Antony Hegarty, the 41-year-old artist and creative force behind Antony and the Johnsons, is in Melbourne this week. He’s here to headline the Melbourne Festival, but when we spoke he was focused on finding a Melbourne gallery that sold Vali Myers prints, one of his favourite artists.
Divided by a generation, Hegarty and Myers seem like kindred spirits; both artists of great originality and vision. Hegarty discovered her work twenty years ago, not long after moving to New York in 1990. Myers, although Australia born, spent the majority of her career abroad first on the streets of Paris then in Italy and finally New York where her second home became the infamous Chelsea Hotel. Myers’ New York, a community that nurtured artists like Deborah Harry, Pattie Smith, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, was the world Hegarty dreamed of as a child growing up in California, the state his family moved to from England, by way of Amsterdam, in the early 1980s.
By the ‘90s, however, the New York Myers found inspiring in 1972 was long gone. As Hegarty told The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey, “a lot of the people we had grown up reading about had died by the time we got there so we felt kind of orphaned.” AIDS, he said, had left “little black holes in the skies.”
Still, New York is a town of reinvention. Hegarty, with friend Johanna Constantine, formed the Blacklips Performance Cult and found a home among the underground theatre community. It was not, he says, a nurturing community but it was an open community. “I had a lot of access and exposure,” he says. “As a young performer I took a lot of risks.”
Antony and the Johnsons, named for the New York transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, was formed in the mid-90s purely as vehicle for Hegarty’s music. With his quavering falsetto the group attracted a global audience, and in 2005 won the Mercury Prize for the album I Am A Bird Now.
“By the time I reached a bigger audience I was well into my thirties,” he says. “I wasn’t like a child star. I’d been on the circuit of 15 years before I started performing internationally.”
The media attention that accompanied the Mercury Prize marked the start of his career as a mainstream artist. “I’ve never performed so much in my life in the years after the Mercury Prize,” he says. “Suddenly I was doing 70 shows a year or more. I was trying to ride the wave of it, but I think it changed me in a way.”
During this time Hegarty became a de facto spokesperson for the transgender community, but it was a role he did not covet. The first album, he explains, was about personal experiences. “I can’t speak for anyone else,” he says.
This year, however, with the release of Cut the World, Hegarty decided to “really put my head out.” He collaborated, for example, with Australian artist Lynette Wallworth on her ambitious immersive video and sound work titled Coral Rekindling Venus because he is “really committed to participating in any way I can in a dialogue about the environment”. Hegarty also started to talk to the media about “big issues” ranging from “the systems that ensure the subjugation of the feminie” (as detailed by The Independent’s Fiona Sturges) to economic equality, environmental degradation, and the future of feminism.
“I became more and more interested in using my role in the media to say things that I wish I was seeing in the newspaper, to say something vivid about the environment from an artist’s perspective. We’re used to hearing from experts, impartial scientists on occasion, and certainly politicians, but we’re not used to hearing from normal people or creative people or even spiritual people.”
That’s not to say Hegarty sermonises from the stage. And he is now cautious when talking to the media. “I did at times make a real fool about myself saying things that people told me I was not qualified to talk about,” he says. Although the role of performer and artist is one he takes seriously. Hegarty is determined to use his music to coax his audience from the slumber that disconnects them from the natural and metaphysical world.
In Melbourne, Antony and the Johnsons will stage Swanlights, a performance first shown at Radio City in New York under commission by the Museum of Modern Art. Part pop show, part art installation-cum-performance piece, Swanlights covers material from each of Hegarty’s four albums and was made in collaboration with Chris Levine, an artist who creates intricate laser-light installations. It is an experiment in intimacy and an attempt to foster a conversation with his audience. The key to this intimacy, Hegarty says, is through the voice. “It isn’t so much about this voyeur relationship as it is that we are all sort of beholding the magic space that we’re all part of,” Hegarty explains.
“Really, as a performer you always step out there and you wonder if that elusive thing that you’re looking for as a performer and with the audience will be present.”
“It sneaks up on you and then you get ambushed by that joyful moment on stage.”
Antony and the Johnsons perform Swanlights at the Arts Centre Melbourne on October 12 - 13, 2012.
Antony Hegarty presents Paradise, an exhibition of drawings, collage and sculpture at the Arts Centre Melbourne from October 11 – 29, 2012.
Coral Rekindling Venus by Lynette Wallworth is presented at the Melbourne Planetarium at Scienceworks on October 15 at 7.30pm and 9.30pm.
The Melbourne Festival runs October 11-27 at venues around the city.
Join Radio National's The Music Show on October 13 live at the 2012 Melbourne Festival with Paul Kelly, Genevieve Lacey, Antony Hegarty.