Elijah Burgher

Interview by
Michael Bullock


Elijah and I were naked when we met last spring. We spent the night in an abandoned house on Governors Island just off the tip of lower Manhattan and I fell asleep in his lap. It was a strange and fantastic night. We had both been invited to participate in artist A.A. Bronson’s mysterious Queer Sprits Invocation, an all night séance he has now held three times, in three different cities.

The night was a bonding ritual with the goal of inviting queer spirits from the past into the room to guide our ‘big topics’ of conversation, allowing the spirits wisdom to effect the present. It involved fifty candles, twenty-two spices, ten bottles of rum, a circle of leaves, one ounce of Florida Water, six butt plugs (three large, three small) and a variety of flamboyant feathers. No pictures were taken and although no one was officially sworn to secrecy all attendees kept quiet about what went on and how these items were used. A few months later Elijah sent me a link to his blog where he had posted some drawings of the night he made from memory. The drawings, which bear visual similarities to the work of David Parks and Patrick Angus, are the only visual documentation of the event. Last month Elijah had his first solo show. It’s no surprise that his work focuses on magic, rituals, the male body and the occult. Elijah tackles the darker side of life but always with a friendly approachable touch. I called him to find out more about his work and understand his process.

Michael: Congratulations on your first solo show, what did you exhibit?
Elijah: I brought in a ton of stuff, like more than I could hang, and ended up showing all the things that I’ve made since Christmas time. It was mainly pictures of guys preparing a ritual space, a couple were images of the Queer Spirits project and I also showed a couple of sigil drawings as well.
A couple of what?
Sigil drawings. They’re drawings of a magical emblem.
Oh the ones that look like symbols? I really like those drawings but I have no idea where they’re coming from or what they mean.
If you look up sigil in the dictionary it will say something to the effect of ‘an emblem which has magic powers’. If you know anything about chaos magic, it’s pretty strongly associated with this 20th century occultist, Austin Osman Share. He would spell out his wish or desire and then he would remember repeating letters and then combine the leftover letters into a symbol of some sort. He thought the extreme method for casting them was to visualize them during orgasm so he would just masturbate while starring at his sigils. It’s jerking off to an abstraction. And the idea being was that you would blast it into the universe where it takes feet and blossoms.
When was he inventing the sigils?
He was roughly contemporary with Aleister Crowley so kind of early 20th century.
And was he gay?
No he wasn’t. He actually was a total pervert. He was abused when he was a child by his nursemaid and as I understand it, for the remainder of his life he would always seek out much older prostitutes. I like the sigils because it’s magic for a visual artist. He was a pretty awesome artist. He did really beautiful drawings and paintings.
Could you take me through one of the sigil drawings, like ‘Sustained and Broken on Purpose,’? What are the symbols and how do they work together? Or does it kill them to reveal them?
After you condense the letters into a symbol, you’re technically supposed to forget what the meaning is and that’s part of putting it out there in the world. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing that. I usually think of a bunch of them and keep them in a folder until I forget what they mean and then draw them.
Do the signs become an alphabet?
I like to think of them as being an alphabet of desires but the original meaning is lost. Some of it you remember. There’s one, I hope I don’t break the spell saying it but I will anyways. There’s one called ‘Promise Delivery.’ That one was to cast a spell to have the work ethic of a beehive.
And has it worked?
Oh yeah, totally. I’ve stopped sleeping much because I have a day job and I do my drawings when I get home. So I work almost all night.


On your website you have a Burroughs quote that says, ‘All art is magical in origin…(it is) intended to produce very definite results.’ What does that mean to you?
That quote is important to me because it asks you to clarify what your passions are before you do something, it asks you to take your ideas seriously because they will have some effect on the world. Imagine that all the artwork you look at is casting spells on reality, It’s an interesting way to think about what artist’s intentions are and what effect they can have.
Can you talk a little bit about queer magic? What is it to you?
Well I don’t know if there really is a queer magic. I’m interested in Chaos Magic. I’ve learned about magic through artists like Burroughs. He was a practicing witch.
I never heard he was a witch?
Yeah him and Kenneth Anger and Jean Genet. I don’t know what it is but there seems to be a link, between outsider queer artists and the Occult. I’ve followed some of those interests by looking into groups who practice queer paganism. Here in Chicago we have a group called Brotherhood of the Phoenix but ultimately I can’t be myself joining one of those groups and practicing with them. Sometimes the organized stuff feels kind of hokey and new agey.
I wouldn’t necessarily state inauthentic but some of the language that I’ve come across feels really, kind of like self-help, which I don’t like. The thing I like about the Occult, (not that I practice black magic) is that it puts you in contact with the darker aspects of life. For me its much more about what I do in the studio.
Do you mind explaining some of your images?  Like what’s going on in ‘Blood Letting Bathers’?
I’m still working on the newer version of that but the main idea behind it was something about sacrifice. One guy is holding a knife to the back of his arm and he’s about to make an incision and let blood into that pool. It started with a photograph about landscapes in the back of my mom’s house. I grew up in the backcountry of upstate New York. I love going home and wandering around in the woods. I take tons of pictures so when I come back to Chicago I have plenty of spaces to work from. I liked this one photograph of the reflection of the trees in the pond. It reminded me of blood swirling around in water. I was playing with that idea.
It looks narrative.
It’s not part of a particular story though. It’s more about one image and I kept on doing versions of the same image and I still don’t think I’ve totally gotten it right. But the idea is that someone is doing something slightly violent to himself with an audience standing in a circle around and establishing it, maybe as a rite of passage of some sort.
And then how about ‘JCDC (Burroughs’ Rose Wallpaper)’?
That was a portrait of my boyfriend Carlos. I was taking pictures of him and asked him to pose like I bound him. It became sort of like queer icon Saint Sebastian. I’ve done other Saint Sebastian drawings but I can’t do it right when he’s tied up to a post. I like it better when he’s belly down and tied up. And then the space of it, that pink circle, that kind of came from when I was in New York and saw the Francis Bacon show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve never made a Francis Bacon-like figure so I figured I would try out stealing the way he stages his figures
Is there any connection between sex and magic?
I don’t really know much about sex magic. I’ve read about it but I’ve never practiced it. Burroughs’ novels are usually about a private investigator who has to figure out a crime and creates a ritual space and gets fucked by some boy with candles around him while tape recording the whole thing and that leads him to solve the puzzle. So there’s all this sex magic in puzzles like those.
Is that something you’re interested in?
Yeah I’m interested in it but right now it’s still in the space of imagination.

Published on 02 March 2010