Justin Vivian Bond burst onto the New York nightlife scene two decades ago as Kiki DuRane, one half of the famed cabaret show Kiki and Herb with Kenny Mellman. But a few years ago, Bond began departing from their well-known antics as the boozed up, ancient lounge singer Kiki by beginning performances with standing for two minutes in complete silence onstage, interrupting the audience’s discomfort and surprise only to declare what was by then obvious: “Two minutes is a long time.”
Those words are also the only ones that Bond has ever heard spoken by Karen Graham, the 70's and 80's model and former face of Estée Lauder, whom they idolized as a child. The performance was an homage. “When you’re a cisgender little boy or girl, you’re raised to emulate the parent of the gender that you are, and you sort of form your identity around—or against—their experience of being a man or a woman," Bond, who is transgender and uses they/them pronouns, explained. "But if you’re trans, you have to look outside of your family to think about role models and the way you want to be.”
Growing up, Bond was always stealing and then carefully replacing their mother’s lipstick, and drew and painted Graham’s face obsessively. But that anxiety about publicly wearing makeup has long been gone, and with it the preoccupation with Karen Graham. In fact, Bond had completely forgotten about his favorite childhood model until 2012, after they had started taking estrogen and were farming oysters in Sag Harbor in a pair of wader boots—ones that just so happened to resemble a pair Graham wore in one of her final advertisements. “All the sudden, I realized I had indeed become this person that I had aspired to become. It was this revelation where I was like, 'Oh my god, it’s happened: I’m me now,'” Bond recalled recently on the phone from their current home in Athens, in upstate New York. (Bond has recently been curating performances at Bard College.)
Out of their waders and at home, Bond began googling Karen Graham and soon happened upon a two-minute long video of her in a series shot by the fashion photographer Nick Knight as an homage to Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Essentially, the series consisted of letting the likes or Alek Wek or Charlotte Rampling do whatever they liked in front of the camera for two minutes. Wek and Rampling stood stock still, while Carmen Dell’Orefice used her time to conduct a brief breast exam in what ended up being a PSA about mammograms.
Graham, on the other hand, whose modeling experience consisted almost entirely of posing for print, repeatedly smiled and switched poses, as if the victim of when your mom or dad tries to take a picture but records video instead—pausing only to remark that two minutes is a long time. Bond, captivated by her discomfort, decided to turn it into a series of 20-minute performances, the most recent iteration of which can be seen in the storefront windows of the New Museum, as part of the exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool as a Weapon.”
On the show’s opening night in late September, Bond took their place in front of a backdrop of watercolors melding their faces with Graham’s—the same wallpaper that papers Bond’s living room installation inside the museum, a collaboration with the label Voutsa—surrounded by a red carpet with a velvet rope and a plant to evoke a “’70's editorial vibe.” Most importantly, though, for that performance and those to follow—tonight, on Halloween, and December 1, on World AIDS Day—Bond is wearing a pink dress by the same designer Graham often wore in her photos in the 70's and 80's: Frank Masandrea, a contemporary of Donna Karan and Carolina Herrera who has long been forgotten since he died of AIDS in the late 80's.
“I was looking at these photographs [of Graham] and I didn’t recognize a lot of the designers’ names she was wearing, so I googled them. Then I realized that half of the people’s clothes she wore died,” Bond recalled. “After I got over my PTSD hysterical screaming and crying fit, I did enough research to find [a Masandrea] dress.” (The fact that they got it for $29 is more proof of the designer's lost legacy.)
“It’s very important to me that this dress is worn on World AIDS Day,” Bond continued. “So many queer people throughout history have created the beautiful gowns that straight women wear, or the beautiful homes that very privileged white straight people live in. We create their luxuries and their beauty and their world that so many people aspire to, and yet we’re still somehow marginalized.”
The New Museum performances mark the fourth time Bond has created some iteration of “My Model | My Self: I’ll Stand By You,” as the series is titled. They stopped traffic in the windows of Vitrine Gallery in London in 2015, and have so far elicited a similar response in New York, though Bond still finds the experience to be “meditative”—a word that also perfectly describes their living room installation inside the museum, where visitors, surrounded by more portraits of Bond/Graham, can cozy up in two armchairs and take a break from the cacophony a 40 artist-large group show. (You can even put on some headphones and hear Bond's soothing piano music.)
Bond is, after all, a "trans-genre artist"—though not a trans-genre person, as the New York Times implied in a recent write-up, to what seemed to be both their annoyance and amusement. In a faux-serious, honeyed voice, Bond confirmed, "Yes, my gender is watercolor," and then burst into laughter.
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