In 1988 Oprah invited self-help guru Louise Hay onto her show to describe Hay's work with people with AIDS. At events she dubbed "Hayrides," Hay raked in thousands of dollars from AIDS-afflicted audiences who paid her to help them heal using her meditation and positive-thinking techniques. Days, weeks, and months later many of these followers were dead.
"Without the AIDS epidemic," said the New York Times' religion columnist in 2008, Hay's empire "wouldn't exist." (Today there are over 35 million copies of Hays' book You Can Heal Your Life in print. Her website also offers astrology calendars, iPhone apps, and audio CDs about feng shui.) But it's clear that Hay and many followers truly believed that her methods were something of an alternative to political change and medical innovation.
Through paintings depicting the Hayrides, sculpture (including body casts of queer people who lived through the first-wave AIDS crisis), and clothing (one particularly striking piece: T-shirts proclaiming "PEOPLE HAVE AIDS."), Jason Fritz Michael and Matt Momchilov look at "the limitations and failures of self-help, fashion, art, and other media," which in the 1980s tended to conflate queerness with illness and stood in for "real advocacy, activism and transformation."
How were you introduced to Louise Hay?
Jason Fritz-Michael: I became infatuated with her through my close friend, Sarah Lakey, who is trained in the arts of touch hypnosis, emotional freedom technique, chakra alignment, PSYCH-K, and gem elixirs. Sarah thought I would find [Hay] particularly fascinating as a guru figure.
Matt Momchilov: I was introduced to her through Jason, actually. He had a solo show in Oakland at AS IS Exhibitions earlier in the year, and that whole show was dealing with ideas of queer death, disease, and healing and empowerment through self-help. One of the pieces was a sculpture he made that was supposed to be my tombstone. Ain't that sweet? And it was also starting to deal specifically with Louise Hay - so I really just jumped on as a collaborator for the New York show after his amazing show in Oakland sparked my interest in this whole world.
Do you think Hay was just profiteering from fear about HIV and AIDS with her Hay Rides, books, movies, calendars, and appearances on Oprah?
JFM: No, I believe there was a real sense of passion and care behind her work, that she truly believed in the mind-body connection. However, it seemed to take on a life of its own, morphing into something that felt more constructed around books, tapes, videos, postcards, cruise ships, calendars - kind of less sincere feeling.
But this liminal grey area in her and other self-help gurus' work is always really interesting. The letting-go of negativity is always the goal, but what happens when our actions toward a positive, healthy life become the negative? Like her cruise ship retreats, where someone is paying to experience a healing ritual, while simultaneously this vessel that "heals" dumps massive amounts of garbage and waste into our oceans, pays the crew unfair wages, and consumes large amounts of fuel, food, cleaning supplies and enough toxins to overpower any affirmation. Where is the transformation of this waste? How can we heal on bigger scale?
MM: I agree. I think that's always the irony with any person who gains a lot of visibility with some special knowledge or power they're trying to teach you. Something might originate from a good place, but then you find out the priest is molesting little boys, the televangelist is embezzling money, Miss Cleo is being investigated for fraud, and the self-help guru is hosting healing retreats on a slave ship.
I think sometimes the people we look up to for answers end up with more responsibility than they know what to do with and lose touch with their core - but ultimately, I don't think Hay has any malicious intent or is deliberately doing anything that's deceptive.
Tell me about the creation of her life-sized sculpture.
JFM: The sculpture came from a life cast of the amazing, "'$65,000 Silicone Wonder' herself, Miss Gina LaDivina!" to quote from her introduction at the legendary drag bar in San Francisco, Aunt Charlie's Lounge, where she performed for many years. The construction was pretty similar to the process in that behind-the-scenes look at the making of "Thriller": lots of liquid goo, breathing through straws, and holding positions for long amounts of time while listening to Lou Reed.
I wanted to use Gina because she was a physical example of what it means to heal and transform. She captured a higher power beyond words, in my mind. And anyone who has seen her perform is sure to agree! As a representation of empowerment, she questions what it really means to "heal" one's life - not through blame and shame but through self-creation and the power to be yourself and love who you are. She really made the piece - bringing into the discussion performance, drag, questions of identity, and history. Gina not only had been to the Hay Ride meetings during that time but also had met and cooked lunch for Louise. That really made the whole experience almost unreal and extremely personal. We had our own little higher power transformation that day.
MM: Absolutely. Gina totally made the piece. As far as the actual construction goes, the life mold we made of Gina was cast in concrete and then painted. We did work with a lot of photos - mostly headshots of Louise Hay from the eighties and early nineties - so the effect was this really strange double-portrait: Gina LaDivina in Louise Hay drag.
Did you approach creating the pieces of clothing included in the show differently from other pieces that are more likely to be seen hanging in a gallery?
JFM: The [PEOPLE HAVE AIDS.] T-shirts are similar to Hays's work in the fact that they question a mode of transferring information, and call for action both internal and external.
They were inspired by the 1980s political message T-shirts of Katharine Hamnett, and the shirts leave the viewer feeling a little vague. The shirt isn't asking anyone to do anything. It's not meant to stand in for any real activism. But it forces those who wear the piece to have a deeper and more complete connection to the text "PEOPLE HAVE AIDS."
The artists' collective in Brooklyn where you held the NYC show, Monster Island, is being torn down to make way for a Whole Foods. How did it feel knowing yours would be the last show there?
JFM: During the show I photographed the entire space - hallways, bathrooms... I knew it would be the last time I would ever see the building, and the whole space was so epic, so lived-in and special.
Raul De Nieves, one of the artists involved with the space, called it their "clubhouse," and it was truly amazing to hang out there before its scheduled implosion. Another treasure gone to make way for developers.
MM: Really strange. Even though we don't live in Brooklyn, it's a space that so many amazing artists, musicians, and friends have been connected to for such a long time. The idea that all these people are being displaced to make way for a fucking Whole Foods is pretty unbelievable. Haven't people learned how this Joni Mitchell song ends?
Jason Fritz Michael is an interdisciplinary artist whose work shuttles between performance, installation, and disaster. Originally from Detroit, now living and working in San Francisco, Fritz's work is heavily in conversation with the histories of the queer future and representation through documentation. He holds a degree in Film and Women's Studies from San Francisco State University, and his work has been exhibited in galleries, performance spaces, and universities throughout the U.S. and Europe. His film Portrait of Bonnie has been screened at film festivals and has toured at universities in 2010. Fritz has participated in performance collaborations in New York, San Francisco and Berlin--and brings nothing less than Pure Joy.
Matt Momchilov was born in Centerville, OH, in 1986. He is a multi-media visual artist and troublemaker whose portraits investigate the spirit of American subcultural spaces. He received his BFA in Painting, with High Distinction, from The California College of the Arts in 2008. His work has been exhibited, collected, and written about nationally and internationally, and he is a two-time winner of the Robert Ralls Memorial Scholarship, a Scholastic Art and Writing Awards National Silver Key winner, and a recipient of the 2004 Presidential Scholarship in Visual Arts. He currently lives and works in San Francisco.
This interview also appears in the current issue of No More Potlucks.