A Photo Exhibition Reduces Queer Desire to Clichés

Installation view of Tomoko Kikuchi’s work in ‘Medium of Desire: An International Anthology of Photography and Video’ at the Leslie-Lohman Museum (all images courtesy the Leslie-Lohman Museum unless otherwise noted)

Try not to roll your eyes: the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art has created an exhibition about the erotic. It’s safe to presume that homoeroticism has been a popular curatorial theme at Leslie-Lohman. In fact, the word “erotic” appears in the titles of nearly 25 exhibitions over the collection’s 27-year history. After officially registering as a nonprofit in 1987, the museum’s inaugural show was called A Winter Exhibition of Homo-Erotic Art. Today, with a collection of over 24,000 objects, the museum has ended up where it began — with a narrow focus of what it means to be queer.

Occasionally, Leslie-Lohman does mount an exhibition that captures the many dimensions of life that gender and sexuality affect. Exhibitions like 2011’s Creating A Queer Museum and 2014’s Queer Threads asked viewers to think of queer art in terms of history, medium, and identity politics instead of through a simplistic, voyeuristic lens.

Not so with Photography is the Medium of Desire, which says nothing new. Instead, the exhibit regressively reduces such a diverse community to a few parting glances and big dicks.

Installation view of Dimitris Yeros in ‘Medium of Desire’

The exhibit mostly resembles the mawkish sentiments of a Lifetime movie: melodrama without depth, expression without illumination. This is probably due to the exhibit’s goal to universalize desire, which museum director Hunter O’Hanian believes “can serve to minimize our differences and bring us closer together.” An interesting enough conjecture, but this show does not serve the international community it claims to. Medium of Desire is as diverse as the museum’s staff, which is to say: white, cis male, and gay. Of the 14 artists exhibition, 10 are white and only two are female. There are no transgender artists. The closest we get is Tomoko Kikuchi, who documents the women of Beijing’s transgender community.

Not only does this perceived exclusion limit the exhibit’s scope, but the show fails to expand upon the themes of desire, namely those of voyeurism and the male gaze. The outcome is pure exhibitionism, relying on homonormative tropes to drive a sophomoric message of uniform emotion antithetical to the queer community. Perhaps desire does look all the same, albeit through a lily-white lens. It certainly does here.

Hang Ren, “Untitled” (1986), digital print, 15.75 x 10.63 in (image courtesy the artist)

The exhibit also fails to deliver its premise, that photography is the primary medium of desire. While that supposition might be true, Medium of Desire recoils from its mission. How can we view photography in such dull, conventional terms after the Museum of Modern Art’s New Photography 2015 exhibition? There, photography is revealed as the primary mode of communication in the internet age. If photography is the medium of desire at the Leslie-Lohman museum, it speaks rather sparsely and slowly — and only in clichés.

At worst, artists pigeonhole their work into fetishism without having anything to say. In one photograph, Hang Ren appears with two dicks for eyes. In another, a man pees on him while he wears a plastic bag over his head. (If you are going to photograph yourself in the process of a golden shower, at least commit to it.) It probably doesn’t help Ren’s case that Ohm Phanphiroj also has a golden shower photograph directly across from Ren’s. But why are these photographs even here? What do they have to say about photography as an erotic-driven medium versus the pleasure found in the sexual act itself?

Tomoko Kikuchi, “Xiaozhang sitting on the bed after breast implants surgery Shengyang, Liaoning Province” (2007), digital print, 21.85 x 14.49 in. (image courtesy the artist)

All is not lost, however. A few artists do challenge the relationships we generally draw between photography and the erotic. While Tomoko Kikuchi and Joseph Maida are outsiders to the communities they photograph, both photographs accomplish a tricky feat: they mitigate an impulse to exploit with a desire to understand. Kikuchi captures the gains and perils of Beijing’s transgender community while overcoming her own voyeuristic impulse to photograph these women as a straight, Japanese tourist. In one image, we see the oblivion of her subject’s desires: Kikuchi provides an empathetic distance from her female transgender subject who, clad with bare prosthetic breasts, ominously clutches a bloody shirt. Similarly, Maida’s adept portraits mess with the conventions of voyeurism and the exotic by ceding power to his Pacific Islander subjects who know their own sensuality. For example, his portrait “Xayasana (Thai, Laotian)” depicts his subject in a foreboding lava field, which she seems to embody, meeting the camera’s gaze while sensually swaying in the wind.

In 2016, questions of representation and agency are extremely important for the visual arts community. We should celebrate diversity rather than stifle it. With its recent announcement to expand, the Leslie-Lohman Museum is poised to become the primary institution for the promotion and consecration of the queer arts community in New York City. Oddly enough, the museum falters as a bastion of the male hegemony still apparent in the larger art world. Where are the women? Where are the genderqueer bodies equally deserving of desire and to desire? With Medium of Desire, the Leslie-Lohman Museum predictably veers toward male-love clichés while ignoring the need for an inclusive present.

Medium of Desire: An International Anthology of Photography and Video continues at the Leslie-Lohman Museum (26 Wooster St, Soho, Manhattan) through March 27. 

comments (0)