MOMA PS1’s retrospective of the late theatre artist is a marvel of research and curatorial empathy

It is always startling to hear the dead breathe again, speak again. Reza Abdoh, one of the more profound and original theatre artists of the twentieth century, died, of aids, in the spring of 1995; he was thirty-two. And yet it’s his voice—political, inconsolable—that we have the privilege of hearing once again in “Reza Abdoh” (at moma PS1), the first large-scale retrospective devoted to this Iranian-born spinner of epic, omnivorous tales about queerness, aids, American TV and violence, the cult of celebrity, and the gay child’s relationship to the patriarchy. Co-curated by the museum’s director, Klaus Biesenbach, and Negar Azimi, Tiffany Malakooti, and Babak Radboy, of Bidoun, the show is a marvel of archival research and curatorial empathy, paying the kind of attention that Abdoh craved for most of his professional life but had trouble receiving.

 

Theatre didn’t so much save Abdoh’s life as reshape it into something more vital, more bearable, more controlled. Abdoh felt that his work could not be performed after his death—and he was right, because the impulses that moved him to destabilize the audience by destabilizing a world that he’d built can’t be re-created. His nerve and his nervousness were particular to the chemistry of his own body—a chemistry that, ultimately, failed him. But, until he died, he allowed us to inhabit his righteous and turgid, pure and debased universe, which he filled with the true and fake news of who we were, if only we would listen

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