“The individual is a succession of individuals … The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day.” – Samuel Beckett
LONDON — Self-hood is revealed to be a complex thing in Oisín Byrne’s new film work GLUE. Currently exhibited at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art in London, GLUE is a 50-minute portrait of Byrne’s friend and longtime collaborator Gary Farrelly, a quick-witted and acid-tongued cross-dresser who refuses to adhere to a fixed identity. Seated in front of a mirror in a fan-shaped pearl brooch, Gary declares, “I don’t think there’s one me … I’m not a human being, I’m a federation of opinions.”
An Irish artist based in London, Byrne has long been preoccupied with naming, identity, and queer experience. In his essay “On Being Named,” he discusses John Waters’s Mondo Trasho, Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning as well as critical texts by Sara Ahmed, Sian Ngai, Judith Butler, Susan Sontag, among others, to explore naming and constructed identity as longstanding queer practices and survival tactics.
GLUE positions Gary’s willfully fragmented, mutable, and plural sense of self within this history. Linguistic games become high camp spectacle: Gary spits out bizarre insults, invents fictitious boyfriends with “chest hairs like weather systems,” and adopts strange personas. Gender presentation is unmoored, hybrid. Sharp wit, clip-on earrings, and constructed identity become tools of resistance against voices of criticism, and even a form of attack against a hetero worldview. (At one point, Gary proposes a wily game to destabilize the identities of straight men by calling them “Igor”: “That tends to really get them going, because heterosexual men normally believe that their names are indisputable.”)
Even the most charismatic persona has its fragilities, however. Gary reveals early on that he suffers from narcolepsy, and that he spent ten years braced by a heavy cocktail of prescription drugs that removed his capacity for self-reflection and minimized his perception of risk, causing him to partake in “completely reckless, wild behavior”. When he came off this medication, he recalls, feelings of insecurity and anxiety came “crashing back”. For the first time in Gary’s adult life, he has to contend with self-doubt.
This newfound emotional vulnerability is at the heart of GLUE. A sort of “superego voiceover” occurs throughout: “You’re a disaster,” declares the opening line. And Gary appears threatened by the growing pregnancy and immanent motherhood of his friend Sondra — as if childbirth might somehow undermine his continual self-invention. And so, with doubts and cracks entering his portrait, and no narcolepsy pills to protect him, Gary’s struggle is not for infallibility, but resilience.
50 minutes is a tricky length for a film — not quite a short, not quite a standard feature. It operates in the uncomfortable realm of the filmic novella, and GLUE could benefit from further whittling down. However, its lengthy shots are key to revealing Gary’s vulnerabilities, and it’s in these moments of pause that GLUE finds its strength. The camera’s lingering gaze exposes the limitations of his coping mechanisms, creates humanizing moments when his façade slips.
GLUE is also stylistically lush, shot against an array of artful backdrops and accompanied by a zingy soundtrack by Nina Hynes. (A cover of Amanda Lear’s “Enigma (Give a Bit of Mmh to Me)” is a highlight.) It’s also buoyed by diamond-sharp dialogue, even at Gary’s most downbeat and vulnerable. Sparking up an unlikely friendship with Anya, an older German lady on a train, Gary speculates that homosexual men age in dog years, “which puts me well into the 200s.” “Well,” Anya replies, “it’s time to get a new dress, in that case, right?”