This documentary portrays the life and death of performance artist and AIDS activist, Brenton Heath-Kerr. Through his repertoire of performances, costumes and photographs, Heath-Kerr challenged perceptions, dominant stereotypes and myths which he thought underpinned the gay communities and notions of gay identity. An emigre of drag and a gender misfit, Heath-Kerr understood that often holding a mask up to society had more political impact than holding up a mirror.
A Scarlett Pictures Film. Writer/Dir/Co-Producer. Paul Andrew. Prod. Kath Shelper.
‘The nature of the disease means your life is shortened and this concentrates your creativity and passion and the urge to express yourself honestly. I’ve realised I wouldn’t have created any of my work if my path had been different.’
It was Heath-Kerr’s HIV positive status that led him to re-evaluate his life, stop working in ‘straight’ jobs and explore his creativity. He began by making ‘little, fun, sort-of-light-up things – spinning gadgets’ to accessorise outfits but it was his insecurity with his physique that initially led him into making entire costumes, ones that enclosed the body completely. He began to explore how people are ‘read’ through image, commenting on how much importance society places on this reading yet how superficial and unreliable it can be.
‘My reason for covering the whole body, face, hands and usually I only leave the eyes.. is that I want to express the human being as actually any image. It’s just a shell and principally we’re all the same underneath. Differences are surface. They are what we do, not who we are.’
Heath-Kerr’s costumes involve complete characters although the actual personalities are developed only with the wearing of the piece, a strange experience in itself. ‘I make everything pretty fitting and, with the nature of mask, you experience a whole sense of suffocation but then beyond that something happens. it’s a sort of spiritual experience. Your range of vision is very narrow, which is the same for most costumes. That adds to the sense of delirium.’
He also used photography to explore other aspects of his characters’ personalities, often revealing a more private self through placing them in unexpected situations, such as the macho Tom in a face pack scrubbing the kitchen floor.
For Heath-Kerr, the impetus to make a costume began with a major event such as the Mardi Gras or an exhibition opening and the character revolved around the image he wished to project there. ‘I’ve tried as much as possible to give them a longer lifespan than just one event. Of course, when I first started they were things I only wore for the party then trashed.’
Heath-Kerr believed his lack of formal art training enabled his particular form of art to develop because he did not have the restriction of thinking about what should or should not be done.
Brenton Heath-Kerr died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. He was 33.