I just got back from an intense two weeks of travelling, or should I say intense for someone who mainly likes being in bed. The holiday was ill-advised financially but I started out in Stockholm for 5 days of real holiday which was fantastic; such a beautiful, comfortable, opulent city, I was very impressed and definitely will get back there (mainly because I didn’t make it to the ABBA museum). Then I had a very nice weekend back home in Glasgow and ended with a slightly disastrous ten days in Berlin. I was there to take part in an art residency which involved sleeping in a tent, wild swimming and compost toilets in a rural location two hours outside the city; unfortunately my body and mind rejected the rough ‘n’ ready camping experience and after four nights I returned to the safety of the metropolis thoroughly traumatised and sporting three cold sores. Grateful for the experience and disappointed I didn’t embrace the opportunity with the ecstasy of the other participants, but maybe knowing more fully your weaknesses and limitations is in some way a positive result.
Anyway, I was back at work yesterday and after my shift I went to visit ‘Kiss My Genders’ at Hayward Gallery. It was nice to be back in London which over the course of my two weeks travelling has come to seem more homely and the show was very interesting, so I’m going to write a bit about it.
I went to see the exhibition, a survey of gender fluidity in contemporary art over the past 50 years, while I was also reading Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas by Christopher Reed (Oxford University Press, 2011). The book talks about different conceptions of art objects and sexuality that have held sway over different cultures at different times that make our current views pretty impossible to equate to other times and places; comparing current Western thought towards an Ancient world that had different definitions of male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, even the uses for art, objects and crafts, is only going to tell us about the culture that is trying to find those connections – either by approval or condemnation of past practices.
I was interested in the ripples of past cultures and mythologies that were apparent in the works of the artists in ‘Kiss My Genders’; most of the concepts of sexuality discussed in Reed’s book were referenced in the exhibition. I liked the breadth of the queerness displayed; though many believe there are as many genders and sexualities as there are individuals, there is always a tendency in society to find rigid definitions and codes, even down to right and wrong ways of being and looking queer. Viewing perspectives that chimed with something other than 20th century Western gay culture was refreshing.
The concepts of non-heterosexuality discussed by Reed are, heavily simplified, as follows:
- Normal part of maturation, as seen in Ancient Greek and Roman mentorship relationships
- Encounter of one normal person and one ‘deviant’, or sexual encounters where one person transcends gender norms, and the other is did-gendered. Ideas of a third sex or third gender, appearing in 18th century Europe, and South Asian, Mexican and Native American cultures
- Separate identity, shared by a subculture of individuals; this is kind of what we have now in contemporary Western industrialised cultures but only appeared in the 19th century
- Performative role i.e. having little to do with one’s own preferences, I guess a gay-for-pay kind of deal. Can be seen historically in Tokugawa Japan
Generally the artists in the exhibition focussed on their queerness as a site for transformation and metamorphosis; as a special quality that allowed them to pass between worlds, even transcending reality. Many photographed or used their own bodies as a site for such magical acts. Juliana Huxtable described minorities as being forced to create their own saints; several other artists referenced ancient or pagan religions, science fiction, dead gods, spirits; many combined human forms with animal or cyborg components.
The trend in this exhibition suggests that contemporary attitudes are starting to value queerness as not just an element of an identity, a sexual preference, as is traditional since the 19th century – but as something more closely associated with the berdache (or ‘two-spirit’) of some Native American tribes: a queer person as a member of a third sex, a group that was more spiritual than normal people, with special gifts such as communicating with spirits and predicting the future. As if moving between gender norms would allow you to move between worlds as well.
I’ve been of the belief that gender and sexuality can only ever form a part of one’s identity, and putting too much stock in just one part of your self doesn’t seem wise. Imbuing queerness with such power over reality is something we all crave; we all dream of portals into other dimensions, magic, transformation, becoming special and beautiful; and using a characteristic historically so reviled to ‘become magic’ is a hard-won victory of private fantasies and self-expression over mainstream society and conservative politics. I do think however that it is important to remember the difference; putting on lipstick isn’t necessarily going to save the world, and activism without storytelling and art isn’t going to win over hearts.
As queer fantasies move into the mainstream, and cease being an intimate, fiercely personal source of sexual play and experimentation, it’s important not to lose sight of the humour, individuality and storytelling that has gone into the fact of these private artworks existing at all. It comes from a source, and every source is different. Pierre Molinier, for example, never intended his photographs to ever be displayed, their use was solely for realising his own personal fantasies, which I really relate with. Only now there is an audience for such works, and his influence has been well noted.
Obviously with increasing visibility comes the power to make a public statement. The crossover between personal and political in terms of gay civil rights is nothing new, as can be seen from the works related to the AIDs epidemic, or violence towards the South African gay and trans community. But even these political works still had elements of performative fantasy: a costume made out of inflated condoms, a ballgown and movie-star style posturing.
There were many perspectives on gender and sexuality amongst the works, an impressive number; queerness was paired with colonialism, religion, medicine, politics, violence, sexual fantasy, history – which I thought was a good, energetic example of the potential intersectionality of contemporary art. I’d be happy if all contemporary art was queer. The only part that stuck out to me as a little jarring was the video piece by Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings: instead of expressing something about queerness, they had a more literal approach of documenting real subcultural locations, a sex club and a gay cabaret venue in Liverpool. Yes, it’s good to have the variety of a different approach, and I enjoyed the film, but something about the purpose/origin of the works grated on me, and I thought it was a bit too focussed on men. Something was missing for me there and I’m not sure how to describe it.
I think what I was most interested in the show was the relationship between private fantasy and public statement. Very few of the artists included didn’t use their own bodies or those of their immediate intimate circle; and I responded especially to the more intimate works.