Some Styles of Masculinity
(Triple Canopy, 2021)
Gregg Bordowitz has experimented with media and character-study as artistic material for decades through physical objects and personas. Known for his video work and AIDS activism (in his own words, a global crisis that is “still beginning”), Bordowitz most recently delivered his message in book form: Some Styles of Masculinity. The book is a complex arrangement of memories, intellect, postulations, jokes, and insights that attempt to capture a performance, on- and off-stage, of “how I came to understand my ethnicity in relation to my gender, sexuality, nation, and race—and my identity as impossible to reduce to any of those categories.”
Some Styles of Masculinity is an edited transcript of a series of lecture-performances that began as a commission to the 2018 exhibition Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon at the New Museum and was most recently performed at MoMA PS1 in September 2021 to conclude Bordowitz’s survey exhibition I Wanna Be Well. Each iteration of this performance (and the book itself) addresses three characters played by Bordowitz: the rock star, the rabbi, and the comedian. Bordowitz presents a construction of masculinity based on his own upbringing: from a queer kid in Queens in the 1970s wearing mascara like Lou Reed on the cover of his album Transformer, to a thirteen year-old with a nascent sense of himself as a feminist grappling with “the smell of dozens of men in heavy clothing, packed into a poorly ventilated room, sweating as they pore over leather-bound scripture,” to a person that has been living with AIDS for over 30 years (“To still have AIDS and still be alive is a cosmic joke. Next time, I’m going to begin the show with that joke. There’s nowhere to go from there but up, right?”).
When I attended the rock star performance in September, the stage was lavishly decorated as a sukkah—a temporary dwelling constructed as part of Sukkot, the Jewish celebration paying homage to the 40 years spent in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. The dwellings, which are meant to be a gathering space for prayer, singing, and eating, have a religious symbolism but here are given an added theatrical one. Bordowitz bounds onto stage to klezmer music and introduces himself as his Hebrew name, Benyamin Zev, “like many names, it awaited me.” Zev shares the enigmatic statements of a rabbi with the coolness of a rock star, repeating throughout the performance that “nothing is as it appears; everything is meaningful.” Zev asserts that “some rock stars are rabbis, some rabbis are rockstars, but all are comedians.” This reciprocal logic is representative of the free-flowing nature of each performance and each section of the book: some of each character permeates the whole. On both the actual stage and in the pages of the book, Zev asks, “Why am I performing my ethnicity? Well, the question is better than the answer. And the answer is in the medium.” In person and online, Bordowitz weaves together a seamless tapestry of pop-cultural references with seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza and the nature of “G-d” (in Judaism, the full word is never spelled out, a constraint replicated in Some Styles of Masculinity), mesmerizing the audience.
But performance as a book presents a fascinating mode of publishing as artistic practice. As an approach to writing a book, this could be seen as a dark-comic Bildungsroman, a perpetual coming-of-age experience, asserting that the “coming” of age is in perpetual delay, and we exist in a place waiting to be awakened. But instead, this format suggests publishing as an expansion of performance, not mere documentation. This book is a combination of many similar yet not exact performances; improvisation and chance are ever-present, it is not a record of anything that actually happened, but rather a presentation of what the artist and publishers want you to have. It evidences the power of the artist and of editors to use it as a formal experiment in performance and theater.
The Benyamin Zev show is one man’s exploration of what his identifiers are, one “style of masculinity.” The sign above the stage is a golden square with a blue royal crown, a reference to the Chabad-Lubavitch community of Crown Heights, where Bordowitz resides in his own diaspora. (“Being part of a diaspora is appealing: it’s a way of balancing inheritance and invention; it’s a way of understanding oneself in relation to others that doesn't hinge on the right to a piece of land. Being part of a diaspora works for me.”) Bordowitz’s relation to diaspora and assimilation throughout the book connects to this flag—the emblem refers to a messiah (or “realization” of a self) that is in a continual place of duration—like the celebration of Shabbos (the Yiddish term for the Sabbath), the emphasis is not on destination, but on duration, on awaiting a perpetual coming. As New Yorker critic Hua Hsu writes so succinctly in the book’s introduction, “identities are false horizons, projects that are undertaken but never truly finished. The nature of the performance changes with the times, with the person.” Some Styles of Masculinity is proof that an identity, or even a book, can exist in a suspended state of duration.