Queer Art & Identity Politics

“I don’t believe that gender, race, or sexuality have to be identities, I think that they’re vectors of power.” Judith Butler

Drew Pettifer, The Decisive Moment, 2009.

Drew Pettifer, The Decisive Moment, 2009.

It is necessary to “radically challenge the entire concept of an identity based upon sexual orientation,”[1] wrote Elizabeth Ashburn in her 1996 publication on lesbian art. Twenty years on, American feminist and queer art theorist Amelia Jones finds it necessary to echo Ashburn in her 2012 book Seeing Differently reminding us to “think beyond […] the grain of binary models of identity in favour of multiple, intersectional, and relational processes of identification.”[2] Sexuality must converge with issues of race, gender, geographical and socio-political location, class, religion, age, etc. to reveal the immense complexity and diversity of subjectivities. Jones likens this intersectional approach to anamorphic viewing which distorts the one-point perspective to reveal a new, previously neglected viewing angle.[3] The result of this perspectival distortion is de-objectification, de-fetishisation, and abandonment “of oppositional othering.”[4] I take on Jones’ theory of anamorphic viewing to analyse the representation of LGBTQ identity in some recent Australian art. The two works mentioned below employ some of the strategies that could be seen as effective in distorting the one-point perspective and challenging the “readymade assumptions and value-judgements.”[5] These are the strategy of detournement as seen in Drew Pettifer’s photography, and of non-didacticism in the video installation Duality by Alexandra Clapham and Penelope Benton.

pettifer

Drew Pettifer is a Melbourne-based artist whose work “explores gender, sexuality and the politics of desire.”[6] In The Decisive Moment photography series, he documents intimate moments of male masturbation, and moments of orgasm in particular. Tightly cropped images focus on the subject’s face; what is outside of the frame is imagined and the only way we are able to read the image is by relying on the visual code of the facial expression. Showing only the “surface representation,”[7] Petiffer reminds us that it is upon this surface that our judgements are commonly founded – we infer through what we see.

As he examines the line between private and public, concealment and revelation, Pettifer draws attention to the culture of voyeurism; the culture that turns sexuality into a spectacle. [8] Within the gallery, the assumed right to interfere into the private zone of another’s sexuality is brought into question. Surrounded by other viewers, we become self-conscious of our gaze, uncomfortable with it. We begin to watch ourselves watching and the work, like a mirror, is “no longer being directed towards gay individuals or the gay community [… but] hurled back to an audience.” [9]

Somewhat tongue in cheek, Pettifer “queer[s] the pretended solemnity and sacro-sancity” of the social norms and moral laws. In doing so, he employs what Terence Maloon calls “the strategy of detournement,”[10] defined as “a sort of embezzlement of convention, […] a subversion of the ideological message originally ascribed to an image or a statement.”[11] Exposed as an artifice (for it is our gaze that is the ultimate object of this work, not the men in the images) voyeurism becomes strange and un-natural. What was before a given behaviour, a “readymade assumption”[12] is now seen as nothing but a social construction, a social conditioning.

While he problematizes voyeurism and the resulting fetishism, Pettifer does little to challenge the relations of difference; the binary structures that position homosexual identity in opposition to presumed heterosexual normativity.[13] Rather than eliminating the concept of ‘otherness’ altogether, he simply unsettles our right to watch and judge the ‘other’. In other words, he does not “destroy the projective, distancing logic of fetishism.”[14] The call for nonjudgmentalism might, in fact, even reiterate the existence of “oppositional othering” for it affirms that there is this ‘other’ whom we are – but should not be – watching.

Alexandra Clapham and Penelope Benton, Duality, 2015. 16 channels HD digital video installation.

Alexandra Clapham and Penelope Benton, Duality, 2015. 16 channels HD digital video installation.

The video-installation Duality by artistic duo Alexandra Clapham and Penelope Benton is less interested in critiquing our tendency to watch and judge, and more in opening-up our understanding of what constitutes homosexual identity. This 16 channels HD digital video installation was recently shown at the Firstdraft gallery in Sydney. Two opposing walls of a small gallery space were lined with a series of portrait videos (8 videos on each side) – each video showing either Penelope or Alexandra in different emotional states. The videos were recorded one-by-one, in succession, with each artist responding to a previous performance by the other. What we see are the reactions to each other’s actions or emotional states, a visual back-and-forth conversation (through the body language) which is revealing of the nuances of their relationship (which happens to be of a homosexual nature).

Partners both professionally and romantically, Clapham and Benton “have lately been exploring aspects of their life-work relationship.”[15] In Duality this relationship is explored in a subtle and delicate way, rendered through subdued facial expressions. The lack of information prompts us to imagine what lies behind these expressions and, therefore, behind the relationship. Because of non-didacticism the work necessitates deeper engagement and contemplation, allowing for a fundamental revision of our current perception of lesbian relationships. Clapham and Benton do not offer new theories or any explicit statements; they simply open the room for our own rumination. The resulting perception is ultimately a reflection of our own personality. As one reviewer noted: “[Duality] made me think about how I deal with being a partner in my own life.”[16] This is precisely where the binary structure collapses and we begin to see the ‘other’ as nothing but ourselves. “If […] “the other is you,” then there is no binary – we are all interdependent,”[17] writes Jones.

duality_small_500-1

What I particularly like about this work is that it presents a lesbian couple in a non-differentiating way. There is nothing in the work that screams homosexuality (in a sense of some sort of deviation from heterosexuality). Penelope’s and Alexandra’s relationship is portrayed as a relationship that could exist between any pair of individuals whatever their gender and sexual orientation. Rather than exoticising homosexuals, thus, keeping them at distance – perceived as others, outcasts, isolated, unique – Duality “…give[s] way to a completely non-oppositional way of intervening in structures of identification,”[18] As it distorts the simplistic binary structures, Duality offers an anamorphic viewpoint refracting not only hetero, but also homo normativity.

Instead of saying: ‘don’t look’, Clapham and Benton say: ‘look, but see differently’. Petiffer’s critique of fetishism is undoubtedly valuable but it is here, in Clapham and Benton’s work that “fetishism as an oppositional structure of self and other begin[s] to crumble (“you think you know… [but] maybe you don’t”).”[19] Rather than attempting to prevent voyeurism, Duality allows and encourages watching. It, in fact, uses gaze to initiate contemplation. But this gaze is now distorted and widened, allowing for the broader range of information to enter. Rather than seeing monolithically, we begin to see anamorphically. The assumption of knowledge and the corresponding position of power collapses and we are left with “identity [as] an open question.”[20]

[TEXT: Ira Ferris]

REFERENCES:

[1] Elizabeth Ashburn, Lesbian art: an encounter with power (NSW: Craftsman House, 1996), 21.

[2] Amelia Jones, Seeing Differently, (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 6.

[3] Jones proposes “an anamorphic distortion of the perspectival logic of objectification through which fetishism […] operate[s] in Western visual culture.” Jones, Seeing Differently, 109.

[4] Jones, Seeing Differently, 90.

[5] Terence Maloon, “It is a violence from within,” in You Are Here, exhibition catalogue, 35-46. (Brisbane: IMA, 1992), 36.

[6] Drew Pettifer, “CV,” Drew Pettifer, last viewed May 1, 2015. http://drewpettifer.com/CV

[7] Laura Castagnini. “Androgyne,” Drew Pettifer website, last viewed April 29, 2015. http://drewpettifer.com/ESSAYS-1/Androgyne-1

[8] In this work, writes the critic Jarod Davis, “we can identify […] the laying bare of culturally-conditioned behavioural norms.” Jarod Davis, “The Decisive Moment,” Drew Pettifer website, last viewed April 29, 2015. http://drewpettifer.com/ESSAYS-1/The-Decisive-Moment-1

[9] Maloon, “It is a violence from within,” 39.

[10] Maloon, 39.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Maloon, 36.

[13] Amelia Jones is critical of the works of art that simply mirror and point out to the structures of fetishism; she sees them as ineffective in collapsing the binaries that position minority groups in opposition to the majority. She writes: “…, most cutting edge art addressing power and aspects of subjectivity no longer obsessively retraces or mirrors structures of fetishism. […] in the most interesting contemporary art practices, identifications are posed, interrogated, opened out, and performed as fluid and interrelational. Since the 1990s, artists working in visual fields […] have increasingly worked inside and in between models of self and other as reified in identity discourse … Artists have, […], put bodies (theirs or others) inside, across, and at cross purposes with these structures to turn them inside out, to occupy an in-between position…” Jones, Seeing Differently, 88.

[14] Jones, 105.

[15] See Alexandra Clapham and Penelope Benton, “Duality,” Alexandra Clapham and Penelope Benton website, last viewed 1 May 2015, http://www.penelopealexandra.com/Duality

[16] Luke Letourneau, “The Hanging: Duality,” fbi Radio website, posted 16 April, 2015, last viewed April 29, 2015. http://fbiradio.com/the-hanging-duality/

[17] Jones, Seeing Differently, 105.

[18] Jones, 89.

[19] Jones, Seeing Differently, 102.

[20] Jones, 102.

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