Art

How Contemporary Artists Are Embracing the Ambiguities of Gender

What’s incredibly refreshing and exciting about Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon is that it’s a queer art show that specifically seeks a space beyond a taxonomic obsession.

Installation view Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, New Museum, 2017 (right) A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner’s “Community Action Center” (2010-2017), mixed media installation, and (left) Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s “Lost in the Music” (2017), video (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

There’s a quote from the Lorraine Hansberry’s play Les Blancs that comes to mind frequently these days:

I believe in the recognition of devices as devices — but I also believe in the reality of those devices. In one century men choose to hide their conquests under religion, in another under race. So you and I may recognize the fraudulence of the device in both cases, but the fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because he will not become a Moslem [sic] or a Christian — or who is lynched in Mississippi or Zatembe because he is black — is suffering the utter reality of that device or conquest. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn’t exist — merely because it is a lie …

Gender is such a device: a lie with potentially deadly consequences for those maneuvering outside or at the fringes of persistent and tightly circumscribed gender roles, as well as for many who fall well within the bounds of pre-defined femininity. It’s no wonder that the curators of the current, large-scale New Museum show chose the word “Trigger” to name their exhibition — seeming to draw directly from attention-grabbing headlines about trigger warnings, the murders of trans people (particularly trans women of color), the spread of anti-trans legislation, and the rise of mass shootings, almost exclusively perpetrated by men with domestic violence track records. The title is a carefully chosen and brash provocation.

The show also comes in the midst of a cultural moment in which there is a leering curiosity and faddish interest in trans and gender-nonconforming people in popular media. Different segments of the varied LGBTQ communities have had moments like this in the past — there was the lesbian chic moment of the early 2000s, the emergence of mainstream gay male love stories in the 1970s, and the laissez-faire androgyny of the 1920s. But these attentions tend to be fickle and short-lived. Queer narratives and imagery are amusing or novel for awhile, and then the tides turn back, acceptance wanes, and what was fashionable returns to being an object of derision.

For all these reasons, it’s virtually impossible to walk into Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon without high expectations and, particularly for those who identify as LGBTQ, without a concern that the show could be both exploitive and one-dimensional.

The other challenge is that these massive New Museum group shows are often just that — too much. Individual art works can end up drowning in a loud litany as viewers move from gallery to gallery to gallery.

These challenges made it all the more surprising to realize how much I liked the show.

Detail, House of Ladosha, “Untitled (a carry)” (2017)

One of the most striking works for me in the entire show are the texts by House of Ladosha covering the wall behind the ticket desk and extending to the cafe: a single work, “Untitled (a carry)” (2017). It’s a work that I didn’t even notice until I finished viewing all the galleries upstairs and sat down in the cafe to jot down notes — completely apropos for a show that refuses to make itself easily comprehensible or consumable.

House of Ladosha’s text is ripe, pointed, rigorous, and funny. It defies readers and viewers to claim any meaning, to categorize and contain: “Language is a literal shield — a way of making discourse untraceable, specific, and set up to fail as an object of appropriation.” It’s a “fuck you” to every person who walks into the museum thinking they’re going to understand and make use of queer art after viewing this show, whatever the viewer’s identity.

As queer theory and acknowledgement of the full spectrum of gender non-conforming identities have spread into the wider culture over the past decade, a new obsession with categorizing every possible permutation of gender and sexuality has arisen among both straight and LGBTQ people. The English language itself, along with capitalist frameworks that demand the market segmentation and commodification of just about everything, is in many ways to blame for this deep desire to draw boundaries around each object and person and idea. Rather than fully embrace the spectral metaphor with no clear delineations, there is a push to give a distinct name to every imagined position on this spectrum. While important to those who struggle to articulate their particular self-expression, this naming impulse can also quickly become tiresome, favoring static and contained expression rather than embracing ambiguity and the potential for constant change.

What’s incredibly refreshing and exciting about this show is that it’s the first queer art show I’ve seen that specifically seeks a space beyond that taxonomic obsession. The vast majority of the works included were created from 2015 to 2017, and it’s clear that the many artists involved are beginning to articulate the next conversation, the next chapter.

Installation view, Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon Tschabalala Self, (right to left) “Mista & Mrs” (2016), “Floor Dance” (2016), and “Mane” (2016)

Another noteworthy and exciting difference between this show and many recent queer shows is the resistance to nostalgia. Time and again you see references to and imagery of the fags, dykes and drag queens in nameless ratty bars, slinging drinks and smiling through fire. The same old glitter and shine on the old, leather shoe, the righteous activism of yore, the war stories and backroom fucks. While it’s absolutely true that bygone queer eras and their imagery remain under-recognized and under-documented in the larger culture, the frequency of their appearance in contemporary queer art exhibits can feel cliché.

This show has virtually none of that. Its backward glances reimagine and reify through abstraction, cartoon, humor, dissonance, and adornment. It doesn’t lack a connection to history, but many of the directly historical works are focused on remaking it, building it anew from remnants. Two such works include the film, “Lost in the Music” (2017), by Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel, and the series of 16 bas-relief sculptures by Vaginal Davis.

In Gossett and Wortzel’s film, the vitality and glamour of trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, whose life was captured only in fleeting images, is seen anew both in fictional and archival footage that celebrates her intense and endearing life force. Knowing little about her and many other early queer activists — particularly trans activists of color, ignored or willfully excluded by early historians — it can often feel that they aren’t fully human. They become symbols and devices, subject to the kinds of appropriation and exploitation that the artists of House of Ladosha are specifically working to resist. In fact, in the time since this exhibition opened, a new film about Marsha P. Johnson was released that incorporates footage and research on Johnson that Gossett (herself a trans woman of color) has been amassing for years. The new film does not give any credit to Gossett for her work, nor was she asked to be part of the making the new film, despite the fact that the filmmakers draw on her research. Notably, the director of the new film, David France, was critiqued in the past for whitewashing AIDS history with his earlier film How to Survive a Plague. This is to say appropriation and exploitation can and does happen both within and outside of queer communities, with grating regularity. What “Lost in the Music” does is take an interest in Johnson herself, rather than her symbolism or the circumstances of her life and death. It comes across as a gift of thanks that foregrounds beauty, laughter, and powerful joy over the lurid and usurious.

Installation view, Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon Vaginal Davis, various works

Vaginal Davis’s sculptures operate differently, but are also playing with extant scraps of queer history. Each of the 16 sculptures, made from a mix of clay, stucco, fingernail polish, and perfume, highlights various figures of yore, some with overt queer identities, many without — from the goddess Freyja to the French scholar Héloïse. Laid out like so many ancient fragments in countless museums in the West, these works evoked for me the looted Elgin Marbles or the overflowing rooms of antiquities at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Davis’s work seems to fly in the face of the conquests of empire by generating fragments of a rich and colorful culture that exists outside these white walls and can never be fully or properly understood within them.

These deliberate acts of confounding point out the absurdity of trying to pin gender and sexuality down, and do so with a touch of dark humor. There’s Candace Lin’s series of works that mimic herbaria samples but feature references to historic texts and images that offer funhouse mirror-like quotes from early texts that show us small glimpses of early perceptions of gender and sex organs. These texts include writings from ancient Greeks that describe the womb as an “animal within an animal” and speculate about the potential of male species to produce to milk — all of which point out the potential for our present to seem just as alien decades or centuries from now. There’s ribald energy in Tschabalala Self’s large-scale canvases featuring composite figures in fabric and paint whose eyes look out directly at the viewer, both challenging and also going right along about their business. And there’s the epic misery of Stanya Kahn’s video, “It’s Cool, I’m Good” (2010), in which the artist plays a character whose injuries of various and ever-changing origins both repel and draw onlookers across Los Angeles. It’s not so much a nod and a wink; it’s a private kind of humor, a self-pleasing kind. This isn’t for you, though you’re welcome to sit down and look.

Humor is not the only device at play, but slipping away from expectations and refusing to adopt recognizable shapes or characters returns over and over throughout the exhibit. No matter which floor you start on, by the time you’ve reached the end of the exhibit you will have been turned around or ended up in a dead end at least once. Using heavy black curtains to separate the spaces, the curators deliberately refuse an orderly experience. Many of the rooms have painted walls, but none that are painted are the same color. Some of the smaller rooms, such as the one that contains Wu Tsang’s video and print work or Liz Collins’s large scale “Cave of Secrets” (2017), are worlds entirely onto themselves — Tsang’s warm, wide, spare space, is a complete contrast to the maximal textiles of Collins’s installation.

Installation view, Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon Justin Vivian Bond, various works

This purposeful disorientation, combined with there being too many artists to even begin to catalogue here is refreshing in a way — one of the rare moments when too much is exactly enough. In other hands, a group of curators might have sought to ease an audience’s confusion, to explain and build narratives. But these curators have created a coherence in the refusal to cohere — an incredibly difficult thing to pull off.

Importantly, that lack of coherence helps to destabilize the category of queer art, even while powerfully asserting the enduring importance of the voices and perspectives of queer artists. For that alone, it’s a show worth seeing.

Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Manhattan) through January 21, 2018.

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