Air GuitarApril 10, 2008
Air Guitar is a collection of Dave Hickey’s essays ranging from popular and forgotten music, cartoons, mass culture, Donald Judd, Siegfried and Roy, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and even the world’s largest rhinestone. Hickey has a way of treating the subjects of art and culture as anecdotes to his personal stories. Each essay slips easily between its professed subject matter and into Hickey’s personal reminiscences that instead of derailing the topic, transform the subject into something larger than the sum of its parts.
For example, Hickey’s exploration of the queered space Liberace inhabited in popular culture in The Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz, examines the authenticity of the artificial. He intones: “One either prefers the honest fakery of the neon or the fake honesty of the sunset—the undisguised artifice of culture or the cultural construction of “authenticity”—the genuine rhinestone, finally, or the imitation pearl” (52). Through the glamorous chintz of Liberace’s persona on display at his Las Vegas museum, Hickey maps the glittering fakery of the world’s largest rhinestone as queer performance and allegory, which in addition dovetail cleanly with Des Esseintes’ desire to be freed from Law and Nature in Against Nature, or in the 1989 exhibition of the same name curated by Dennis Cooper and Richard Hawkins at LACE. Hickey discovers gems in the cast offs and ephemera of disposable culture.
One of the most daring aspects of Hickey’s writing is his willingness to inhabit his subject. He privileges his personal experience in the same realm as the subjects he is exploring, but this inhabiting becomes most literal in his first person portraits. In both A Glass-Bottomed Cadillac and Godiva Speaks, he writes directly from the appropriated perspective of his subject. This directly heightens the immediacy of the essay and is an inspired approach. Through it he uses interviews and transforms them into living breathing portraits of real individuals that transforms the hybrid material into something new and dynamic.
In A Glass-Bottomed Cadillac, Hickey invokes Hank Williams from “beyond the sunset by virtue of that special privilege granted to dead hillbilly singers on the occasion of their having been dead longer than they were alive” (122). The heaven he describes (there is no Hell) isn’t what one might expect.
We’re all sort of jammed in together up here, and the place we’re jammed into isn’t a bunch of glorious clouds like you might expect. In fact it seems to be this big cinder-block structure like the education building of a Methodist church in suburban Indianapolis. (122)
Hank’s heaven is the dingy uncelestialness of Americana with church basements, and protestant felt-board cutout-stories of Cain and Abel with the New Orleans Saints thrown in, mirroring the shabby dustiness of life on the road or old magazines stowed away in attics. This platform allows Hickey to speak though Hank Williams and create a portrait that goes beyond the scope of a biography piece as he extols a life spent between booze and drugs in the pursuit of the ongoing stage.
In Godiva Speaks, Hickey uses this technique to similar effect. Here he creates a portrait of Lady Godiva from the Gorgeous Women of Wrestling, in which we learn how someone who looked like “a perfect suburban kid” (190), grew up in Las Vegas to become a professional wrestler. Again working from interviews, Hickey gives us a slice of daily life and an insight into a way of thinking and being.
I look at my life, and it’s not like I’m some “artiste” who’s been influenced by pop culture. I am pop culture: Barbie, Pez dispensers, heavy metal, professional wrestling, cheese-flavored dog food. That’s me. So to cut to the chase: How did I become a “lady wrestler”? (109)
In retrospect, this quote could have pretty much been uttered by any one of Hickey’s subjects. His subject is less about what makes each unique (as opposed to that brand of idiosyncratic and individualistic Americaness we share), and more about how we are all pop culture. He brings his personal experience directly into the arena of mass culture, and it’s through this inhabited space that we can look towards the sublime and beautiful in a materialist culture.