Still from The Blind Owl, 1992, courtesy the Estate of Reza Abdoh
As part of I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker
, the ICA presents a two-part programme of screenings and discussions centred on the moving-image works of theatre director and filmmaker Reza Abdoh (1963 – 1995). The programme begins with a screening of Abdoh’s only completed feature film The Blind Owl
(1992) followed by a discussion between scholar Dominic Johnson and artist Ron Athey, moderated by Bidoun
Senior Editor Michael C. Vazquez.
Working between Los Angeles and New York in the 1980s and early 90s, Abdoh was a contemporary of Kathy Acker’s at a time of metastasising moral panic in the US. Abdoh and Acker’s work is distinguished by overlapping concerns and characteristics, particularly a fascination with sexual, psychological and societal taboo and abjection.
Abdoh was celebrated for his immersive and maximalist theatre productions, which drew on Greek myth, mainstream televisual culture, BDSM and fairy tales, and made use of unusual urban spaces and audio-visual media. It has been said that had Abdoh not passed away at the too-young age of thirty-two, he almost certainly would have become a filmmaker of renown.
Beyond a substantive smattering of video works, Abdoh completed one enigmatic feature film, The Blind Owl. Shot in and around East Los Angeles with members of his Dar a Luz theatre ensemble between performances of the play Bogeyman (1991), the film provides a curious counterpoint to Abdoh’s immersive, maximalist, adrenaline-fueled theater productions. The film’s narrative (if one can call it that) involves a diverse cast of characters, including sex workers, a diabetic mortician and his caregiver, and a blind man and his disabled transgender companion. The Blind Owl unfurls amid an atmosphere of melancholy that, although often moving, is wholly devoid of affect. The film’s slow, meditative pacing and contemplative posture have inspired comparisons to theater director Robert Wilson’s symbolist work, the films of Robert Bresson, and the 1960s American TV show, The Outer Limits.
This programme is organised in collaboration with Bidoun, a non-profit organisation focused on art and culture from the Middle East and its diasporas. In late 2019, Bidoun will publish the first large-scale monograph on Reza Abdoh following retrospectives of the artist’s work at MoMA PS1 and KW Institute.
Ron Athey is an iconic figure in the spheres of contemporary art and performance. Through his frequently bloody portrayals of life, death, crisis, and fortitude in the time of AIDS, Athey calls into question the limits of artistic practice. Athey was a friend of Abdoh’s in late 1980s and early 1990s Los Angeles, and makes a cameo in The Blind Owl.
Dominic Johnson is a Reader in Performance and Visual Culture at Queen Mary University of London. He has authored and edited many books on performance and experimental culture, including Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey (Intellect Books, 2013). His most recent book is Unlimited Action: The Performance of Extremity in the 1970s (Manchester University Press, 2019).