Los Angeles

Mariah Garnett, The Pow’r of Life Is Love, 2021, two-channel video projection, 4K video, color, sound, 13 minutes.

Mariah Garnett, The Pow’r of Life Is Love, 2021, two-channel video projection, 4K video, color, sound, 13 minutes.

Mariah Garnett

Writing in his 1993 book The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, Wayne Koestenbaum asserted, “I hypothesize that opera’s hypnotic hold over modern gay audiences has some connection to the erotic interlocking of words and music, two contrary symbolic systems with gendered attributes.” Mariah Garnett seemed to test this conceit in her recent exhibition, “A Heart of Opal Fire,” which featured an ambitious new video installation that takes on opera, gender, mental health, family history, exoticization, and queer love—namely, a tryst between a woman and a rock. Garnett’s expert handling of the systems of music and language—which appeared in this presentation in the forms of love letters, lyrics, historical narratives, self-help regimens, and esoteric philosophy, among others—rendered the show a compelling portrait of artistic urgency and psychological disorder.

At the center of the installation was the impressive video The Pow’r of Life Is Love, 2021, a staging of act 3, scene 1 of a previously unrealized opera, written by the artist’s great-grandaunt, Ruth Deyo, that Garnett discovered last year among some family papers. Deyo was a concert pianist who, while on a 1924 tour in Cairo, purchased an antique stone bust that she alleged was inhabited by a spirit named TAA. As described at length in Deyo’s diaries—select pages of which appeared on Commonwealth and Council’s website—TAA became Deyo’s lover, intellectual confidant, and a fierce supporter of her musical practice. Fragments of their flowery correspondence are presented in the video through voice-over during a dreamy interlude that features a dramatically lit rock on a pedestal in an empty theater. But the majority of the thirteen-minute work captures a moving performance by soprano Breanna Sinclairé and tenor Christopher Paul Craig, who appear, respectively, as ancient Egyptian monarchs Queen Ankhesenpaaten and King Tutankhamun—characters from Deyo’s libretto. Here, they belt out cantos with raw emotion, singing about a love that transcends space and time with lines such as, “Thy destiny and mine / Transcend this earthly phase / Dazzling white / A mighty flow’r / In flame.” The lyrics were projected as captions above the main video, a nod to the conventions of live-staged opera.

The Pow’r of Life Is Love isn’t the first work in which Garnett has used family history as source material—for instance, she adopted the identity of her estranged father from Northern Ireland in her videos Other & Father, 2016, and Trouble, 2019. But in adapting her great-grandaunt’s writing, Garnett only scratches the surface of her ancestor’s fantastic inner world. Moreover, in probing this particular narrative, Garnett importantly acknowledges a system of othering in which her family participated, since Deyo’s opera borrows liberally from Egypt’s cultural past and her text is littered with Orientalist thinking and what we recognize today as cultural appropriation. Garnett’s piece, staged for a twenty-first-century audience, brings visibility to BIPOC and queer virtuosos: Craig and Sinclairé—both of whom are Black, the latter a transwoman—give spellbinding performances unburdened by over-the-top sets and costumes. Each singer, simply dressed and spotlighted on a completely darkened stage, does all the heavy lifting through the power of their voice and presence. Garnett’s work blurs operatic fiction and historical narrative while drawing connections to the present-day world and its political realities. During the show’s run, for example, an anti-transgender demonstration turned violent outside of a well-known Los Angeles spa just half a mile from the gallery, spurring weeks of counterprotests and clashes with riot police. Against this backdrop, Garnett offered a reminder of art and opera’s ability to sublimate the destructive impulses of the material world.