Journey to the Sun

Stephen Varble

1983 | 01:22:17 | United States | English | Color | Mono | 16:9 | 3/4" U-matic video

Collection: Single Titles

Tags: AIDS/HIV, Art Collective, Body, Camp, Feature Length, Gender, LGBTQ, Magic, Myth, Outsider Art, Performance, Ritual

Stephen Varble began Journey to the Sun as a series of performances with projected slides in 1978. After becoming notorious for unauthorized costume performances on Soho streets in the mid 1970s, Varble receded from his public persona at this time. Deriving from his identification with his idol, the reclusive actress Greta Garbo, and informed by the spiritual practice of Subud, Varble began writing an allegorical epic about a musician, the Grey Crowned Warbler, who undergoes tribulation and metamorphosis on a journey to transcendence. He turned to video by 1980 for its ability to be reproduced and distributed. Working with a shifting group of collaborators under the name “The Happy Arts School of Manuscript Illumination,” Varble focused his energies on Journey to the Sun and related decorative drawings for his Riverside Drive apartment in New York, where most scenes were taped. He dressed himself and his actors in the costume sculptures that had made him notorious, and he wrote extended monologues framing the story’s improvised scenes. Journey to the Sun is a freewheeling, loosely autobiographical fable that tells of the transformations and trials of the Warbler, played by Varble, under the hand of Sage Purple Pythagoras, played by Varble’s partner and collaborator Daniel Cahill. 

With frequent digressions into impromptu performance and layered visual imagery, Journey to the Sun was under constant revision and editing. Having been formally trained as a film director in the early 1970s, Varble undertook all aspects of the project, including video editing, and even composing some of the music on an early synthesizer, the Alpha Syntauri, paired with a home computer. Much like Jack Smith, who was a main influence, Varble saw his work on this performance for video as everchanging, and he constantly added and shuffled juxtapositions, footage, and audio. According to a 1983 statement by Varble, only thirty percent of this “endless work” was accomplished. Video editing continued through to Varble’s death from AIDS-related complications on January 5th, 1984.

This iteration of Journey to the Sun is taken from the only three surviving high-quality U-matic master tapes from 1983 (but containing footage filmed over the previous three years). The excerpt shown here has been determined from the narration by Sage Purple Pythagoras, and covers an uninterrupted segment of video across the three extant tapes. No changes have been made to the content of these tapes, other than the choice of where to begin and end this combined excerpt. Consequently, the story is incomplete, abrupt, and sometimes unconnected. Varble and Cahill planned (and shot) additional scenes beyond the story presented in this archived version. This segment has been chosen because it exhibits the most complex and resolved level of video editing. It represents a substantial, but not comprehensive, portion of the extant footage, and gives a glimpse into this highly ambitious but never completed work of video art. 

Digital transfer of the tapes was overseen by the Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Editing and production of this iteration were performed by Frédéric Moffet. Support was provided by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Goldabelle McComb Finn Endowment of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This archiving project was undertaken for the exhibition Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, that ran 29th September, 2018 to 27th January, 2019.

— David J. Getsy, curator, June 2018

This title is also available on Stephen Varble: Videoworks

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