Lady Hercules, a Prelude to ‘Journey to the Sun’

1982 | 00:43:32 | United States | English | Color | Mono | 16:9 | 3/4" U-matic video

Collection: New Releases, Single Titles

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

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The performance artist Stephen Varble spent the last five years of his life working on an epic, unfinished performance-turned-video titled Journey to the Sun (1978-1983). Only partially complete and under constant revision, this complex work combined Varble’s history of making costumes for performances, with his fantastic stories involving metamorphosis and martyrdom. In 1982, Varble decided to make a “prelude” to Journey to the Sun, combining existing footage with new video taken in Riverside Park in New York City. This self-contained video differs greatly from the bulk of Journey to the Sun in that it is not constructed around the main narrative, but rather is composed of prefatory remarks and extended footage of outdoor scenes, and contains no dialogue. The main aim of this prelude was to provide a key to some of the main sources for Varble’s thought — actress Greta Garbo, spiritual leader George Gurdjieff, and founder of the Subud movement Mohammed Pak Subud.

Lady Hercules opens with a monologue (performed by Charles Rue Woods), and then incorporates footage of Varble’s surrogate for the elusive Garbo — a woman he dubbed “Lady Phyllis,” who also frequented Riverside Park. From there, the majority of the tape involves juxtapositions of footage taken by Varble and his partner Daniel Cahill, to the accompaniment of music written by Varble on a music synthesizer, the Alpha Syntauri, paired with an early home computer. Additional music is by Varble’s former partner Robert Savage, including his 1975 composition Cowboy Nocturne. Largely an elegy to Garbo, the wordless section at the middle of the tape folds in imagery from Journey to the Sun (which was largely done inside Varble’s apartment), with what appears to be more recent outdoor footage. As he remarked in a 1983 statement, his “formidable task [was to] enhance the Garbo myth with every letter, add more and more music, petal power, animals, and trees, then shuffle her close-ups with only the finest artistic creations so that she may continue to encourage renaissance.” 

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 screening copy 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, 29th September, 2018 — 27th January, 2019.

— David J. Getsy, curator

June 2018

This title is also available on Stephen Varble: Videoworks