Antony Hegarty, the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons as well as a visual artist, is at the center of two bicoastal arts affairs this week. On January 21 Hegarty’s first solo exhibition opened at UCLA’s Hammer Museum in California. On Thursday, January 26, the artist will unveil his Museum of Modern Art-commissioned performance, “Swanlights,” at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
Hegarty’s multidisciplinary interests began in his early teens. “I’d always been drawing and I had always been doing music,” he says. Hegarty, who is transgender, was born in England in 1971, but was raised around the globe, including Amsterdam, and the San Francisco Bay Area. He was rejected from London’s Royal College of Art, winding up at NYU, where he eventually studied experimental performance. From there, he immersed himself in the nightlife and New York’s underground queer community. He started a performance collective that performed at the Pyramid Club when the East Village was still rough. “It was a wonderful initiation into adulthood,” Hegarty recalls. His group went on to perform at venues like PS 122, becoming the earliest incarnation of the Johnsons that he performs with today.
The UCLA Hammer Museum exhibition, entitled “Antony,” is a retrospective of sorts, displaying about 50 collages and drawings from the late ‘90s to 2011. A thick stroke of ink covers the page of a magazine in one piece; another mixes paint, chalk, and ink in a finger-print like pattern. Although Hegarty practiced visual arts from a young age, it wasn’t until 2005, after achieving success with his band, that he began to pursue it more intently.
“I started retreating into drawing as a way of claiming personal space,” Hegarty explains. “It was about something very personal, very internal, as opposed to a dialogue with thousands of people every night.”
Hegarty had begun musing on the idea for a performance that combined his haunting voice, light, an orchestra, and visuals when artist Marina Abramovic suggested he try something other than traditional concert lighting, where the pattern changes according to the song. Abramovic asked Hegarty about creating a longer arc, across an entire concert. “She actually was the first person to suggest to me that I do a concert that starts in pitch blackness and ends in bright white,” he says.
“Swanlights” is the culmination of that suggestion. Hegarty describes it as “a meditation on light and darkness and on the luminosity of quartz crystal within the blackness of a mountainside.” As MoMA PS1 director and MoMA curator at large Klaus Biesenbach, who declares that “Antony is unlike any artist,” explains, “It’s not really not like a concert — there are inflating and deflating walls after drawings he made, there’s a huge mobile hanging from Radio City and from the stage ceiling, and there is this rotating laser.”
“Swanlights” was originally set to be staged in MoMA’s atrium, but after realizing the venue was too small, Hegarty and Biesenbach decided on Radio City Music Hall because the large space still feels intimate, and because its dome-like structure fits so well with the notion of a crystal. The performance, in extension of Hegarty’s 2009 performance at the Manchester International Festival, “The Crying Light,” is a sort of homecoming for the project.
“It’s interesting now to bring a piece on this scale, which is definitely the largest-scale performance I’ve ever done — at Radio City, a theater I’ve always dreamed of performing at,” Hegarty reflects. “I had the opportunity to bring the piece home in a way.”
Click through the photo gallery to see highlights from “Antony,” at UCLA’s Hammer Museum January 21 to May 13.