Justin Vivian Bond has a habit of gracing holiday cabaret shows with sentiments attributable to a slightly skewed perspective. Previous titles for the artist’s seasonal affairs include “Star of Light! An Evening of Bi-Polar Witchy Wonder” and “The Bi-Polar Express,” and musical offerings within them have been known to showcase stirring renditions of songs such as “Somebody’s House Always Burns At Christmas.” This year, in the cozy environs of Joe’s Pub in New York, the tradition continues with a multi-night run for the newest variation on a theme: “Justin Vivian Bond: Manger Danger! Jesus as a Weapon and a Tool.”
The musically inclined and monologue-inclusive show—which opened last night and continues through December 23—follows in a lineage tracing back to Bond’s holiday-themed shows as part the outlandish cabaret duo Kiki & Herb, for which the artist channeled the persona of a booze-swilling, pill-popping octogenarian with a grizzled voice and a tendency to overshare. Music is the centerpiece, but garrulous banter between songs—as well as lyrics in the songs themselves, some of them originals and many of them covers of pop stars including Joni Mitchell, Taylor Swift, Adele, Radiohead, Prince, Judee Sill, and so on—coalesce into collective narratives about holidays both enjoyed and endured.
So what songs will feature this year? “The first line in the first song is ‘Tonight, there are no saviors,’ ” Bond said in an interview two weeks ago. Beyond that, the artist was reticent to share too much in the way of detail, so as not to spoil the surprise for followers in New York who have made a holiday tradition of getting soused and witnessing Bond muse over the holidays with a rich mix of playful wickedness and earnest investment.
Among a few general teases were vows to address “my crush on Jesus” and to “call out all the sex stuff that’s going on, to put it simply.” “Clearly the people who are using morality in a power play have absolutely, as far as I can tell, no moral authority whatsoever,” Bond said. “So the show is about using the North Pole and the cross as a way of navigating where we’re at with our morality this Christmas. I think that’s a nice way of putting it.”
The latest performance run takes up a calling that goes back nearly to the womb. “The very first show I ever did was when I was 18 months old, in my family church,” Bond said. “I was an early talker, and they put me up on the pulpit where they had a little children’s Christmas play. I said, ‘I can wish you, though I’m small, Merry Christmas one and all.’ That was my first performance, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Among Bond’s early muses was the great Joni Mitchell. “My aunt was a junior choir lady, and she made the mistake of teaching us ‘Both Sides Now’ in choir practice,” the artist said. “We weren’t allowed to sing it because it was secular, but I felt so much spirituality in it. That was when I first remember being confined in what counted as being spiritually validated. That song meant so much and affected people so much more deeply than the other songs.”
Whether Mitchell will figure in “Manger Danger!” is an open question, but a certainty on the set list, Bond said, is a song from the movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. “It’s a movie from the early ’80s with a soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Bond said. “David Bowie was in that film. I was stoned when I saw it.”
As for the moniker for the latest holiday show, the subtitle of “Manger Danger! Jesus as a Weapon and a Tool” winks at the New Museum exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” in which Bond features by way of an installation and an occasional performance piece for which the artist models in a museum window on open view from the street. “That show is not at all in any way homogenous,” Bond said of “Trigger.” “It brings up a lot of different ways of looking at art and who makes art, so I’m thrilled to be in it.”
Titled My Model | My Self: I’ll Stand By You (2017), the window piece relates to an installation inside the museum that alludes to Bond’s formative infatuation with the iconic model Karen Graham. (Earlier versions of the work have shown at AMP: Art Market Provincetown in Massachusetts, Vitrine gallery in London, and Participant Inc in New York.)
“I started drawing her in high school,” Bond said of Graham, whose modeling look helped defined ’70s and ’80s glam. An illustration by Bond’s teenage hand features in the installation, and then, for the performance component in the window, the artist puts down stakes for pre-scheduled periods and strikes poses inspired by Graham in an environment outfitted like a photographer’s set with hand-drawn wallpaper and a red velvet rope. “ ‘Two minutes is a long time’—those are the only words I’ve ever heard her utter,” Bond said of an interview that Graham once gave on camera.
As for the hot pink dress that Bond dons when in thrall to Graham’s legacy, the artist said, “I had to figure out what I was going to wear. What would be the relevant?”
While researching clothes from the time of Graham’s prime, Bond realized a lot of the designers’ names were unknown decades later. “All the names I didn’t know were designers who died of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s,” Bond said. “I was overcome. I got so angry and upset—it was one of those things that literally triggered me.”
One name that presented itself was that of Frank Masandrea. “Through my research,” Bond said, “I discovered that he had been one of the first people in the fashion industry to start doing events to raise awareness of how AIDS was decimating the fashion industry.” A search for vintage evening wear turned up a keeper designed by Masandrea himself: a “beautiful silk pink dress with a rhinestone tear drop,” Bond said. “It was on eBay for like $29, and it fit me like a glove.”
Bond described the tribute as bittersweet. “As a young trans person, I couldn’t conceive of myself in terms of wanting to be trans,” the artist said. “I would think of myself in terms of wanting to be a woman. I looked at heteronormative people because there weren’t trans people to look at as role models.”
“But who dresses these people?” Bond asked. “The gays—and then they die and nobody ever remembers them or thinks of them ever again. In creating glamour and these sorts of imagery that we are surrounded by, are we complicit, are we implicit, or are we actually not allowed to participate? You know, ‘You can do this, but you can’t do that.’ By standing in the window in this dress, I’m proclaiming the existence of all these things.”