So Long to an American Original

Pink bougainvillea blossoms throng the trellis fence that surrounds his stucco bungalow, just two blocks from the beach and equidistant to a small network of canals. A lovingly tended garden, complete with plants bearing bright red tomatoes, lies just inside the enclosure. It's the picture of a cherished home.

But not for long. Time is running out for performance artist Tim Miller, a third-generation Californian from Orange County, and Alistair McCartney, his Australian partner of eight years. McCartney's student visa expires this month, so the trail-blazing performance artist will painfully wrench himself from these shores to take up residency in London, where McCartney, a British citizen, can sponsor Miller.

Simply put, the two refuse to separate, and American law doesn't honor their same-sex relationship; the Permanent Partners Immigration Act (House Resolution 690), to which Miller has devoted two years of fierce lobbying, languishes in the House of Representatives with no glimmer of hope for action and therefore of no help to citizens who as bi-national couples, numbering in the thousands, want to stay in the U.S.

“The situation Alistair and I are in is intensely emotional,” says Miller on a warm afternoon as the sun streams obliquely into their living room, its walls painted a lively coral. In his signature muscle T-shirt and sweat pants, he edges forward now from his seat on a cozy couch. “This is the land of the free, home of the brave. Yet it's forcing us to seek our civil liberties elsewhere. It's a contradiction of values to say one thing and do another. Still, if every other Western country had not changed its laws [to include gay rights] in the past 10 years, I'd figure America is just as messed-up as the rest. But America isn't able to do what they do, which makes us a huge failure.”

The beginning of the end came with the 2000 presidential election. Al Gore, says Miller, was in favor of the bill and ready to sign it. “But after the coup that put Bush in office, I knew the reality—even though the previous eight years of Clinton had lulled me into the notion that America would open its heart to gay and lesbian people. I'm embarrassed by my naivete and for our country.”

Already, the London papers are trumpeting Miller as the U.K.'s gain and the U.S.'s loss. And that's because the boyish 44-year-old has made a name for himself throughout Europe, as well as here, over the past two decades. Not just as a political spearhead—he was one of the infamous NEA Four, including Holly Hughes, Karen Finley and John Fleck, who, in 1990, went to the Supreme Court with their suit against the federal government for revoking artists' grants on grounds of indecency—but also as an American original.

When he went to New York as a 19-year-old and “did the same as many others: made a beeline for the Merce Cunningham studio,” he quickly became characterized as a Southern California wunderkind who created pieces “about orange trees and lawn mowers.” But Miller did more than that: he co-founded (with Charles Moulton and Charles Dennis) P.S. 122, an important experimental space for many dancers, and then returned to Los Angeles to establish Highways, a similar venue. Says Mark Russell, P.S.122 executive director, “There are many performance artists today. But the reason Tim has lasted so long is because of his global view. I've always thought he should be president one day. Who else can work a room better?” he says with a laugh. “But seriously, who else has his commitment and passion?”

Miller's very physical energy and autobiographical instincts focused at first on adolescent awakenings to the gay reality. Then the grim fact of AIDS came under his performance laser, and since then, he has used his art as an agit-prop tool to inspire a kinder, more tolerant spirit in the land. The performance art he spawned—a mix of confession, fancy, poetic monologue, memoir, abstract movement, song-and-dance satire, unabashed exhibitionism, and just-plain melodrama—is hyperrealistic. Intimacy by way of immediacy is its watchword. And he marks his trail to self-revelation in a feverish rant of child-like simplicity. But he also taps into the sensibilities of Philip Roth, Jean Genet, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman and Jules Feiffer—not, of course, as novelist, filmmaker or playwright, but as the auteur of his own genre.

Body Blows, at the Laguna Art Museum Jan. 17 and 18, is based on Miller's book of the same title (which features a deeply insightful foreword by Tony Kushner). Now touring 100 cities, the piece is a collage of material developed from 1987 and is about “blows given and taken, the sweet ones and cruel ones that are part of being gay in America, the slings and Eros of outrageous queer fortune.” Indeed, the slings are considerable. At this point, Miller is going through the psychological business of separating from the country that both inspires his love-hate relationship and provides grist for his creative mill. “Being American gives me optimism,” he says. “And being a white, middle-class, Protestant male gives me a certain agency. I can do things. The civil rights movement in the '70s reinforced that notion. But it has changed. People now have to pretend that Martin Sheen [of West Wing] is really the president and that Will [of Will N Grace] would not be fired for being gay or hauled out of his bedroom in the middle of the night and thrown in jail in 13 seconds.” On the other hand, he says, a gay couple—”if they make enough money and work for a hip-enough corporation and are both citizens and white”—can create a gay bubble. Still, some might forget that this country denies gays and lesbians the two major markers of citizenship as handed down through traditional Western culture: military service and marriage. “If I died,” Miller says, by way of example, “Alistair could not inherit the house. I could as easily leave it to a neighbor or the cat. The law does not respect our relationship, our family, our household—in effect, our humanity.” Nor, he adds, were blacks allowed to marry during slavery, nor women to enter contracts until the '30s. The downside, in his experience, began when then-President Ronald Reagan avoided mentioning the word AIDS for the first six years of the scourge, a period that claimed 80,000 lives. “He stopped every effort for inquiry,” says Miller. But days after 12 cases of Legionnaire's Disease came to light, the Great Communicator signed an order to investigate it. “I've never thought our country does anything but try to kill my community,” he adds. Grievous, depriving and infuriating as all this is, Miller says he nevertheless likes being “a canary in the mine” and gives this example: “If Alistair were from Azusa and not Australia, that would change things. It would mean one less problem. Then I'd be dealing with all the considerable rest, the 2000 election. Looking for justice everywhere.” Tim Miller performs Body Blows at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Jan. 17-18. Call for time. $15.

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