“By the time Beiruth makes an appearance in the fourth and fifth image of the series, he is entirely unnecessary and complicates the simplicity of the images.”
Athi-Patra Ruga’s exhibition …mr floating signifier and the deadboyz is a show that moves from the subtle and complex to the underwhelming and obvious, often in the same breath. Ruga’s character or protagonist, Beiruth, has an intricate mythology, developed through his previous solo, …of bugchasers and watussi faghags. When Beiruth appears in the current show, in the photographic series, The Death of Beiruth, it seems only to refer to this internal mythology, to the previous Beiruth artworks – the work becomes tight and shut to interpretation. It doesn’t develop the narrative, but twists the life out of it.The second series of photographs in Ruga’s latest exhibition is titled Deadboyz Auto Exotica and takes the timeworn symbol of otherness and estrangement, the mask, throws in some pop culture, full frontal willies and black bodies, and presses play. The result is a series of surprisingly compelling images, raw and mucky, beautiful in an ugly sort of way. By the time Beiruth makes an appearance in the fourth and fifth image of the series, he is entirely unnecessary and complicates the simplicity of the images. The video work, The Body in Question Part IV… La Mama Morta, moves the show out of this tightness. It takes the themes of the photographic series and essays them with elegance and simplicity. A man appears wearing white makeup and pearls, the look modelled after an image of opera diva Maria Callas. He begins to sing an aria from Giordano’s 1896 opera Andrea Chénier in a deep baritone. The part La Mamma Morta (“My mother was murdered”), written for a soprano singer, is an emotional piece, moving from despair at her life falling apart and her sister prostituting herself to keep them alive (“I bring misfortune even to those who love me”) to being saved by the concept of love (“For love itself am I!”).An interpretation of the piece by Maria Callas became famous in the 1990s when it was featured in the movie Philadelphia, with Tom Hanks crying as he translates the lyrics. In the movie it became a symbol of homosexual passion, an intersection point between camp and tragedy. Here it plays a similar role, but begins to fracture itself. As the baritone struggles to hit the high notes of the piece, his voice cracking into falsetto, his hands appear in the frame painted black. They move about possessed, then smear the black onto his face. The video ends with the singer recomposing his face into the pouty vulnerable image of Callas, now smudged and blackened. This is truly the Mr Floating Signifier of the title, as one watches all these words come floating in: gender, race, sexuality, masquerade, purity, camp, beauty, tragedy. Their meanings all tie up and play with each other.