More Temporal Drag: Peaches is Risen

by on Apr.25, 2011

I’ve written on temporal drag* previously in relation to Edie Fake’s historic-gay-bar installation and the young adult novel Nell’s Quilt — I’m reading Elizabeth Freeman’s book now in full and am still excited by the possible applications of it in reading and making art.

Interestingly, Freeman’s essay on temporal drag was published in 2000, but the book, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, wasn’t published until last year. In the meantime there’s been a good deal of other writing on queer temporalities, e.g., Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place, Munoz’s Cruising Utopia — such that at this point Freeman’s book seems weirdly dated (as a friend said, oddly/perfectly out of sync) — as is this post, which I started in November after seeing Peaches Christ Superstar in Chicago.

Peaches Christ Superstar

Peaches Christ Superstar is Peaches’ interpretation of Jesus Christ Superstar (the rock opera) — and is not to be confused with drag queen Peaches Christ, though both are Fabulous. I was originally intending to put Peaches in conversation with the David Wojnarowicz controversy but then I got distracted by Black Swan. Now it’s Easter! Sometimes you just need to be patient and wait for delays to become timely.

Freeman reads temporal drag* in a good deal of queer and feminist art production in the ‘postqueer’/‘postfeminist’ moment of the 90s and early 00s, pointing to artists including Elisabeth Subrin and Sharon Hayes:

Sharon Hayes, 'In the Near Future, New York,' 2005

Freeman’s main point is that these artists use temporal drag to reanimate a past of emergent queer and feminist possibility (generally the 70s and early 80s) within a present of ‘postqueer’/‘postfeminist’ disappointment, and also to in some ways call that past to account for its failures.

I wrote about Edie Fake’s installation quite a while ago, and in intervening months I’ve been identifying more and more of this kind of specifically queer/feminist temporal drag and want to here apply Freeman’s ideas to first, in this post, Peaches Christ Superstar, and in later posts, Itty Bitty Titty Committee and MEN.

*temporal drag: a crossing of time, a temporal transitivity that carries “all of the associations that the word ‘drag’ has with retrogression, delay, and the pull of the past upon the present,” alongside its associations with crossing and performativity.

Peaches Christ Superstar is mainly a one-person show, though Peaches is accompanied by Chilly Gonzalez on piano and joined by a group of dancers for one or two numbers in the second act. There’s no set, really, and only two costumes: for the duration of the first act Peaches wears a white leotard with labia collar, voice positioned as sex organ; for the second act, she wears an oversized gold lame puff jacket and eventually dons a crown of gold lame thorns. She makes no attempt to recreate the musical visually — rather she sings the whole album herself, becoming each character from Mary Magdalene to Pontius Pilate.

In her performance, she’s almost entirely deadpan, only occasionally flirting with camp — though camp is already heavily embedded in her costumes and staging choices, and of course the concept itself. If we view Peaches Christ Superstar as a kind of temporal drag, how do we read it: as revival, as anachronism, as religious drag? Peaches enacts both a resurrection and transubstantiation — embodying all the characters and voices within the original rock opera, as well as the context that received it, pulling it into the present. Then, the opera was accused of being ‘sacrilegious’; the only controversy Peaches’ production incited was related to intellectual property (though we know from the Wojnarowicz debacle that ‘sacrilegious’ art is still being censored). The original was already a kind of drag — “putting on” Christianity, and denaturalizing the holiness of Christian history and focusing instead on the human drama of it, and also camping it, presenting it “as if” and just totally going for it in the way that musicals do — overemoting, overdramatizing, overperforming. If in the 70s, Jesus was reimagined as a hippie, Peaches Christ Superstar reimagines the Messiah as a trash-talking queer and devoutly pro-sex woman.

In her interpretation of the crucifixion, Peaches stands on a small platform and spreads her arms, not really being crucified, but becoming the cross. A far cry from Jesus’ nudity, nearly all her flesh is covered. The entire show really is bloodless pageantry, celebration, entertainment – with the audience giddy at being encouraged to shout CRUCIFY HIM in the second act – as well as history lesson. (I’ll admit to not knowing much about Jesus Christ Superstar or the moment in which it was created, not having been alive at the time – maybe others can speak to more specific ways in which Peaches comments on the rock opera and its moment?) In the same way that Freeman’s artists reanimate the feminist and queer promise of the 70s, not through nostalgia but through ambivalence, Peaches uses temporal drag to perform historiography: she archives Jesus Christ Superstar for a predominantly queer and sex-positive audience who largely didn’t experience it the first time (at least, judging from the demographics of the Chicago show), and she suggests that its work, its exuberant defiance, is not quite done.

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