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The Gender and Sexuality Research Group at the Courtauld Institute of Art brings together scholars across time periods, to investigate the ways in which feminist and queer politics have shaped or been shaped by visual culture. Alongside internal work-in-progress research workshops, in 2020 we hosted a seminar on feminist histories of blood and a lecture by Turner Prize winner Tai Shani on feminism’s occult imagination (see below for video recordings). We also host a blog, commissioning and publishing the latest research by art historians on gender and sexuality. The group aims to promote feminist and queer approaches to art history at the Courtauld and beyond, offering a space to share new scholarship and exchange ideas.

Convenors: Dr Rachel Warriner and Dr Edwin Coomasaru

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Feminism’s Occult Imagination: Artist Tai Shani, 2020

Why has the occult become such an important image for fourthwave feminism? Turner Prize Winner Tai Shani’s work presents a profound and complex investigation into the relationships between feminism, magic, and time. Her performance-installation DC: Semiramis (2018) adapted poet Christine de Pizan’s feminist text The Book of the City of Ladies (1405)The book builds an allegorical city for notable medieval women, blurring fact and fiction in its historical narrativeShani uses Pizan’s work as a point of departure, to imagine an alternative past and construct a possible post-patriarchal future. The title of her work, DC refers to ‘dark continent’: an allusion to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s description of female sexuality. Thinking of time in non-linear ways, DC: Semiramis probes and pushes ideas and experiences of femininity – to both critique current gender norms and structures, and radically reimagine them. 

Tai Shani is a Tutor in Contemporary Art Practice at the Royal College of Art; and one of the four awarded artists of the Turner Prize 2019: the artists requested for the prize to be shared as a symbol of solidarity at a time of global political crisis. She has recently exhibited her work at Temple Bar, Dublin (2019-20); Turner Contemporary, Margate (2019); CentroCentro, Madrid (2019); Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2019); The Tetley, Leeds (2018), Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham (2018), Tramway, Glasgow (2018); Athens Biennale, Athens (2018)Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge (2017)Serpentine Galleries, London (2016)Tate Britain, London (2016). 

#OccultImagination
Violent Fluids: Feminist Histories of Blood, 2020

How have images of blood shaped histories of gender from medieval manuscripts to contemporary art? The Courtauld’s Gender & Sexuality Research Group welcome Dr Hetta Howes (City University of London) and Dr Camilla Mørk Røstvik (St Andrews) to speak about their research into the bodily fluid (followed by a Q&A). Paper abstracts below:  

‘And there came forth blood and water’: Fluid Reflections on Medieval Devotion  

Blood is at the heart of late-medieval devotion. Crucifixion, historically, is not a bloody death, and the Gospel only makes reference to blood twice in reference to the Passion; however, medieval artistic depictions and written accounts of Christ’s torture and death are overflowing with this potent fluid. This talk will consider the resonance of blood in a number of late-medieval devotional texts, particularly those addressed to women, and explore what happens when it is imaginatively paired with another, equally resonant fluid in medieval religious thought: water.  

‘Blood Coming Out of Her Whatever’: Sarah Levy’s Menstrual Portrait of Trump 

In the middle of the 2015 battle for the US Presidential nomination, then-potential candidate Donald Trump remarked that Fox News anchor Meghan Kelly was untrustworthy as she had ‘blood coming out of her whatever’. This was supposed to connote that Kelly, and women more generally, are not reliable when menstruating. In response, artist Sarah Levy painted Trump with her own menstrual blood and created the portrait Bloody Trump (Whatever). This paper considers the background of the creation for this artwork, the technical and creative skills on display in the portrait, and the subsequent political, activist, and media interest in the work. Drawing on visual analysis, communication with the artist, and critical feminist theory, this paper argues that Bloody Trump (Whatever) is a key artwork from the Trump era.  

Dr Hetta Howes is a lecturer in medieval literature at City, University of London. Interested in fluid imagery and its manifestation in religious writings for women, she has published on the relationship between blood and shame in a medieval Passion lyric, on the imagery of water in Aelred of Rievaulx’s treatise for an anchoress, and on new approaches to medieval water studies. She is currently working on a monograph based on her doctoral research, tentatively entitled Transformative Waters, forthcoming with Boydell and BrewerCommitted to public engagement, and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker (2017), she is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking and a presenter for the BBC/AHRC New Thinking podcast.  

Dr Camilla Mørk Røstvik is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews, working on the project ‘The Painters Are In: A Visual History of Menstruation since 1970’. From 2019-2020 she was PI on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘The UK Menstruation Research Network’. Her book, Cash Flow: The Business of Menstruation since 1970, is forthcoming with UCL Press in 2021. 

#ViolentFluids
Eros, Thanatos, and the Throuple: Alfred Gilbert’s Mors Janua Vitae (1908) by Emma Merkling, 2020

[This blog post was commissioned by The Courtauld’s Gender & Sexuality Research Group, published 12 August 2020]

Mors Janua Vitae (‘death, the gateway of life’) [Fig. 1] was commissioned by Eliza Macloghlin (1863–1928) in 1904 after the death of her husband Edward (1855–1904). The commanding memorial sculpture is installed, as Eliza intended, in the entrance hall of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln Inn’s Fields, London; Edward had been a doctor (though not a particularly accomplished one) and Eliza’s wealth and resolve ensured his likeness would rest on the College’s prestigious grounds forever.[1] The sculpture features life-sized, half-length bronze portraits of the couple atop a large, rectangular red and green marble base inset with bronze relief panels. Their heads are pressed gently together, arms wrapped lovingly around each other and hands interlinked before them. In the crook of Edward’s elbow is perched a small casket, the shared focus of their downward gaze, its tomb-like design — complete with angelic effigy — a nod to conventional Victorian burial practices [Fig. 2]. But this casket is not merely symbolic: it is, in fact, the Macloghlins’ final resting place, a cinerarium containing their cremated remains.

Fig. 1. Alfred Gilbert, Mors Janua Vitae, 1908, bronze, marble, and wood, 214 x 123 x 62 cm. Royal College of Surgeons, London. Photograph by author (2017).

Fig. 2. Alfred Gilbert, Mors Janua Vitae (detail): the couple holding the casket. Photograph by author (2017).

Fig. 3. Alfred Gilbert, Mors Janua Vitae (detail): ‘Anteros’, relief panel on base. Photograph by author (2017).

Longstanding Christian traditions meant that cremation was not yet, in 1904, a common practice, and the Macloghlins’ pagan memorial and ultra-secular resting place bears witness to their rejection of Christian faith.[2] The couple was proudly atheist, and it was ‘in that name’, as Eliza once wrote, that she wished them to be ‘immortalize[d]’.[3] Their memorial is a testament to the enduring power of love, not the divine immortality of the soul or the promise of salvation, and the sculpture’s iconographic programme avoids explicit religious symbolism.[4] The subjects’ embrace, their gaze focused on nothing beyond their own mortal remains, resonates with the love-themed pagan imagery featured on the bronze reliefs embedded in the sculpture’s base, including labelled depictions of ‘Anteros’ [Fig. 3] and ‘Eros’ [Fig. 4]. When a plaster model of the sculpture was first exhibited in 1907, with the identity of its subjects deliberately left obscure, the couple’s loving embrace and cradling of the casket caused one commentator to speculate that the monument symbolised the death of their child.[5] Though he admitted he found its symbolism generally ‘a little difficult to unravel’, this critic nevertheless interpreted the sculpture’s iconography as suggesting a nuclear family — an idea to which I will return. But the Macloghlins had no children: the love celebrated by Mors Janua Vitae is not parental but rather romantic and non-reproductive.

I have been captivated by this sculpture since I first encountered it in 2017, shortly before the closure of the Royal College of Surgeons building for redevelopment. To my mind, the work can be readily situated in relation to Victorian cultural discourses surrounding death, memory, and physical decay. The maker, Alfred Gilbert (1854–1934), was a preeminent figure in the New Sculpture movement of the late nineteenth century, and his sculptures are notable for what David J. Getsy has described as their ‘suppression of the figural’: in Gilbert’s work, bodies are lost beneath ‘layers of ‘imaginative and decorative excess which subsum[e] the statue’, just as the heavy cloak in Mors Janua Vitae buries the bodies of its subjects.[6] His style, informed by his goldsmith’s training, emphasised creation by accretion rather than subtraction, and thus resonates with Victorian scientific descriptions of memory as physically accumulative. ‘The sensation which has passed away’, as physicists Balfour Stewart and P. G. Tait wrote in 1875, ‘leaves behind molecules of the brain’.[7] Memory is thus figured as physically accretive, a layering-on or building-up of matter in the brain, much like the creative process behind Gilbert’s sculpture and formal excesses of his style. These excesses are therefore particularly powerful in a memorial sculpture, whose primary purpose is to a safeguard against disintegrative effects of loss — against the process of forgetting, and thus also of the decay of the bodies of the individuals whose memory the sculpture preserves. If remembering is a process of physical accretion, then commemoration can also be understood, poignantly, as the counteracting of physical decay.

Fig. 4. Alfred Gilbert, Mors Janua Vitae (detail): ‘Eros’, relief panel on base. Photograph by author (2017).

Yet the monument evokes dissolution at least as much as accretion. Accumulated sediment subsumes the bodies, suggesting burial in earth and the natural processes of decay to which such bodies are subject. The rough-textured cloak that engulfs the couple approximates the terrain of Victorian garden cemeteries [Fig. 5], the connection to a necropolis strengthened by the tomb-like casket the Macloghlins cradle. The sculpture’s visual language strongly evokes decay: sections of the cloth are viscerally textured; mushrooms appear to grow from the crook in Eliza’s right arm; and the sculpture as a whole seems, at its base, to disintegrate [Figs. 6, 7, 8]. As Getsy has observed, at least one of Gilbert’s contemporaries referred to the formal excesses of his style as disease-like, a ‘malady [which] attack[ed] the statues’; Getsy further links this to an illness popularly associated with surface lesions and rot: Gilbert’s excessive ornamentation ‘not only enfeebled his figures but threatened to overtake sculpture like a rapidly spreading leprosy’.[8] Though the Macloghlins’ bodies were never interred and would thus never rot, decay is not the only form of physical dissolution: cremation, or disintegration by fire, is another. Its effects are vividly evoked throughout the sculpture: in the relief panels on its base, smoky effects seem to engulf figures’ bodies [Fig. 3]; in the central vertical panel, ghostly faces appear and disappear [Fig. 9], and, just above, the curling detail of the busy scene unfolding in horizontal relief evokes flames licking up towards the portraits of the figures fire would indeed, eventually, consume [Fig. 1].

Fig. 5. [Harvey Orrin] Smith, ‘The [West] Norwood Cemetery’ (engraving), published in The Illustrated London News, 15 September 1849, p. 192. Courtesy of HathiTrust, digitised by Google; original from University of Michigan.

Like others who have written about Mors Janua Vitae, I am struck by the curious interplay of opposing forces that make up the sculpture: physical accretion and dissolution, commemoration and loss, the permanence of love and bronze and the evanescence of flesh.[9] This interplay mirrors the tensions inherent to an ‘immortaliz[ing]’ (as Eliza put it) memorial to a couple who did not believe in immortality. Their atheism, coupled with Edward’s unremarkable career and the fact that they had no children, meant that for the Macloghlins there was no sense in which their selves would endure after death, either materially or immaterially. The monument itself thus stands in for — or perhaps creates — a sense of futurity or permanence. In Gilbert’s sculpture, the resolution of these tensions seems perpetually deferred, the interplay between opposing forces of accretion and decay, permanence and evanescence, held in a dynamic tension. This tension is, I would argue, generative in its own right — its fluctuations are the source of the work’s curious power.

Fig. 6. Alfred Gilbert, Mors Janua Vitae (detail): section of cloak beneath the couple’s hands. Photograph by author (2017).

Fig. 7. Alfred Gilbert, Mors Janua Vitae (detail): mushroom-like forms on Eliza’s sleeve. Photograph by author (2017).

I find myself drawn to Sigmund Freud’s dual drive theory as a compelling lens through which to consider this sculpture and its tensions. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud differentiated between two primal and opposing impulses experienced by living beings: the life drive (Eros) and death drive (Thanatos); the former associated with reproduction and self-preservation, the latter with death and dissolution — including the dissolution of the boundaries of the self. Temporally, Eros (sex, love) pushes forwards, through the drive to reproduce; it is creative and generative. Thanatos, by contrast, pulls backwards, destructive, towards the pre-life, pre-differentiated state to which part of the psyche desires always to return. These temporalities in turn evoke the structure of time as frequently represented in Victorian culture (according to M. Norton Wise): linear and ordered on the one hand, circular and disordered on the other. Wise notes that the Victorians readily represented these two sorts of time as gendered: ‘the productive progressive [linear] time of the masculine’ (which we can align with (re)productive Eros), and ‘the repetitive feminized [cyclical] time of the […] masses, who […] threaten to wash over the entire system if not severely controlled’ (which we can align with Thanatos).[10]

Fig. 8. Alfred Gilbert, Mors Janua Vitae (detail): section of cloak at base of portrait busts. Photograph by author (2017).

The tension in Mors Janua Vitae as I described it above is similarly structured around such opposing drives, invoking both: love, accretion, endurance, and memory, on the one hand; death, decay, impermanence, and dissolution, on the other. What could be more evocative of Thanatos and the impulse to disintegrate the boundaries of the self than the mingling of two individuals’ ashes — a mingling explicitly desired by Eliza?[11] And what more evocative of Eros than a memorial to the enduring power of Love, a product of creativity intended to remain, as Eliza put it, ‘undisturbed for ever in [situ]’?[12] The bronze panel designs on the base of Mors Janua Vitae depict figures explicitly labelled as ‘Eros’ and ‘Anteros’; later in life, as Richard Dorment has noted, Gilbert described his own life as defined by the struggle between these two forces, which he understood (somewhat pace Freud) as the powers of destructive and creative love, respectively.[13] In Gilbert’s own idiom, then, the relief panels on Mors Janua Vitae represent dual, opposing forces along the lines of those described above.

Fig. 9. Alfred Gilbert, Mors Janua Vitae (detail): central relief panel on base. Photograph by author (2017).

Love in its more painful, destructive form was likely at the forefront of Gilbert’s mind as he worked on this testament to its enduring power: during the sculpture’s production, Gilbert and Eliza developed a passionate, torrid affair. Though the monument is a shrine to the love of Eliza for her husband, the sculpture also contains a physical vestige of her love for Gilbert: the head of Eliza’s likeness, in Mors Janua Vitae, is in fact a hinged cavity, created to house the sculptor’s cremated remains. Though the sculpture depicts the loving embrace of two figures, in its final version it was intended to act as cinerarium for three — a monument to a strikingly unconventional love. Gilbert and Eliza’s relationship ended disastrously in 1908, and his ashes would never find their way into this reliquary, but the monument retains (through the hinged cavity) a physical marker of their entanglement — what Dorment has called ‘a kind of eternal ménage à trois’, a testament to the love of one woman for two men.[14] It is this feature, ultimately, that makes the sculpture an enduring source of fascination for me. Spearheaded by a woman patron at the centre of the threesome — or ‘throuple’ — it inscribes, Mors Janua Vitae monumentalises a sort of love that repudiates conventional romantic and familial structures — a love defined by extra-marital, non-reproductive desire.[15] This ‘throuple’ is a far cry from the societally sanctioned trinity of the nuclear family through whose logic contemporary audiences (like the critic cited above) tried to read the sculpture.

As I continue to develop my thinking on Gilbert’s unusual monument, my argument and the frameworks mobilised above remain provisional: this essay is very much still a work in progress. Yet I sense that ultimately the various strands I have drawn out above can be woven together through a more focused framework attending with greater theoretical precision to gender, sexuality, and temporality as manifest in the monument. On a number of different levels, Mors Janua Vitae holds in tension the opposing forces I have aligned with the (re)productive and progressive features of Eros on the one hand and the destructive and annihilative features of Thanatos on the other — features we can also, as I have mentioned, understand as gendered. Considered in relation to the unconventional love to which it stands testament and to the homoeroticism of Gilbert’s oeuvre more broadly, we might well ask if Mors Janua Vitae’s refusal to straightforwardly privilege the (re)productive and future-oriented ‘Eros’ can be understood as queer.[16] In holding the dissolutive, feminine, and regressive power of Thanatos in productive tension with that of Eros, while also repudiating conventional romantic and hetero-reproductive familial structures, Gilbert’s sculpture troubles a range of Victorian societal hierarchies in a way I hope to explore further elsewhere: those of masculine over feminine, of (re)productive over wasteful, of the progressive over the regressive.


Emma Merkling is a PhD candidate in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, supervised by Professor Caroline Arscott. Emma’s research explores the deployment in Victorian art of the imagery, language, and frameworks of late nineteenth-century science, with a particular focus on queer and women artists; heterodox belief systems; and physics, mathematics, and physiological psychology. Previously, Emma received a BA in Art History and Archaeology from Columbia University, and an MA in History of Art from the Courtauld.


[1] See Keren Hammerschlag, ‘Eliza Macloghlin and Alfred Gilbert’s ‘Mors janua vitae’, The Burlington Magazine, 159.1376 (November 2017) <https://www.burlington.org.uk/archive/article/eliza-macloghlin-and-alfred-gilberts-mors-janua-vitae> [accessed 6 June 2020](n.p.), for a discussion of Eliza Macloghlin’s negotiations with the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons regarding this unusual request.[2] For an in-depth look at the history of cremation in the Victorian era see Mary Elizabeth Hotz, Literary Remains: Representations of Death and Burial in Victorian England (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), pp. 139–143. She discusses the ‘cremation movement’, spearheaded by scientists who, from the late 1860s on, pushed for cremation as a more practical and hygienic form of disposing the corpse. In 1902 the Cremation Act was passed, legalising and regulating cremation practices in England, but cremation continued to face passive resistance among until around 1914. See also Nancy Rose Marshall, ‘Victorian Imag(in)ing of the Pagan Pyre: Frank Dicksee’s Funeral of a Viking’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies of the Long Nineteenth Century 25 (2017), 1–37 https://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.795, for more on cremation and the Victorian visual imagination.

[3] Letter from Eliza Macloghlin to the Royal College of Surgeons, 8 June 1904, Royal College of Surgeons, London, RCS-SEC/70. Emphasis original. Cited in Richard Dorment, ‘The Loved One: Alfred Gilbert’s Mors Janua Vitae’, in Victorian High Renaissance: George Frederic Watts 1817–1904, Frederic Leighton 1830–96, Albert Moore 1841–93, Alfred Gilbert 1854–1934 : An Exhibition (Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1978), pp. 42–52 (p. 43), and in Hammerschlag (n.p.).

[4] Dorment, p. 47; Hammerschlag (n.p.).

[5] Rudolf Dircks, ‘Royal Academy Exhibition, 1907’, Art Journal, July 1907, pp. 193–207 (p. 207). ‘[T]he two embracing figures holding the casket suggest — and the idea is a beautiful one — that they have become united by a common affliction, by possibly the death of their children.’ Cited in Hammerschlag (n.p.). Hammerschlag notes that it was the sculptor, Alfred Gilbert, himself who wished the sculpture to be displayed ‘without identity’.

[6] David J. Getsy, Body Doubles: Sculpture in Britain, 1877–1905 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 116. Getsy is referring to ornament and decorative excess, but the cloak in Mors Janua Vitae has much the same material effects as those he describes.

[7] Balfour Stewart and Peter Guthrie Tait, The Unseen Universe; or, Physical Speculations on a Future State (New York: Macmillan, 1875), p. 48.

[8] Lorado Taft, Modern Tendencies in Sculpture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press for the Art Institute of Chicago, 1921), p. 77 (from a lecture originally delivered in 1917); Getsy, p. 116.

[9] See especially Hammerschlag, who describes ‘a tension that is expressed throughout the work between immortality and decay, heaven and earth, a divine, eternal love and a murkier, earthbound one’ (n.p.).

[10] M. Norton Wise, ‘Time Discovered and Time Gendered in Victorian Science and Culture’, in From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art, and Literature, ed. by Bruce Clarke and Linda Dalrymple Henderson, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 39–58 (p. 51).

[11] In her will, Eliza wrote that she wanted her ashes ‘to mingle with those of [her] late husband contained in the Bronze casket.’ See will and testament of Eliza Macloghlin, codicil dated 28 May 1913, Royal College of Surgeons, London; cited in Hammerschlag (n.p.). Hammerschlag has also noted how the sculpture’s rough surface resembles ‘the original clay’ — a feature we might also align with the pre-life state to which Thanatos urges return.

[12] Letter from Eliza Macloghlin to the President and Council of the College, 8 May 1911, Royal College of Surgeons, London, RCS-SEC/70; cited in Hammerschlag (n.p.).

[13] Dorment, p. 44.

[14] Dorment, p. 46.

[15] Hammerschlag has discussed Eliza’s persona which, ‘as conveyed through the prism of her relationship with Gilbert, oscillates between devoted widow and beguiling madwoman — two gendered Victorian stereotypes’ (n.p.). Hammerschlag herself sees the monument as providing evidence of the ‘complexities of Victorian widowhood’ as it was experienced by the woman who commissioned [it]’ (n.p.).

[16] For scholarship on homoeroticism and Gilbert’s oeuvre more broadly, see Jason Edwards, Alfred Gilbert’s Aestheticism: Gilbert Amongst Whistler, Wilde, Leighton, Pater and Burne-Jones (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).

Sex/Gender/Work: Samak Kosem’s Chiang Mai Ethnography (2017–present) by Andrew Cummings, 2020

[This blog post was commissioned by The Courtauld’s Gender & Sexuality Research Group, published 17 September 2020]

Along with Bangkok and Phuket, Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most popular destinations for gay sex tourism.[1] Its many gay bars and massage parlours are often staffed by Burmese migrant workers, particularly from Shan State.[2] Recently I have been researching Chiang Mai Ethnography, a project by the Thai artist and anthropologist Samak Kosem (b. 1984, Bangkok).[3] An ongoing project begun in 2017, Chiang Mai Ethnography develops Samak’s ethnographic research on a group of Shan men, originally from Myanmar but now working in gay massage parlours in nearby Chiang Mai. Many of them have girlfriends in the city or at home. Their clientele consists mainly of middle-class Thai men, but it also includes tourists from the West and from East-Southeast Asia, for whom, erroneously or otherwise, Thailand remains a ‘gay paradise’.[4] Chiang Mai Ethnography currently consists of several short videos (brought together under the title I don’t have an ID but I have my body); a series of photographs of a massage parlour, annotated with fieldnotes in Thai (Ethnography of the House); and two framed bedsheets (Not Belonging).[5] I have found myself drawn to this project because of the challenges it poses to hegemonic representations of masculinity, sex work, and migrants, areas of research relevant to my PhD.

 

Fig. 1. Ethnography of the House, 2019, fieldnotes with photography, 42 x 29.7 cm each, set of 10. Installation view, Present Passing: South by Southeast, Osage Gallery, Hong Kong, 24 March–15 June 2019.

To my mind, Chiang Mai Ethnography presents two different but overlapping articulations of masculinity: one, the exoticised and commodified of Shan hypermasculinity sought by the parlours’ Thai clientele; the other, the masculinity cultivated within the community of men during their leisure time. The photo series turns a lens on the former. It presents us with the tools used to craft and maintain this image, through photographs of weights machines and dumbbells scattered on the floor and, in the fieldnotes underneath, references to the use of Viagra (Fig. 1). In their evocation of strength, domination, and sexual prowess, Samak’s photographs present an articulation of Asian masculinity that is not beholden to mainstream Euromerican visual culture, which has tended to portray Asian men as desexualised, feminised, infantilised, and even sickly.[6] Yet this articulation of masculinity is not shown to be any more ‘authentic’, any less racialised or ethnicised, or any less imbricated in webs of power and capital, even though it might also be described as queer.[7] Derrida might describe the gym equipment and Viagra as ‘supplements’ to a supposedly natural, essential, and pre-existing masculinity: on the one hand, they seem to add to or enhance what is presumed to be already there (Viagra is a performance-enhancing drug, after all); on the other, they come to replace and constitute what they supposedly stand in for.[8] Tellingly, the photo series does not put the men’s bodies on display; masculinity is nowhere to be found apart from in the tools that allegedly enhance it.

Fig. 2. The headline reads: ‘Is it necessary to know?’ Ethnography of the House No. 7.

 

Fig. 3. ‘Is it wrong because I’m no good or because I don’t have any money?’ Ethnography of the House No. 3.

Other photographs in the series further detail the labour involved in crafting this image of masculinity. One photo displays a hairdryer, a brush, and a bottle of talcum powder in front of a mirror, while another shows yet more talcum powder on top of a rusted laundry machine next to a bottle of Listerine and some bleached white sheets (Figs. 2 & 3). Typically, femininity—not masculinity—is associated with masquerade, artifice, and surface, and women’s bodies are considered ‘volatile’, disobedient, and ‘leaky’.[9] But here, masculinity is cosmetic, achieved through the sculpting of the hair (intimated in the sight of the hairdryer and the mirror) as well as the body (the gym equipment). Meanwhile, the idea that the men’s bodies are unruly and ‘leaky’ is suggested in the recurring bottles of talcum powder for absorbing sweat, and the bottle of Listerine, which ‘bleaches’ the mouth clean, like the crisp white sheets next to it.

Fig. 4. caption: I don’t have an ID but I have my body [Part 01 – Body], 2019, single channel video with sound, 7 mins.

Fig. 5. caption: I don’t have an ID but I have my body [Part 02 – Masculinity], 2019, single channel video with sound, 7 mins.

Fig. 6. caption: I don’t have an ID but I have my body [Part 03 – Nationality], 2019, single channel video with sound, 7 mins.

The photo series maps the space of the massage parlour and presents the commodified and exoticised Shan masculinity which has currency in that space. The videos, on the other hand, map spaces of leisure—a gym, a karaoke bar, a football pitch, an outdoor games area—and unlike the photo series, the videos feature the men themselves, working out, singing Shan songs, and playing football and pool with Shan friends (Figs. 4–6). The massage parlour appears dingy, with many of its cramped spaces lit by a clinical bright light or left in shadow; the absence of people makes the space feel ghostly. By contrast, the places depicted in the videos are populated and lively. The football pitch is located outside and feels open, and though they are interiors, the gym and the bar are lit more warmly than the parlour. The men seem unguarded and unaware of the camera’s gaze, which often lingers on the details: a hand flicking through a book of Shan songs at the karaoke bar, a man guarding the goals on the pitch, another flexing as he lifts weights. It is tempting to describe the masculinity on display here as somehow more ‘authentic’ than the image of Shan masculinity that the men leverage in the massage parlour. But the connections between the photo series and the videos muddle such a reading, in particular the repeated displays of gym equipment and weightlifting. The fieldnotes under the photographs recount that with their savings, the men get tattoos and motorbikes to ‘man-up [sic]’. The motivation behind this ‘manning-up’ is left to the assumptions and guesses of the viewer: the men’s actions could be a means of appealing to their clientele, or of consolidating a masculine identity more closely aligned with heterosexuality as a response to the supposedly feminising labour of sex work, or else an expression of some inherent masculine identity.[10] Clear-cut distinctions between a performative masculinity and an ‘authentic’, unperformed masculinity go up in smoke.

Fig. 7. Caption: ‘Love me as much as you can love’. Ethnography of the House No. 9.

Fig. 8. Caption: ‘One day I will come back’. Ethnography of the House No. 1.

 

Beyond its representation of masculinity as contingent, crafted, and contested, Chiang Mai Ethnography also interests me because of its portrayal of sex work in a particular locale. Rather than sensationalising, spectacularising, or moralising, the project paints a complex and at times mundane picture of the work undertaken by the men. Sex work has its upsides: the fieldnotes state that the men can earn almost seven times as much money in the massage parlour than in other forms of work available to them as migrants, and that some parlours afford the men considerable freedom, allowing them to decide when and how often to work. Equally, some of the men complain about being expected to orgasm several times a day or the discomfort of taking Viagra. The images of the parlour accompanying the fieldnotes display not just the massage room, but also other rooms, including a kitchen, a laundry room, and a gym space. By presenting us with a neatly aligned row of images of empty rooms, the photo series shifts our attention away from the presumed site of the sex act (the massage room) and resists spectacularising sex work for our consumption (Fig. 7). This also disperses the labour of sex work across the space of the parlour, rather than concentrating it in the sex act. This dispersion is also effected through details, within particular images, familiar to all workers: the clock in the kitchen counting down the workers’ shifts (Fig. 8); the timesheet clocking them in and out; a weights machine tucked surreptitiously next to some sofas (Fig. 1, far left). Here I am reminded of Paul Preciado’s idea of the ‘pornification’ of all labour: that in the twenty-first century, the conditions typical of sex work—‘lack of security, sale of corporal and affective services at a low price, social devaluation of the body that performs the work, exclusion from the right to residency’—are, increasingly often, structurally implicit in many other types of work.[11]

Notably, the portrayal of the men’s experiences in Chiang Mai Ethnography differs starkly from their representation in mainstream contemporary Thai culture and politics. The Burmese have historically been figured as Thailand’s enemies. But as Chairat Polmuk has noted, recent political and economic changes in Thailand have led both to a greater legal and social recognition of migrant workers, and to a shift to depicting these workers as willing participants in public life and beneficiaries of the kindness and compassion of the state and its Thai subjects.[12] In turn, however, these shifts have masked new forms of oppression. For instance, migrant workers who choose to undergo the costly and time-consuming process of obtaining documents are opened up to more restrictive forms of governance and control.[13] Concurrently, the state’s recently launched ‘Happiness Project’, intended to ‘return happiness to the people’, has begun to imagine the integration of migrants in its vision of national happiness. The project has resulted in billboards reading ‘Returning Happiness, Creating Smiles for Alien Workers’ and the establishment of ad-hoc registration centres to more effectively monitor migrant populations.

Fig. 9. ‘Smiles for Alien Workers’?

 

Fig. 10. ‘Smiles for Alien Workers’?

In this context, the men who appear in Samak’s project can be understood, at least in part, in terms of what Sara Ahmed has called ‘affect aliens’. Ahmed writes that one ‘can be affectively alien by placing their hopes for happiness in the wrong objects, as well as being made unhappy by the conventional routes of happiness’.[14] Samak’s fieldnotes inform us that at least some of the men do not have documents: perhaps they have, like many others, refused the ‘happiness’ and precarious status promised by legal routes, including the lower pay, restricted freedom, and greater susceptibility to employment rights abuses that legalised migrants reportedly experience.[15] The men’s experiences of the pleasures and challenges of their residence in the country also renders them affectively alien. In contrast to the claims made on billboards, the smiles of the ‘alien workers’ glimpsed in the video series are not bestowed by the state: instead, they seem to arise from the migrants’ self-organised networks of camaraderie and information exchange (Figs. 9 & 10). Samak’s fieldnotes inform us, moreover, that these workers feel ‘alienated’ and ‘other’. The first image in the photo series bears the title ‘One Day I Will Come Back’, overlaid onto the image of the massage parlour kitchen, imbuing it with a longing for home. In the fieldnotes beneath another image, one of Samak’s informants mentions his ‘homesickness’. Hints of melancholy and homesickness also surface in the video of the men plaintively singing Shan songs. These same affects pervade the framed bedsheets taken from the massage parlour and inscribed with the names of the men’s hometowns written in Burmese (Fig. 11). The sheets’ folds, creases, and furrows, mottled with dark or worn patches, evoke mountains and rivers seen from a bird’s-eye-view. The bedsheets are ‘unhappy objects’, to use Ahmed’s term, bearing witness to the men’s enduring attachment to, and orientation towards, elsewhere.

Fig. 11. Not Belonging Nos. 1 & 2, 2019, fabric on wooden frame, 80 x 80 cm, set of two. Installation view, Present Passing: South by Southeast, Osage Gallery, Hong Kong, 24 March–15 June 2019.

But what happens—or doesn’t happen—when art featuring ‘affect aliens’ appears in the art gallery, museum, or festival? This is a central question of my thesis, and one I want to consider more closely as I develop my thinking about Chiang Mai Ethnography. Representations of these bodies are ever more ubiquitous in the gallery, museum, or festival: the 2018 Bangkok Biennale, for example, featured several works about migrants and sex workers in the country.[16] Making marginalised communities visible in this way is often framed as a means of raising awareness and promoting understanding, which are of course important goals. But to my mind, any attempt at visibility must also contend with the capitalist and colonising logic of spectacle, of offering up marginalised bodies and lives for the consumption of art publics and collectors, for a profit, whilst doing little to change marginalising, oppressive systems. Such attempts must also negotiate state agendas. These may include the desire to exhibit progressiveness and ‘tolerance’ to attract foreign investment and gain access to transnational networks of capital, without bestowing full citizenship to those who are ‘tolerated’; or to smooth other the creases of discontent and perform national happiness.[17] For the most part, Samak’s project resists spectacularising sex work or presenting the migrant workers as benefitting from or in need of the particular kind of happiness that the Thai state offers them. In so doing, it acts as a poignant reminder to think critically about regimes of visibility and happiness, and their connections to capital and control.


Andrew Cummings is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art and Tate. Their doctoral research project examines the portrayal and currency of the ‘alien’ in global contemporary art, focusing on art by queer artists working across East and Southeast Asia.


[1] I would like to thank Samak Kosem for his generous discussions during my preparation for this blog post, and for granting all image permissions.

[2] See Jan W. De Lind van Wijngaarden, ‘Between Money, Morality and Masculinity’, Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, Vol. 9, Nos. 2-3 (1999), pp. 193-218; and Jane M. Ferguson, ’Sexual systems of Highland Burma/Thailand: Sex and gender perceptions of and from Shan male sex workers in northern Thailand’, South East Asia Research, Vol. 22, No. 1 (March 2014), pp. 23-38.

[3] Hereafter I refer to the artist using his first name in accordance with conventions in Thai and related scholarship.

[4] Peter Jackson, ‘Tolerant but Unaccepting: Correcting Misperceptions of a Thai “Gay Paradise”’, in Peter Jackson and Nerida Cook (eds.), Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books (1999), pp. 226–242.

[5] Outside of Thailand, displays of the work have included English translations. The translations I have used for this blog post can be found in the exhibition catalogue Phantoms and Aliens: The Invisible Other, Kuala Lumpur: Richard Koh Fine Art, 2020.

[6] Note, as well, that the articulation of butch masculinity is less neatly tethered to heterosexuality than in many Western countries: as Jackson notes, the Thai expression for ‘a real man’, phu-chai roi persen (lit. ‘100% man’), first connotes butch masculinity and only secondarily connotes heterosexuality. Peter Jackson, ‘An Explosion of Thai Identities: Global Queering and Re-Imagining Queer Theory’, Culture, Health & Sexuality, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Oct–Dec 2000), pp. 405-424. For more on the pathologisation of East-Southeast Asian bodies by the West, see Ari Larissa Heinrich, The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body Between China and the West, Durham, NC: Duke University Press (2008); for more on feminisation and infantilism, particularly as these relate to homosexuality, see Eng-Beng Lim, Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias, New York: NYU Press (2014).

[7] It is ‘queer’ in its connection to non-normative sexual practices. Of course, other aspects of this masculinity seem at odds with an anti-racist, anti-capitalist articulation of queer politics.

[8] Jacques Derrida, On Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press (1997).

[9] See Margrit Shildrick, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries: Feminism, Postmodernism, and (bio)ethics, New York and London: Routledge (1997); and Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1994).

[10] Victor Minichiello and John Scott discuss the ‘double stigma’ that male sex workers can face, both because of their ‘deviant’ sexual practices and for their participation in the ‘feminised practice’ of sex work, construed as a form of care. Victor Minichiello and John Scott (eds.), Male Sex Work and Society, New York: Columbia University Press (2014).

[11] Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, trans. Bruce Benderson, New York, NY: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York (2013), p. 296.

[12] One such political-economic shift that Chairat pinpoints is the establishment in 2015 of the ASEAN Economic Community (of which Myanmar and Thailand are both members). This has deepened optimism regarding transnational co-operation, led to greater social and legal recognition of migrant workers whose numbers are increasing with labour demands, and consolidated frameworks for the biopolitical control of migrant populations. Chairat Polmuk, ‘Labor of Love: Intimacy and Biopolitics in a Thai-Burmese Romance’, in Samak Kosem (ed.), Border Twists and Burma Trajectories: Perceptions, Reforms, and Adaptations, Chiang Mai: Centre for ASEAN Studies, Chiang Mai University (2016), pp. 299–319.

[13] Indre Balcaite’s study of Burmese migrants to Thailand belonging to another ethnic group to the Shan points out the similarities between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ means of entering the country, and the relative demerits of the former, from the migrants’ perspective: ‘migration services are a commodity where legality comes at a high premium and at the expense of personal freedom. Undocumented migrants who can rely on their own networks for finding jobs in Thailand enjoy more flexibility, including the possibility to “legalise” after arrival’, p. 47. Indre Balcaite, ‘Brokered (Il)legality: Co-producing the Status of Migrants from Myanmar to Thailand’, in The Migration Industry in Asia: Brokerage, Gender and Precarity, London: Palgrave Macmillan (2020), pp. 33–58.

[14] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, Durham, NC: Duke University Press (2010), p. 115.

[15] Balcaite, ‘Brokered (Il)legality’, p. 37.

[16] Rina Chandran, ‘Migrants, sex workers take pride of place in Bangkok art festival’, Reuters.com, 25 October 2018, available online at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-art-rights/migrants-sex-workers-take-pride-of-place-in-bangkok-art-festival-idUSKCN1MZ10D (accessed 10 September 2020).

[17] ‘Performing’ harmony here has the sense of Sara Ahmed’s ‘non-performative’: that which does not bring into being what it claims to. Sara Ahmed, ‘The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism’, Meridians, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2006), pp. 104–126. For more on the Thai government’s recent interventions into and uses of contemporary art for its own political ends, see Pandit Chanrochanakit, ‘Deforming Thai Politics: As Read through Thai Contemporary Art’, Third Text, Vol. 25, No. 4 (2011), pp. 419–429; and Thanavi Chotpradit, ‘Of Art and Absurdity: Military, Censorship, and Contemporary Art in Thailand’, in Journal of Asia-Pacific Pop Culture (2018), pp. 5–25. For more on state agendas and queer visibility in a context outside of Thailand, see Audrey Yue, Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press (2012).

Gendered Readings of the Earliest Women’s Suffrage Iconoclasm by Gursimran Oberoi, 2020

[This blog post was commissioned by The Courtauld’s Gender & Sexuality Research Group, published 7 October 2020]

Historically, museums and art galleries (hereafter ‘museums’) have largely been recognised as masculine venues governed and occupied by men and predominantly exploring male perspectives. Charles West Cope’s The Council of the Royal Academy Selecting Pictures for the Exhibition, 1875 (1876) readily shows the authority of male artists determining tastes in art for the British public. Depicting the multi-generational committee of celebrated Academicians such as President Sir Francis Grant and J.C. Horsley, alongside their younger counterparts John Everett Millais and Frederic Leighton, Cope exemplifies through the male gaze and its study of a young woman painted in pink with a child the patriarchal standards which dominated Victorian society and culture. In contrast to the active, scrutinising and authoritative representation of several male bodies, the female body is made singular, marginalised, barely visible, small and submissive. Her body is not only subjected to male representation both as a painting and in Cope’s replication, but it is also held on a canvas by two men for the committee to observe and scrutinise inside the gallery in the name of art. These gendered dynamics connect to cross-disciplinary studies in art history, museum studies, sociology, politics, literature, feminist cultural theory and female education, which examine the problematic institutional hierarchical binaries in society which favoured masculinity above femininity across centuries. For the Victorian era, these dynamics draw on and respond to debates focusing on the ‘Woman Question’ from the 1860s, the ‘New Woman’ from the 1890s, the formal education and training of women both at universities and in arts and crafts as advocated by John Ruskin and William Morris, and the campaign for women’s enfranchisement initiated during this period and extending into the early twentieth-century. Indeed, Cope’s painting carefully enacts these entrenched gendered social dynamics through his representation of the committee weighing the physical, economic and emotional worth of the painted female body against conventional standards of beauty. It is these men who determine whether the artistic embodiment of femininity before them has merit and is fit for display, observation, and study at the Royal Academy.

Fig. 1. Caroline Watts, The Bugler Girl, 1908.

Although Cope may not have intended for his painting to serve as a catalyst for feminist readings of the museum space, it does unpack numerous debates about museum governance inherent in the protests against art carried out by the women’s suffrage movement in the name of women’s rights. Between 1913 and 1914, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) launched a series of iconoclastic attacks which challenged government endorsement of museums in contrast to the value it placed on the women. After more than forty years of campaigning since the formation of the first British suffrage society, women had still not been granted the vote. Thousands faced daily economic and legal uncertainty. Members of the WSPU, as suffragettes, pursued militant or violent protest, in contrast to their sister suffragists who demonstrated peaceful and legally. For example, the Artist’s Suffrage League and the Suffrage Atelier provided visual iconography for the campaign at the same time as the WSPU developed tactics from window-smashing to the first orchestrated iconoclasm (Fig. 1).[1] The furore with which militants protested were exacerbated by suffragette experiences of increased police brutality, imprisonment and force-feeding.[2]

On 3rd April 1913, Evelyn Manesta, Lillian Forrester and Annie Briggs targeted thirteen of the most famous and important artworks at Manchester City Art Gallery (Fig. 2). Painted by many of the most prominent artists of the century, including George Frederic Watts, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Frederic Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, these artworks were levelled for their national recognition, and local government patronage. May Prinsep title: Prayer (1860 hereon The Prayer, Fig. 3), Paolo and Francesca (1870, Fig. 4) and Portrait of The Honourable J L Motley (1861) by Watts, and Astarte Syriaca (1877) by Rossetti suffered the worst damages as their protective plate-glasses penetrated and fragmented paint and tore canvas. The total cost of damage was estimated at £170, the equivalent of £19,000 today.[3] One of the hammers used during the attack carried the colours of the WSPU and a card reading, ‘Parliament for dishonourable men: prison for honourable women’, ‘Stop forcible feeding’ and ‘Votes for Women’.[4]

Fig. 2. Photograph taken by James West.

This iconoclasm invites us to consider gendered readings of the museum space in reference to women’s rights and the display of Victorian art (Fig. 5). Scholarship widely accredits Mary Richardson’s attack against Diego Velázquez’s The Toilet of Venus, also more commonly known as The Rokeby Venus, for utilising a new and radical tactic in WSPU activities – one which confronted the virulence of representations of female nudity by male artists.[5] Nevertheless, this argument was made by Richardson in 1952 over thirty eight years after her attack, lessening its potential impact in the feminist narrative of 1914.[6] While the Manchester iconoclasts attacked representations of femininity as well as landscapes, religious paintings, and portraiture, their protest provided the stimulus for iconoclasms against the male gaze. Eight out of the thirteen paintings attacked depict femininity using Victorian stereotypes. Women are either portrayed as reliant (Paolo and Francesca and The Last Watch of Hero); sexualised (Astarte Syriaca); victimised (Syrinx and Captive Andromache); religious (Sibylla Delphica); or as the angel in the house (The Prayer and The Golden Apples of Spring). Their protest, on the one hand, exerted the action and authority generally associated with masculinity. On the other, it simultaneously utilised this ‘male’ energy to dispel imposed readings of womankind in art, museums and politics. In contrast to the assumed passivity of female visitors customarily in the museum, the Manchester suffragettes actively resisted and in doing so instigated the reassessment of a woman’s place in museums both as visitors and painted bodies before Mary Richardson’s more violent rebuttal. The Manchester suffragettes, in targeting these images in particular, enabled representations of female non-conformist behaviour to occupy the museum space and thereby challenged the pedagogical role of art in museums for public learning.

Fig. 3. COMWG2007.784 Frederic Hollyer, Photograph of G.F. Watts’s Painting ‘Prayer’ also known as ‘May’ (1867), © Watts Gallery Trust

As a site of protest, the museum space embodied the overt sentimentality encouraged by the state (through funding and promotion) for painting the beautiful, while its desecration and ruin symbolised the violations heaped upon women and children by lust, disease, and poverty. In rejecting gendered and cultural ideologies from the Victorian era which continued to suppress female autonomy in the twentieth-century, the Manchester suffragettes sought to undermine the national veneration of male artists and their artworks. In attacking these renowned male artists, the suffragettes succeeded in courting local, regional, national and international publicity for their cause. Thus, while iconoclasms in 1914 have primarily informed scholarly and public discussions regarding suffrage militancy against art, my research contends for their recontextualization in reference to this earliest attack and its reverberating influence.

Fig. 5. Unknown photographer. Galleries, Manchester City Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester. 1895. Photograph. MCAG Archives.

Fig. 4. COMWG.83 George Frederic Watts, Paolo and Francesca, c.1872-1884, oil on canvas. © Watts Gallery Trust

You can find out more about the full extent of the Manchester iconoclasm in Gursimran’s forthcoming chapter ‘Victorian Paintings Under Attack: The Earliest Act of Suffrage Iconoclasm (1913)’ published in Women’s Suffrage in Word, Image, Music, Stage and Screen: The Making of a Movement (2020). Gursimran has also published on the suffrage attack via Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village: https://www.wattsgallery.org.uk/about-us/news/protesting-watts-origin-suffrage-iconoclasm/. If you’re interested in learning about the transnational impacts of the Manchester iconoclasm, Gursimran’s doctoral dissertation which examines the international reception and appropriation of G. F. Watts’s artworks by activists is forthcoming.[7]


Gursimran Oberoi is conducting an AHRC-TECHNE and NPIF funded Collaborative Doctoral Award with the University of Surrey and Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village. Her research project, entitled Global Watts: Allegories for All, provides a comprehensive assessment of the international importance and influence of British artist George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). It specialises in the exhibition, circulation and dissemination of Watts’s allegories, elucidating the effects of these transnational engagements on Watts’s legacy as utilised by activist individuals, groups and campaigns from 1880 to present day. Key movements include international Women’s Suffrage, Indian Independence and African-American Civil Rights. Gursimran is Chair of the Doctoral and Early Career Research Committee and Network (DECR) at the Association For Art History.

https://twitter.com/gursimoberoi


[1] Tickner, Lisa. 1988. The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907–14. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Crawford, Elizabeth. 2001. The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928. London and New York: Routledge. Ward, Chloe. 2018. ‘Images of empathy: Representations of force feeding in Votes for Women’. In Suffrage And The Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise, edited by Miranda Garrett and Zoe Thomas. pp. 249-272. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts.

[3] The Guardian. 1913. ‘Art Gallery Outrage’. 5 April 1913. MCAG Archives, Manchester Press Cuttings 1912–13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fowler, Rowena. 1991. ‘Why Did Suffragettes Attack Works of Art?’. Journal of Women’s History 2, no. 3: 109–25. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/jowh.2010.0130. Mohamed, Lina. 2013. ‘Suffragettes: The Political Value of Iconoclastic Acts’. In Art Under Attack: Histories of Iconoclasm, edited by Tabitha Barber and Stacy Boldrick. pp. 114–124. London: Tate Publishing. Scott, Helen E. 2016. ‘“Their Campaign of Wanton Attacks”: Suffrage Iconoclasm in British Museums and Galleries During 1914’. The Museum Review 1, no. 1. Accessed 12 October 2018. http://articles.themuseumreview.org/vol1no1scott. Nichols, Kate. 2016. ‘Arthur Hacker’s “Syrinx” (1892): Paint, Classics and the Culture of Rape’. Feminist Theory 17, no. 1: 107–26.

[6] Richardson quoted in Nead, Linda. 1992. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality. London: Routledge, p. 37.

[7] Oberoi, Gursimran. forthcoming 2021. ‘Global Watts: Allegories For All, 1880–1980’. PhD diss., University of Surrey and Watts Gallery–Artists’ Village.

(Dis)Embodying the biomolecular sex: The lapse of identity in Jes Fan’s hormone works (2017-2018) by Sophie X. Guo, 2020

[This blog post was commissioned by The Courtauld’s Gender & Sexuality Research Group, published 3 December 2020]

 

To borrow the terms of the American feminist Donna J. Haraway, the twenty-first-century body is a technoliving system, the result of an irreversible implosion of modern binaries (female/male, animal/ human, nature/culture).

— Paul. B. Preciado, 2013[1]

The contemporary condition of the body as a ‘technoliving system’ is meticulously mapped onto Jes Fan’s precarious sculptures, through which the artist wishes to challenge binary conceptions of gender, race, and identity. In their 2018 sculptural series titled Systems, Fan isolates testosterone, estrogen and melanin from the human body and lets them float freely in their hand-blown glass globules. Rendered in biomorphic shapes recalling human organs and drops of body fluids, the limpid glass objects slothfully hang on a piping system which the artist called ‘lattice’, as if in the process of leaking, or seeping out (Fig. 1).[2] Not dissimilar to lattice normally used as a support for climbing plants, the vine-like pipeline used in Fan’s works is, for them, a ‘living shelf’— or at least, a semi-living one, for the sex hormones and melanin contained in the glass vessels are perpetually in flux.[3]

 

Figure. 1: Jes Fan. Systems II. 2018. Composite Resin, Glass, Melanin, Estradiol, Depo-Testosterone, Silicone, Wood.
© Jes Fan.

 

The material process of glass comes in a state of flux too. Glass as a material gains liquidity when it is heated and is malleable because it is able to store the heat for a while. The beginning of the documentary film Jes Fan in Flux (2019) shows an alchemical process of glass-making: glass comes out of the kiln in the form of a hot bubble, and the artist blows it on plaster that bears the imprint of the body part of their friend.[4] To Fan, glass blowing is ‘a huge Venn diagram for [their] obsession with vessels and containers.’ [5] Glass does not function as a means to an end in Fan’s work, but with its pliable materiality and processes serves as a metaphor for a constant state of transitioning, which is intimately linked not only to the artist’s own migration between different geographical and cultural loci, but also to their experience of transformation in gender and sex.[6] Stereotypical misconceptions about gender as a social identity often claim it is solely or largely the product of hormones.[7] But while hormones may have historically informed interpretations of gender; gender itself is not fixed, static, or ahistorical, nor limited to the bodies that contain it. Fan’s glass capsules contain and thus isolate the hormones from the context of the human body, delinking them from any norms or images associated with the masculine or the feminine. In other words, testosterone and estrogen are ‘prevented’ from getting translated as images of masculinity or femininity. Therefore, Fan’s deployment of hormones as a material does not confirm the essentialist view that hormones necessarily ‘produce’ gender, but on the contrary, encourages us to examine the significance of these politically contested materials that are normally invisible to the human eye.

Further than that, male and female sex hormones often co-exist in Fan’s work. In Systems III (2018), the artist incorporates large pieces of resin sanded to ‘skin-like smoothness’, revealing patches of different colours found on human skins.[8] A glass globule containing progesterone penetrates the resin plane like a drop of serum traveling through the pore of the skin into the endocrinological system of the body, while an orb holding a small amount of testosterone is already there resting upon the vein-like lattice (Fig. 3). Suggestive of the body systems that are porous and malleable, Systems III seems in congruence with the non-binary line of thought, which holds that the body consists of ‘a complicated array of masculine and feminine characteristics’[9] and is able to produce both androgens and estrogens under certain conditions and circumstances.[10]

 

Figure. 2: Jes Fan. Animacy Arrangement-Cube. 2017. Capsules, soybeans and water.
© Jes Fan.

 

By visualising the hormones in a quantified manner, Fan also demonstrates how the body is reconfigured in a molecular and informational terms entangled in what Paul B. Preciado calls ‘the condition of life in the pharmacopornographic era.’[11] ‘Pharmacopornographic’ is a term that refers to the government of sexual subjectivity through ‘biomolecular (pharmaco)’ and ‘semiotic-technical (pornographic)’ processes.[12] That sexualities are measured in biomolecular, tangible terms characterises the pharmacopornographic biocapitalism. Having the experience of transitioning themselves, Fan is fully aware of this regime. They were intrigued by the idea that masculinity came as a bottle of testosterone tagged with a price.[13] They did a systematic research into how steroid hormones were pharmaceutically produced and discovered that both testosterone and estrogen available for sale on the market came from soybean phytosterols.[14] This finding that an androgynous identity symbolically inhabits a soybean leads to their installation work Animacy Arrangement (2017), for which the artist packed soybeans into capsules and organised them into a cube structure (Fig. 2).

 

Figure. 3: Jes Fan. Systems III. 2018. Composite Resin, Glass, Melanin, Progesterone, Testosterone, Silicone, Wood.
© Jes Fan.

 

Although the artist identifies as trans, they are skeptical of any normative representations and acts that demarcate what alternative genders is supposed to look like. Over the course of their transition, Fan has learned codes and norms associated with masculinity that were unfamiliar to them, and at the same time, unlearned what they had been taught previously.[15] Only at later time they realised the performative nature of these acts, and decided to ‘unlearn what [they] took from the lessons of trying to attain machismo.’[16] The process of unlearning is for them ‘not always comfortable.’[17] It might be this discomfort that sharpened the artist’s awareness of the surface of their body, because, as Sara Ahmed poignantly points out, the inability to inhabit the norms (surface as the social skin) produces a feeling of estrangement and disorientation that will generate an awareness acute as such.[18] Skin is indeed very present in Fan’s work. From Diagram I-V and Systems III to their four-minute, forty-four-second video work Mother is a Woman (2018), Fan reflects on the epidermis as a site of identification, a vessel of othering and queer feeling.

 

Figure. 4: Jes Fan. Mother is a Woman (still). 2018. Colour video. 4 minutes 44 seconds.
© Jes Fan and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.

 

Figure. 5: Jes Fan. Mother is a Woman (still). 2018. Colour video. 4 minutes 44 seconds.
© Jes Fan and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.

 

‘Mother is a Woman’ is eponymously the name of a custom beauty cream, the essence of which is extracted from urine of the artist’s mother (Fig. 4). The film begins with a close-up shot of the cream contained in a test tube followed by the detailed procedure of extracting estrogen from the mother’s urine in a laboratory setting. The video switches between scenes that show the ‘artisanal’ process of extraction and close-ups of men and women actors of different colours rubbing the estrogen cream onto their cheeks (Fig. 5). In the meantime, a female voiceover narrates in first person:

Beyond a beauty cream, Mother Is a Woman invites you to rethink kinship through the pores of your skin. Can our epidermis be the first contact of kinship? As your skin absorbs my mother’s estrogen, you are feminised by her. Mother is a Woman asks, ‘Who are you to her?’ And, ‘Who are you to me?’[19]

The work not only gently challenges conventional and stereotypical representations of gender that underlie commercial beauty advertisement, but also proposes the possibility of queer kinship—of ‘creating intimacies that are not based on biological ties.’[20] Through an elder Asian woman’s urine, the queer subject finds the pleasure of opening up to other bodies via contacts on the skin. They build up a social bonding, or in Fan’s terms, ‘an entanglement’ which may effectively help them accommodate the sense of discomfort with normative ways of living.


Sophie X. Guo is a PhD candidate working under the supervision of Dr Wenny Teo at The Courtauld Institute of Art. Her doctoral thesis examines how biomedicine and biotechnology transform image making in Sinophone cultures from the late 1980s to the present day, with a particular focus on the conceptions of gender, sexuality, subjectivity, and ecology. She previously completed her MA and BA degrees in History of Art at the University College London.


 

[1] Paul B. Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. Trans. Bruce Benderson (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013), 44.
[2] Jes Fan, ‘Jes Fan in Flux’, 15 May 2019, https://art21.org/watch/new-york-close-up/jes-fan-in-flux/ (accessed 15 June 2020).
[3] Jes Fan, ‘Infectious Beauty’, 20 May 2020, https://art21.org/watch/new-york-close-up/jes-fan-infectious-beauty/ (accessed 15 June 2020).
[4] Jan Garden Castro, ‘States of Flux: A Conversation with Jens Fan’, in Sculpture, 15 April 2020, https://sculpturemagazine.art/states-of-flux-a-conversation-with-jes-fan/ (accessed 22 August 2020).
[5] Castro, 2020.
[6] Fan, 2019.
[7] For instance, neuroscientist Joe Herbert believes that testosterone fuels male competition and makes them enjoy taking risks. See Herbert, Testosterone: Sex, Power, and the Will to Win (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
[8] Glenn Adamson, ‘Jes Fan makes work free of gender binaries’, 30 August 2018, https://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/stories/jes-fan-makes-work-free-gender-binaries (accessed 15 July 2020).
[9] Cordelia Fine quotes D. Joel in Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017), 225.
[10] Fine, 228.
[11] Preciado, 28-50.
[12] Preciado, 33-34.
[13] When they first started transitioning, they bought a bottle of testosterone that cost $3 with their healthcare. See Melissa Saenz Gordon, ‘In the Studio’. April 2019. https://art21.org/read/in-the-studio-jes-fan/ (accessed 15 June 2019).
[14] Jan Garden Castro, ‘Jes Fan in their Studio: The Miracle of Gender’, in Sculpture, 4 January 2017, https://blog.sculpture.org/2017/01/04/jes-fan-in-their-studio-the-miracle-of-gender/ (accessed 23 August 2020).
[15] Fan, 2019.
[16] Castro, 2020.
[17] Fan, 2019.
[18] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 145-148.
[19] Jes Fan, Mother is a Woman, 2018, 4:44, HD, video, colour. https://vimeo.com/263716151.
[20] Ahmed, 154.

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