Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weaponby Rindon Johnson
THE NEW MUSEUM | SEPTEMBER 27, 2017 – JANUARY 21, 2018
Diamond Stingily’s braid of synthetic, dark Kanekalon hair, Kaas (2017), coils in a small pile near the elevator on the first floor of the New Museum. Inspired by Kaa, the snake from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, it rises upward, straight into the ceiling where it re-emerges on each floor, cutting through the center of each wall text, ending in small bobbles high above the viewer’s head on the 4th floor. Whose braid is this? How are we to read it? Are we to climb up it? Or does this braid belong to Medusa? Am I to turn to stone or do the turning?
Stingily’s braid situates me—here I am, black and trans at the New Museum. Memories of the bags of synthetic hair and braids I threw out every two months in my own childhood … I am tender-headed again, I am at the salon again, scalp covered in oil, tired, it has been hours, I will look great after, I will get hair spray in my eyes. Looking upwards, I cannot help but think of a line Gil Scott-Heron riffs at the end of “Johannesburg,” “Let me see your I.D. to prove you’re you instead of me.”
The New Museum marks the 40th anniversary of the museum’s founding with Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon; presenting works by more than 40 artists across a vast range of media, all exploring gender “beyond the binary.” A focus on the multivalent nature of gender, neither fixed nor constant, suggests and produces responses that might flood any inquisitive mind or mapmaker. The flood occurs because gender is both the dam and the flood—it is confusing, misleading, maze-like, infuriating and exhausting; gender, like language, is hard to understand. How do we exist within a system that is essentially a series of signifiers? What is gender? What does gender do, exactly? What does it demand of its participants? Its dissenters? How might it function as a tool? How might it function as a weapon?
Although it is gender’s gossamer frame that binds the works in Trigger together, with each room functioning as a soft container easily giving way into the next—the next floor, the next sensation and the next exploration—ultimately, what gender is is intentionally not resolved. Are exhibitions really meant to create some sort of resolution for their viewers? Is it the role of the artist and the museum to educate the viewer? Is it the role of the critic to judge? Gender is not nameable and as such, I do not think an analysis of what a show about gender should or should not do is a productive exercise.
Gregg Bordowitz’s 2017 performance lecture Only Idiots Smile features the artist on a stool in the New Museum’s top-floor sky room, riffing on the formation of his identity. At one point, he explains his “Jewish identity is the template thru which I understand all my other identities… how to appear to others, how we’d like to seem to others,” how others might frame themselves to be seen by us. In this way, Bordowitz gestures at what seems to be the most legible piece of this exhibition, templates for framing—each artist explores variations on the frame through presentation, history, fantasy, sculptural construction, and material.
On the second floor, Mickalene Thomas’s 2016 video sculpture Me as Muse (2016) stretches across 12 televisions anchored by pans of Thomas’s own body (meant to be viewed as specifically her own and universally representative of the black female body). Positioned in recline, nude on her side for a spectator as a grand Odalisque. Thomas weaves past paintings of Odalisques such as Manet’s Olympia (1863) with images of black women who have become readily consumed by pop culture, like Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman (a South African woman brought to London as the Hottentot Venus in 1810) and Grace Jones (who famously satirized the Hottentot imagery with Jean-Paul Gautier). The soundtrack that accompanies Me as Muse is an interview with the pioneering black entertainer Eartha Kitt.
As Thomas’s body slips in and out of time, color, video, and photograph, Kitt describes her experience with desire, “A man always wanted to lay me down but no man has wanted to pick me up… many men have loved me without ever touching me.” What more is there to say?
Kitt’s words ringing in my ears, I turn to follow the clicking of Mariah Garnett’s installation, which is an open room directly across from Thomas’s muse. Before I arrive, I nearly fall into ektor garcia’s layered floor and ceiling based installation. The objects garcia presents are knitted, reflective, soft, sexy, leather, placed, thrown; I wonder what those gloves might be for, could I lay my stomach on that leather, sit on that chair, fit that rope around my neck? For a moment, I am lost in the possible subjugation of garcia’s knitting—What is a whip that is also a hand?
Still reeling, I arrive at Garnett’s 2012 16mm film installation, Encounters I May or May Not Have Had with Peter Berlin. Peter Berlin, a gay sex icon from the 1970s, provides a cozy persona for Garnett to inhabit. Part animation, part documentation of performance, part room-scale installation, Garnett’s inhabiting of Berlin reminds me of the endless queer-themed books, essays, articles, and films thrown at me in high school. My teachers sought to make it clear to me that I was not unique, rather that there existed a long lineage of people who looked and acted as I did, and that meant that there were many bodies for me to experiment with and inhabit. If I was still a trans teenager today, I wonder if my teachers would feel obligated to steer me as they did then. Has the internet changed the way that role models are understood and lived within? Does it matter? Garnett’s installation, with its experimentation of Peter Berlin, sends each image, abstracted, onto to the wall or flying on film into the ceiling, worlds unto themselves, kaleidoscoped through a disco ball.
A great deal of this show seems to be just as much about imagining being inside the work as about seeing it. I fantasize so that I might inhabit. Why does it feel so good to construct my fantasies in public, in a museum? What is the purpose of seeing myself and my peers represented? What is the real power in representation? Is it familiarity? What is the role of the arts institution in our fake-news fever dream? Is it actually representation that is the tool and the weapon? I know that the capitalist wants representation, because it is through representation that the capitalist gains power, money, and control. What does the anti-capitalist want? What would I want, as a queer person of color who has watched these systems chew and spit out other queer people? To level the playing field and pull apart the neoliberal agenda? Is it to recapitulate capitalism and place ourselves within what is perceived as a normative context? Or is the goal to create a new context all together? Can that be done if I only know one context? Or maybe I am interested in fantasizing inside the museum because, like the backwards play of Liz Collins and Lauryn Siegel's S&M film Control Room (2017) shown behind a peephole, I want the familiar and soft inside that I inhabit in my community to become so large that there is no longer an outside, like the peephole to a screen, doors lead nowhere, finally rendering us a part of and whole.
Continuing on the second floor, Sable Elyse Smith’s wall-scale neon piece Landscape III (2017) includes the line “To show the value of touch.” This work’s scale and placement magnify the line’s linguistic agility—the viewer cannot get too close or they will not be able to fully see (read) the sublimity of Smith’s untouchable landscape. Landscape III is a mixed reality of a classic virtual kind, the illustration of language vividly implanted in the mind: Poetry. Smith’s neon shares the room with two sculptures by Anicka Yi and six paintings by Christina Quarles. Yi’s sculptures feature languishing vacuum-sealed jewelry draped over a transparent shelf and a transparent chair, two surrogates for the bodies they might belong to—untouchable, frozen, perfect. Meanwhile, Quarles’s paintings depict figures roving in-between foreground and background, planes folded in on themselves, lingering on top of one another with an application of acrylic in patterns of contraction, which creates images that feel simultaneously flat and dimensional. This is a room full of poetry-as-landscape, of surveys on bodies, suggestions and traces all oriented towards pressing the language around bodies open, a somehow vulnerable taunting.
The soundtrack for Wu Tsang’s 2015 video Girl Talk easily, slowly beckons the viewer with the soliloquy of Betty Carter’s song Girl Talk performed by Josiah Wise, “It’s my plan, please take my hand.” Tsang’s installation focuses on a human-scale screen angled slightly in the corner, surrounded by red cushions. Intimately shot, Girl Talk is in part a portrait of Fred Moten, whose face, form, and body fade in and out of recognizably, all at a slightly slowed speed—drag speed—beads bouncing, smiling in the sun, a delicate euphoria.
Upstairs on the third floor, this same sonic layering proves confounding albeit intriguing as I find myself trying to dive deep into Troy Michie’s gracefully adept collages while listening to the soundtrack of Sharon Hayes’s seemingly never-ending interview video piece, Ricerche: Three (2013). Michie’s work mixes bodies in such a way that the viewer feels as though their head is moving quickly; meanwhile Hayes’s interview of 35 students at a historically women’s college mimics this movement. Hayes moves the microphone fluidly in front of student after student, asking people of varying genders, races, and ages about their lives. It is hard to focus on the delicacy of Michie’s formal concerns without getting distracted by Hayes’s pointed questions. Just as I’m studying a multidimensional hand in Michie’s collage, I hear one student explain that he only uses male pronouns at his historically women’s college, because it is the only place where he feels comfortable to do so; he explains that until people have the “vocabulary to justify,” they “won’t understand.” Looking at the layers of Michie’s collages, I wonder what the bounds of vocabulary really are, and what of desire, dimension? What is “justification” and what is “understanding”? For this student, I wonder as I wonder for myself, why does it feel so crucial to concurrently become male and reject being male? The format of this question feels intrinsically important not just for my understanding of my own masculinity but also for considerations of gender, bodies, and representation: Why does it feel so crucial to both become something and reject something, concurrently? Today, if I were to take a stab at answering this frankly rhetorical question, I might say: There is no becoming and there is no rejecting; it is the maintenance of a state that is always in-flux that is crucial, it is the right to remain in flux that is important, there will never be a proper point of arrival. Tomorrow, my answer might change.
Once I do focus on Hayes’s work, I find myself again pulled towards another soundtrack in the next room—Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s “Lost in the Music,” which uses a fantasy space to tell the story of legendary activist Marsha P. Johnson (1945–92). In creating this historical-fiction film, Gossett and Wortzel find a version of ourselves in the past so that we can see ourselves more clearly in the present. Then, Johnson lived as she wanted, despite the danger, and now trans women of color do the same every day. Here is reclamation through dramatization, a form of portraiture and self-portraiture, an ontological modeling. Sharing the room with Gossett and Wortzel is a large scale collage of stills from A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner’s sociosexual film Community Action Center (2010); Curtis Talwst Santiago’s intricately beaded masks on stands, which greet me at an intimate eye level; Connie Samara’s 15 works from Edge of Twilight (2011–13), a series of photographs of the homes in a secluded women-only retirement facility; and Ulrike Müller’s stunning, silky enamel-on-steel paintings and a rich maroon textile. Müller renders a state of constant going over and becoming in Others (2017), a steel and enamel piece that proves particularly alluring and velvety in its depiction of two stacked, intersecting arrowed circles, blue-over-black or black-becoming-blue or black becoming. In the next room, Harry Dodge and Paul Speuja show different takes on portraits in relation to one’s body and desire. This elegant mélange of works on the third floor wonder together: How is a politic constructed? How is a portrait constructed? What is desire in relation to the self? (What is desire?) When is one at home to pretend to imagine? When must we wear a mask? When is the mask the home?
Portraits around desire and ambiguity abound in Leidy Churchman’s adept handling of numerous forms of timely portraiture, from a squid on the ocean floor literally painted on a floor, to the circulation of currents, to the badge of the state police, to some sort of Freudian nightmare. In every painting presented here, Churchman’s subject matter and control of oil is mesmerizing and charming, with each image forming a seemingly timeless, self-aware speculum. In The Great Global Ocean Conveyor Belt (2015), Churchman quite literally paints us, the earth, with what seems to be the ocean currents swirling on top of one another, loops on either end slide off the canvas, circular somehow. One current becomes another current; there is no end and no beginning.
On the fourth floor, Simone Leigh presents three startling anti-portraits in her installation “Signs and Grips” (2017). An anti-portrait is essentially a portrait that is not meant to be seen by every viewer; one a viewer might already know or else take the time to know. One such anti-portrait is a continuation of her “Cupboard” series, based on sub-Saharan African grass hut architecture often constructed by women. Cupboard VII (2017) is a hut one may not enter. It is nice to watch other viewers circle the hut looking for the entrance. We see but do we fully participate in. The interior exists for the sake of having one, or for someone else. Protection, strength, ambiguity, and the power of architecture are echoed in Leigh’s other two sculptures, presenting body parts of women as both vessels and mechanisms, bending into the wall or hanging from the ceiling. Across the room from Leigh, Sondra Perry presents a perplexingly exciting sculptural video piece whose front is a circular runny hourglass sunk inside of an eye-level blue metal square backed with a curved screen depicting a circle swirling in and out of the background. I put on the accompanying headphones and catch, “I’m a vessel ready to be used.”
Emily Dickinson suggests in the title of poem #1158, “Best Witchcraft is Geometry.” To triangulate, to bind an unbindable thing, or in this case a construct that is best understood in relation to its other implied constructs (blackness, queerness, femininity, collage, time), is a project that might produce an alchemical type of magic—A viewer cannot be so sure what is being done, just that it is happening to them.
I cannot be so sure as to why there seems to be a perceived need to speak directly to gender now, when it has always been spoken about, especially by this community (that I am lucky to be a part of), a community that is only partially represented in this exhibition. If anything, Trigger takes another stab at formalizing a particular commons of artists. A commons, it seems, many are not familiar with, a commons that is quite large and cannot be represented in one exhibition.
I keep hearing complaints that there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about any of the work in the exhibition—that it does not totally answer to the name that is has been given. “I don’t get it, I wasn’t very triggered,” a white guy says to his eye-rolling girlfriend. “I was,” she says. I wonder what it looks like to see ground broken. Who is the arbitrator of broken ground? Who places the flag in the crack of the earth and says, here, it’s broken? Since gender is ultimately confusing, is a confused viewer not then the product of a successful show?
I cannot be so sure what gender looks like as a tool and what it might look like as a weapon. Anyway, what’s a weapon? What’s a tool? What’s a body? With bodies, definitions, and names I will never be so sure, none of these things are fixed. That’s fine, I am not looking for a display with a takeaway.
It is a funny thing, writing a review about an exhibition about gender: A review implies a going-over, a looking closely and generally. It involves a conclusion of some kind. To conclude, I think, involves a passing of judgement, a taking away, an instance of geometry and binding. The idea of passing judgement on an exhibition framed around something I do not think is nameable, let alone something to pass judgment upon, seems futile. Let’s think of gender this way—Gender is a puddle in the front yard of the self. I am never sure what my puddle will look or feel like tomorrow or the day after, nor do I know where it came from or even who called it a “puddle” in the first place. I do know that sometimes I want it to look one way and it looks another. Other days, I don’t mind my puddle as it is and still other days I hate my puddle because it is not like other puddles around me. Sometimes I’ll take pictures of it, or make a painting, a video, a sculpture. Sometimes nice people will come to the gate and ask, “What are you calling your puddle today?” I will never be so sure of my answer, as there have been many puddles who have come before me (many more I don’t know about), who have looked like my puddle or felt as I have felt about my own puddle, but I’ll say something to say something and then the next day, when someone not so nice tries to tell me all about my own puddle, I’ll remember that it is mine to know and mine to name.
Rindon Johnson is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.