Tim Miller's naked body is often generously displayed in his performances, but there's much more to him and his work than that. His new book, a collection of six autobiographical solo performance texts titled Body Blows, allows readers to focus full attention on Miller's poetic and irreverently funny writing.
Each script is preceded by a short introduction from the author, detailing the personal and cultural context in which he wrote the piece. The book also includes a witty introduction by playwright Tony Kushner, as well as performance photographs of Miller taken over the years by Dona Ann McAdams. Unfortunately, Body Blows does not contain Miller's earliest efforts, such as the intriguingly titled Paint Yrslf Red/Me & Mayakovsky (1980) and his breakthrough work, Postwar (1982). Miller explains their absence by noting that a number of these are not as text-based as the later pieces, relying more heavily on movement and multimedia components. The scripts anthologized in Body Blows, written between 1987 and 1999, showcase the solo performer's development as a writer.
There's an open-hearted earnestness to Miller's writing that is balanced by a campy humor and a penchant for metaphorical whimsy. Far from shy about revealing intimate personal details or narrating sexual escapades, Miller nevertheless avoids self-indulgence by tying his performance work into an activist praxis; his shows are more than just amusing anecdotes. The impact of AIDS on the gay community and the struggle for recognition of same-sex marriages are two of the most pressing issues he tackles. These impassioned cries for equality, justice, and an end to discrimination aren't just empty slogans; the power of his work comes from the relation of very personal material towards a specific political agenda.
As Miller documents in his introductions, his activism doesn't stop when a performance is over. He has been beaten by cops for protesting at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, was arrested with ACT-UP on numerous occasions, and has participated in guerrilla activist performances; he and his lover Alistair applied for and were denied a marriage license on Valentine's Day, highlighting the inequity between the rights of straight and gay couples.
Body Blows is not just a collection of the work of an innovative and influential performance artist; it also serves as an invaluable document of the so-called "culture wars" of the 1980s and '90s. Miller may be most well-known for being among the so-called NEA Four. In 1990, he and three other artists--Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck--were denied grants from the National Endowment for the Arts despite unanimous approval by a peer review panel. The defunded artists then sued the NEA, arguing that homophobic discrimination was behind the loss of their grants. (Miller, Fleck, and Hughes are openly gay; Finley's work covers a broad range of sexuality, including gay-related themes.) In 1993, having stirred up a nationwide controversy over arts censorship, the Four won a court battle that restored to them the amount of their grants plus all court costs but, as a result of this debacle, the NEA stopped awarding individual grants to performing artists. Moreover, the Clinton Administration appealed the case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that the NEA could make funding decisions based on "general standards of decency," striking yet another blow against controversial and oftentimes sexually explicit artists.
The best of Miller's performance texts is the celebratory and mournful Naked Breath (1994), which conjures up poetic images and connects them with a procession of religious metaphors. Part of the monologue is set in 1981: Miller, working as a carpenter, has a sexual encounter with a stained-glass installer. Then he accidentally cuts off the tip of his own finger and runs to a Catholic hospital, bleeding. (All of this, by the way, occurs on the day that the Pope was shot.) Later, after receiving a skin graft and coming home with his lover, John, Miller looks out at the East River and has a prophetic vision: "For an instant I saw the blood that was about to rise up from that river. I saw a wall of angry blood that would sweep away so many, that will sweep away John. I saw this for a second, a deluge about to come." John then brings Miller back to his apartment and washes the blood off of his body.
This is a perfect illustration of the ways Miller arranges autobiographical material to create art: Blood spills from the body of a carpenter; the Pope is shot; Miller's lover is named John; Miller becomes a visionary, a prophet, and John washes his body. The writer/performer utilizes familiar religious iconography and layers it over his own story to tell a bittersweet tale of life just before the devastation of the AIDS epidemic which, he notes, would "sweep away" so many of his friends and lovers.
Body Blows seems an apt title for a book that details extremes of physical and emotional damage while at the same time offering a candidly queer and overtly sexual outlook on life. The volume serves as a nice companion piece to Miller's previous autobiographical novel, Shirts and Skin (1997). The earlier work consists of the author's reminiscences in prose form; those who are particularly interested in his actual performance scripts will find this newest publication very much to their liking.