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Endless Pursuit: Andrew Durbin on Klaus Nomi
Poet and Wonder editor Andrew Durbin guest writes about Klaus Nomi for The Visual AIDS Blog. The incomparable performer died thirty years ago this month, “alone . . . in the breathless, late summer days of ‘gay cancer.’” Durbin sheds some light on Nomi’s presence in the city (and now: “I see him like I sometimes see Frank O’Hara or Arthur Russell, two other queer artists whose original incandescence flamed out prematurely. I can’t stand that they gone, but they are”); and makes the David Bowie connect. Nomi performed with Bowie only once, as Durbin notes: “When David Bowie played ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ for his 1979 Saturday Night Live performance and sang ‘I thought you died a long, long time ago,’ Klaus Nomi sang back, ‘Oh no, not me.’” More:
Looking at the footage, Bowie’s immobile; Tristan Tzara-inspired Dada suit looks a lot like Gort’s humanoid robot frame. During the performance he had to be animated (literally carried across stage) by Nomi and Arias. It’s an odd, striking look that conceals much of Bowie’s angular, dance-y appeal. Attracted to the suit’s obscuring quality, Nomi adapted the outfit into the large, geometric suit and bowtie that became his iconic look, becoming the Tzara-Bowie-Klaatu of New York underground pop.
After Saturday Night Live, the earth began to spin again. There wasn’t a spot in the broader template of pre-MTV 80s pop for Nomi (if there was, he never found it—despite his rigorous, cross-continental campaign to do so), but this decade has retroactively created it for him. His cosmic paucity has made its way into the various image banks of recent couture, from Givenchy and Paco Rabanne and Hugo Boss to the Lady Gaga of the 2010’s “Telephone” video. Nomi has been a regular character on the late night cartoon The Venture Brothers. And the (admittedly weak) Nomi Song, one of a recent slew of documentaries that rediscover “lost” musicians, repositioned Nomi as the legendary downtown performer he was. Not quite a pop musician, not quite a performance artist, Nomi occupied a hybridized, queer place between media that, while certainly not unfamiliar to the art of the 1970s and 80s, seems far more at home among artists today like Ryan Trecartin and Peggy Noland, who have metastasized their visual eccentricities across multiple social and aesthetic platforms. Children of Bowie as we are, Nomi was the first—a name that both implies its negation and an exhortation to understand it, no me/know me, Klaus Nomi’s rhizomatic identity crisis is hardly alien.
The relatable condition of endless pursuit here. “The dream to transcend is so common most people ignore it.”