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Bring Your Own Body: Transgender Between Archives and Aesthetics, currently on view at the Cooper Union, illustrates not just the multiplicity of transgender identities but the many forms of expression those identities take. While the mainstream media, obsessed with celebrities instead of everyday people, continues to show a narrow, unified vision of transgender identity, the exhibition portrays the struggles of transgender artists to find their own narratives. Taking its title from an unpublished manuscript by intersex pioneer Lynn Harris, Bring Your Own Body traces a history of what it means to be transgender, with objects from the Kinsey Institute archives and the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria in dialogue with contemporary artworks.
The show is curated by Jeanne Vaccaro, a postdoctoral fellow in gender studies at Indiana University and a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and Stamatina Gregory, associate dean of the School of Art at the Cooper Union. The two have gathered work that helps us respond to the question: how do we counter the erasure of transgender narratives in feminist politics, gay and lesbian archives, and histories of art? On display are documents and rare publications such as the magazine Transvestia, launched in 1960 by cross-dresser and activist Virginia Prince; anonymous, black-and-white amateur photographs of people performing gender non-conforming identities; and original “standards of care” in the treatment of gender dysphoria. Self-identified transsexual Louise Lawrence, who corresponded regularly with Dr. Kinsey, left scrapbooks and photo albums chronicling her everyday life to the institute. There is a photograph by Christine Jorgensen, the first trans woman to undergo gender-affirming surgery, on a visit to the Institute for Sex Research (Kinsey Institute) in 1953. All of these and more document the history of being transgender in America, while also assembling an alternative archive.
Along with that memorabilia, Bring Your Own Body features the work of 16 contemporary transgender artists who are creating new narratives and genealogies that reflect the multiplicity of their experiences. Interacting with the Kinsey and Transgender Archives materials, the artists respond to, resist, or revolt against a history that has erased them. They problematize categories such as motherhood, womanhood, and family, instead offering different possibilities for gender, relationships, and communities based on love and care.
Justin Vivian Bond’s installation “My Model Myself” (2015) critiques the conventional mother-daughter relationship. Paperback copies of the famous pop-psychology book My Mother Myself: The Daughter’s Search for Identity by Nancy Friday are spread over a rug; the cover and title, however, have been changed to My Model/My Self. Resisting linear heteronormativity, Bond introduces self-creation as a way to survive and searches for her own role models instead. The installation includes watercolors of Karen Graham, the face of Estée Lauder Cosmetics from 1970 to 1985 and a woman Bond was obsessed with during adolescence. In wallpaper, Graham’s face is juxtaposed with self-portraits of Bond, reflecting and enhancing the obsessive nature of the relationship. Even if such a search for the self becomes a capitalistic endeavor — with glamorous makeup and external images leading to self-determination — the search for a trans identity is inserted into the popular narrative. Bond’s posters, wallpaper, and books create a space for contemplation and a possibility for acceptance.
Trans artists who had strong online presences during their lifetimes are also included. Work by the Argentinian Effy Beth is on view for the first time in NYC. Beth wrestled with the legacies of feminist art by riffing on canonical works like Judy Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom” (1972). Her photograph “A New Artist Needs to Use the Bathroom” (2011) captures Beth as she stands near the door to a women’s bathroom, the names of feminist artists written on her naked back. Her work also critiques essentialist notions of the body: through performance, online blogging, and photography, she recorded her experiences during her first year of hormonal treatment. The exhibition includes a pamphlet with excerpts (translated from Spanish) from Beth’s performance “You Will Never be a Woman,” a response to those who had told her she would never be able to menstruate.
Mark Aguhar was an MFA student at the University of Illinois, and her work centered on queer expression and what it means to grow up gay on the internet. Her words in glitter on arches paper resonate throughout the exhibition, with messages such as “I’d rather be beautiful than male.” She also ran the popular blog Call Out Queen, whose tagline was, “BLOGGING FOR BROWN GURLS.” There she called out white, male, and thin privilege and affirmed queer identities. Both Beth and Aguhar were 25 when they died, and it seems impossible to divorce their deaths from the disproportionate violence that gender non-conforming people of color face within broader society (even within so-called “queer” communities). Their deaths are echoed in the immense losses of trans people of color, who continue to bear the brunt of anti-LGBT violence in the United States. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), 67% of those killed in LGBT- or HIV-motivated crimes were transgender women of color in 2013.
A screening of “The Queen” (1968) on October 24 captured moments in the life of Flawless Sabrina, who founded the Miss All-America Beauty Camp Pageant in 1958, at the age of 19. Resisting the idea of traditional family relationships and advocating for self-made communities instead, she went on to craft a mother image for others with non-gender-conforming identities and continues her mentorship of young queer artists today. Artist Zackary Drucker and archivist Diana Tourjee — two of the “granddaughters” who are working on the Flawless Sabrina Archive — joined her in a dialogue to discuss the archiving of Flawless’s lifework. Drucker shared her first encounter with Flawless: “You are on the wrong side of the camera,” she told Zackary, who was trying to take a picture of her outside a club.
This comment captures an ethos in which authorship moves beyond one person to become a collaborative project between artists, archives, and their formed families. In the exhibition, Flawless, who was a contemporary of Warhol, helps rewrite mainstream art history by preserving and presenting her own alternative archive. “When is a Warhol or an Arbus simply part of the Flawless Archive?” ask the curators in the catalogue. Bring Your Own Body reframes the histories we think we know so that transgender identities are rightfully recognized.
Bring Your Own Body: Transgender Between Archives and Aesthetics continues at 41 Cooper Gallery (The Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square, East Village, Manhattan) through November 14.