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“Guest-edited by Tilda Swinton. Inspired by Virginia Woolf,” so reads the cover of this year’s summer edition of Aperture. The issue and the accompanying exhibition are centered around Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando, a piece of writing Swinton knows intimately, as she embodied the character Orlando in Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation of the novel.
Let me start by saying that I tend to be rather skeptical at the idea of award-winning actors curating art exhibitions, not so much because it indulges the cult of celebrity (I am guilty of writing quite a few fan-letters in my younger days), but because it implies that anyone — regardless of their professional background — can pick up curating as a leisurely hobby. As such, the widespread use of the term threatens to debase the profession irretrievably.
Swinton, however, is not a complete outsider to the art world. In the early 1990s, she starred in some of experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman’s most well-known films, and came of age with the Young British Artists crowd. A close friend to Cornelia Parker, Swinton was featured in the installation artist’s 1995 exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries, where the actress was on view among other curiosities, resting in a glass box constructed by Parker. Swinton’s presence struck such a cord with then MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, that he invited her to restage this particular performance (without any of its original context) at MoMA in 2013, drawing in significant crowds.
Orlando is Swinton’s first foray into curating, and perhaps not surprisingly (it being Pride month and all) she has decided to revisit a queer narrative in which a young English nobleman lives for three centuries without aging and changes genders along the way. Rather than selecting (dare I say curating) specific works, Swinton invited 11 contemporary photographers to contribute to the exhibition, including Zackary Drucker, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Mickalene Thomas. Some artists made new work specifically for the show, while others contributed something from their archive.
What results is an undeniably pleasing show aesthetically, reminiscent of those moments right before falling asleep in the sun; soft, hazy, and drenched in color. Cast against various lush backgrounds, Thomas explores androgyny in extravagant portraits of her partner Racquel Chevremont and performance artist Zachary Tye Richardson, while brilliant colors bleed into cold monochrome sculptures in Viviane Sassen’s Venus & Mercury series.
In her introduction, Swinton notes that she views Orlando as “being far less only about gender and far more about the profound flexibility of the fully awake and sensate spirit.” She is supported in this vision by various writing contributions to this issue, which include the usual suspects such as Jack Halberstam, Eileen Myles, and Maggie Nelson.
However, this vision does not shine through in the exhibition. There are a few notable exceptions; Sepuya thoughtfully addresses the blatant racism that takes place on the first page of Woolf’s novel, where Orlando is found playing with a decapitated head of a Moor. Lynn Herschman Leeson’s documentation of the five-year-long performance (1973-1978) she did as a fictional persona named Roberta Breitmore demonstrates that as early as 1973, she was exploring the false notion of an authentic self, visualizing a fluid identity that is not necessarily connected to gender.
Most of the photographs, however, are focused precisely on gender as it relates to the body; from Collier Shorr documenting the transition of model Casil Mcarthur, in breathtaking photographs that risk falling into the “before” and “after” trope of gender transitions; to Drucker capturing her role model and trans icon Rosalyne Blumenstein wearing a number of fabulous outfits, as well as fully nude.
I’m not saying that I didn’t appreciate the emphasis on gender — in fact, that’s what I came for. Yet the exhibition left me wondering whether there are ways of representing gender without a bodily reference. In the novel, Orlando’s overnight gender transformation is mentioned only in passing, without any elaborate description of what exactly took place. I have always loved this about Woolf’s writing; the fact that she does not dwell on the body, but focuses on nature instead. In various ways, nature speaks for the body; moods are decided by the weather, feelings described through changes in climate. “But Sasha,” Woolf writes describing the princess who left Orlando broken-hearted, “was from Russia, where the sunsets are longer, the dawns less sudden and sentences often left unfinished from doubt as how to best end them.” When we lack the language to understand the capriciousness of our bodies, we can always refer back to nature, which has always been fickle.
Showcasing some of the most talented photographers of our time, Swinton’s exhibition is certainly one worth seeing, even if it does not offer a curatorial intervention or challenge our imperious need to classify bodies. Remember that Woolf wrote Orlando as a fictional biography of her lover Vita Sackville-West, not intending for it to be a creative masterpiece, but rather an expression of affection or a compliment to someone she admired.
Orlando, guest curated by Tilda Swinton, is on view at Aperture Gallery (547 W 27th St, 4th floor, New York, NY) through July 11.
Correction 7/1/19, 1:43pm: An earlier version of this story misidentified Lynn Hershman Leeson’s fictional persona Roberta Breitmore. We regret the error.