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  • Writer's pictureDan Koh

“a fire of tenderness”

Marsha P. Johnson, Alvin Baltrop, Anohni, portrail
Gay Lib activist Marsha P. Johnson on the cover of ANOHNI’s new album 'My Back Was a Bridge For You to Cross'. FOTO: Alvin Baltrop 2022 Estate of Alvin Baltrop/ARS, NY

i've been house/catsitting for a dear friend, waking up early every day at his remote, nature-ensconced place that has little divide between outside and in. it's restorative, of course, and daily, before the backbreaking, depressing hustle of late capitalism begins, i take the time to listen to the noisy-AF birds and literally touch nature and sunshine. over coffee, i make it a point to confront the news (hate-read ST; deep-read the Guardian), and very soon, as i learn of new ways the climate is collapsing, the chirping begins to sound like screaming, the sun starts to feel too hot, the leaves strangely wilting.

though no one seems to want to really address it, the recent turn in contemporary art towards the ecological also includes a lot of greenwashing (not naming names, but i'm sure you know who all these people are lah), in the same way the most polluting oil & gas conglomerates financially support a lot of the arts. it seems to me like many artists feel the pressure to become environmental, in most cases all of a sudden, in order to be relevant, woke, or continue to receive funding, even if it's all just lip service and they're destroying the planet making their wasteful art.

which is why it was so refreshing to immerse myself in ANOHNI's new album, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross. she's been engaging with the political-as-personal, anti-patriarchal, the transversal and existential from the start (Blacklips Performance Cult, 1992), which are what the environmental crisis is really revealing itself to be. plenty has been written about her and her instantly seminal album, so i'll keep my sharing and admiration brief and hopefully fresh:

Anohni as Fiona Blue during her Blacklips Performance Cult days. FOTO: Megan Green

- as others have pointed out, this is her first guitar-based album, after her new-operatic, piano-focused works of the past. i think, like her tribute to her mentor Lou Reed, "Sliver of Ice", that this has allowed her to embrace an even more punk rock yet mellow aesthetic that doesn't sacrifice on the live, organic soul—it's an album modelled after Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971) after all.

- i also admire how, after her last full-length, the electronic, in-your-face HOPELESSNESS (2016), My Back... adopts a less confrontational, more graceful approach. it seduces instead of strikes. i don't think there's any one, even the conspiracy theorists amongst us, who doesn't truly know the undeniable facts of climate collapse—does provoking them into action really help? can empathy, kindness, and humanistic personalisation—“a fire of tenderness”—be the more radical solution?

- Laura Kim Sommer and Christian A Klöckner's recent study of COP21’s eco-art festival "discovered only three of 37 artworks made a positive behavioural impact...All three, they found, belong to the 'awesome solutions' subset; they were sublimely beautiful, were exhibited outside, clearly showed the effects of human behaviour, and were regarded as something new." of course, art has never meant to have such a direct, scientific relationship with human behaviour and societal change. yet, in these very soon-to-be end days, do we honestly and practically have the time, resources, and capacity for art's so-mythologised long-term and mysterious impacts?

- while "sublimely beautiful" in its own and even classical ways, My Back... to me is essential because it recasts climate collapse in personal, romantic, haptic, and truly biophilic ways. way, way beyond virtue signalling, trends, and metaphors, she shows, and allows us to feel, that if we committedly open ourselves up, that our dying planet, and our culpability and potential, is also an abusive relationship falling apart; a loss of our only home, the love of our lives; “rotten teeth”; a cause of our oppressed sexualities and histories; our very sustenance and mother, who is leaving us quickly because we insist on killing it, and ourselves.

- i'm not sure if this will eventually have a behavioural or philosophical impact, but wow, do i stand in awe of ANOHNI's useful gorgeousness. she deserves all the flowers in the world (but don't pluck them, please). it's rare moments like this that i can still believe in the revolutionary potentials of art. it's not about commissions, awards, ego; it's about our atmosphere, our ecosystem, our very existence.

- rebecca solnit, another leading light, writes in support of why "we can't afford to be climate doomers": "people assume you can’t be hopeful and heartbroken at the same time, and of course you can... Hope is not happiness or confidence or inner peace; it’s a commitment to search for possibilities."

𝑇ℎ𝑒 𝑡𝑟𝑢𝑡ℎ 𝑖𝑠 𝑡ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑙𝑜𝑣𝑒

𝑊𝑖𝑙𝑙 𝑟𝑖𝑐𝑜𝑐ℎ𝑒𝑡 𝑡ℎ𝑟𝑜𝑢𝑔ℎ 𝑒𝑡𝑒𝑟𝑛𝑖𝑡𝑦

𝑊𝑒'𝑟𝑒 𝑛𝑜𝑡 𝑔𝑒𝑡𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑜𝑢𝑡 𝑜𝑓 ℎ𝑒𝑟𝑒

𝑇ℎ𝑎𝑡'𝑠 𝑤ℎ𝑦 𝑡ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑖𝑠 𝑠𝑜 𝑠𝑎𝑑

𝑁𝑜 𝑜𝑛𝑒'𝑠 𝑔𝑒𝑡𝑡𝑖𝑛𝑔 𝑜𝑢𝑡 𝑜𝑓 ℎ𝑒𝑟𝑒

𝑇ℎ𝑎𝑡'𝑠 𝑤ℎ𝑦 𝑡ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑖𝑠 𝑠𝑜 𝑠𝑎𝑑

𝑇ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑖𝑠 𝑜𝑢𝑟 𝑤𝑜𝑟𝑙𝑑

𝑇ℎ𝑎𝑡'𝑠 𝑤ℎ𝑦 𝑡ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑖𝑠 𝑠𝑜 𝑠𝑎𝑑

𝑇ℎ𝑎𝑡'𝑠 𝑤ℎ𝑦 𝑡ℎ𝑖𝑠 𝑖𝑠 𝑠𝑜 𝑠𝑎𝑑

𝐼𝑡'𝑠 𝑠𝑜 𝑠𝑎𝑑

𝑆𝑜 𝑠𝑎𝑑

𝑊𝑒'𝑟𝑒 𝑗𝑢𝑠𝑡 𝑔𝑜𝑛𝑛𝑎 𝑏𝑒 𝑎𝑙𝑜𝑛𝑒 𝑖𝑛 𝑎 𝑝𝑙𝑎𝑐𝑒 𝑓𝑜𝑟 𝑢𝑠

— ANOHNI, "It Must Change", 2023


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