An Artistic Engagement
On a Sunday evening last March, Grant Rehnberg picked up his boyfriend Bradford Schroeder at work and drove him to a warehouse in Georgetown.
With help from his immediate family and friends, Rehnberg had spent five months and more than 120 man-hours at the warehouse, secretly building an art installation dedicated to Schroeder. The six-minute-long, walk-through installation illustrated the myth from “The Origin of Love,” a song from the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It ended with Rehnberg, down on one knee with a ring.
“The Origin of Love,” written by Stephen Trask, is inspired by Aristophanes’ speech from Plato’s Symposium, about a time when there were three sexes, each made up of two halves—male and male, female and female, and female and male. When the jealous gods split these hybrid humans down the middle, love was born—each part desiring to find its missing other, “seeking to make one of two,” whatever genders those two may be. Hedwig sings:
So we wrapped our arms around each other
Trying to shove ourselves back together
We were making love.
Rehnberg, who was raised an evangelical Christian, saw the musical as a sophomore in high school, and the experience became a first step toward accepting his sexual identity. “Hearing that song in the theatre was the first time that I heard a love song that was about me,” says Rehnberg.
Rehnberg’s studied to be a language arts teacher, but he’s currently working as site manager and props carpenter at Teatro Zinzanni. When he started thinking about a proposal, Rehnberg decided to build a visual of the song that had helped him to see the life he wished to build with another man.
The installation began in a chandelier-lit room with an armchair and a table where Rehnberg had left a booklet instructing Schroeder, when he was ready, to turn off the light and proceed through the warehouse. The moment the light clicked off, the song began to play, and Schroeder followed a trail of candles that led him through a series of art pieces. One scene displayed the gods like a curtained museum exhibit—an iron Thor made of screws and hammers, a Christ-like Zeus, wooden and riddled with nails, wielding a thunderbolt made from the welded halves of scissors.
As the humans were ripped apart by thunderbolts in the song, the lights shifted from white to red, orchestrated by the god Osiris, who Rehnberg made with four arms from severed mannequin parts. Then the lights then faded to blue and a simulated hurricane sent papers printed with pictures of torn bodies swirling across the floor. The room erupted in strobe lights before a wall slid open to reveal Rehnberg, who pulled Schroeder into a final candlelit room.
“The way that I wrap my head around my feelings towards Bradford is to create,” says Rehnberg, who compares the installation to a Disney ride.
Perhaps romantic gestures such as Rehnberg’s make it possible for couples to mythologize themselves. By claiming songs, special locations or images couples reinforce their intimate bond and cast their love in a larger cultural constellation. All expressions of love are art to some extent—daisies left on a windshield, initials carved into a tree, a cereal box containing only marshmallows. Rehnberg’s piece, however grand and labor intensive, managed to maintain the intimacy, ephemerality and spontaneity of a poem scrawled on a receipt and stuffed into a shoe.
The pieces of the installation are now divided between a storage unit and the couple’s garage. The couple is considering sharing them with friends and family at their wedding, but they wish to preserve the full experience of the installation in their memories alone.
As a backstage manager at Teatro Zinzanni, Schroeder witnesses roughly one public proposal a month. Zinzanni performers pull a couple onto the stage, the audience cheering and crying, frantically trying to determine whether or not it’s a scripted part of the show, the dazed couple encircled by a hula-hoop, kissing and sharing champagne.
“It used to make me cry because I thought I’d never get married,” Schroeder says. “Now it makes me cry because I am.”