And yet, when thinking about the exhibition in conjunction with Perfume Genius’ recent release, certain pieces like Untitled (Perfect Lovers) gained relevance.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1991 (via MoMA; Courtesy the Estate of Felix Gonzalez-Torres)

Untitled (Perfect Lovers) is possibly one of the simplest artworks I’ve ever seen and yet, its resonance is anything but one-dimensional. Two circular wall clocks hang side-by-side, barely touching. Like two lovers whose movements, rhythms and actions are in alignment, the clocks run in tandem, perfectly matched as they mark and maneuver through time together.

This romanticism is further reflected in a note González-Torres wrote to his lover Ross in 1988 in regards to the piece:

“Don’t be afraid of the clocks, they are our time, time has been so generous to us. We imprinted time with the sweet taste of victory. We conquered fate by meeting at a certain TIME in a certain space. We are a product of the time, therefore we give back credit were it is due: time
We are synchronized, now and forever.
I love you.”

A similar, mundane synchronization is visible in the final atmospheric, epic yet everyday track “Alan” on No Shape, dedicated to Hadreas’s longtime boyfriend and collaborator Alan Wyffels. “Did you notice, we sleep through the night,” he nearly speaks, “Did you notice babe, everything is alright.” He switches to a higher register, “You need me/Rest easy/I’m here/How weird.”

Both the simplicity of Untitled (Perfect Lovers) and Hadreas’ astonishment at this sudden happiness (How weird!) reminds me of Muñoz’s analysis of the astonishment in Frank O’Hara’s poem Having a Coke With You. In his soda-stained, syrupy sweet poem, O’Hara narrates the moment of drinking a Coke with his lover and compares it to great moments in art history.

He writes:

“Having A Coke With You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian…”

In Cruising Utopia: The Then And There Of Queer Futurity, Muñoz explains, “This poem tells us of a quotidian act, having a Coke with somebody, that signifies a vast lifeworld of queer relationality, an encrypted sociality, and a utopian potentiality. The quotidian act of sharing a Coke, consuming a commonplace commodity with a beloved with whom one shares secret smiles, trumps fantastic moments in the history of art” (6). Similar to the soaring hyperbole of No Shape, O’Hara’s poem, as Muñoz observes, “describes moments imbued with a feeling of forward dawning futurity” (6).

This relatively forgettable moment–the modest act of drinking Coke–like sleeping through the night or two ticking clocks represents, for Muñoz, a gesture toward a queer utopia, particularly given the midcentury era in which it was written. “Looking at a poem written in the 1960s,” Muñoz analyzes, “I see a certain potentiality, which at that point had not been fully manifested, a relational field where men could love each other outside the institutions of heterosexuality and share a world through the act of drinking a beverage with each other…I see the past and the potentiality imbued within an object, the ways it might represent a mode of being and feeling that was then not quite there but nonetheless an opening” (9).

Reflecting this thought in her review of No Shape, Snapes writes, “From ancient Lesbos to ’60s SoHo, drag balls to Paradise Garage, queer havens aren’t just shelters created in opposition to the wider world, but hives of imagination and creativity where alternate realities reign, even if they sometimes dissolve at dawn. Perfume Genius’ fourth album, No Shape, is one of them.”

Installation view of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Ross), 1991 (Photo by author)

However, this utopia, as Snapes hints, is not forever. As Muñoz reflects, “Bloch would posit that such utopian feelings can and regularly will be disappointed. They are nonetheless indispensable to the act of imaging transformation” (9). As with Bloch’s observation about the disappointment of utopia, both Perfume Genius’s album and the work of Félix González-Torres feature a definitive sense of impermanency and impending loss. For González-Torres, the clocks will eventually move out of synch and one will, inevitably, stop before the other. This temporariness is also reflected in No Shape. “If we only got a moment/Give it to me now,” Hadreas demands in “Slip Away.” The clocks might arrest, the candy might run out, the papers might disappear and the music might stop, but the potential for a momentary queer utopia remains.

And maybe that’s what matters. “Being present and being loved,” says Snapes, “is the best anyone can hope for. For some people, it’s so much more than they could ever have expected. What sounds like heaven to Hadreas may seem commonplace to others, but No Shape makes you understand how it looks from his rapturous vantage point.”

Another work in the David Zwirner exhibition presents two dual stacks of paper, titled, unsurprisingly, Untitled. One stack features papers that read, “Nowhere better than this place,” while the other says, “Somewhere better than this place.” Possibly hinting to the “there and then” of queer utopia, as well as escaping the “here and now” as Muñoz discusses in Cruising Utopia, these two papers feel like directions to an experience of everyday utopia like the one heard on No Shape and seen in Untitled (Perfect Lovers)–at once attainable, yet seemingly impossible.

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