Zagreb, 11-18 May 2014
By Amy Bell
Finding yourself sticking out like a sore thumb is an experience some of us would rather forget. We can probably all think of scenarios where who we are, what we look like or what we stand for has been deemed awkwardly or unacceptably different, leaving us feeling exposed, open to ridicule or even attack. The regulatory, often deeply conservative forces of society can inflict anything from a light ego-pummelling to a crushing hammer blow to the very essence of our being. We can end up feeling bruised and sadly, disastrously even, thinking twice about the conspicuousness and indeed even the legitimacy of our perceived peculiarity.
Or not. We can probably all also conjure up memories of flipping a flagrantly angry bird in the face of conformity or throwing a gloriously impervious shrug at convention. We can surely relate to the deep sense of empowerment and freedom that follows. Cultivating the self-awareness and the cojones or ovaries of steel to behave authentically and to express yourself openly is, however, not only a source of personal fulfilment but to some extent also a social responsibility. Of course one’s ability to take up that responsibility and actively reject an oppressive mainstream is culturally contingent; even more so the ability to nonchalantly disregard it. Such abilities might even be better seen as privileges more accessible to those living in relatively liberal contexts. I therefore certainly do not then suggest that keeping one’s sexual or gender light under a bushel is necessarily cowardly or irresponsible. Indeed, quite the reverse, it can sometimes be a sensible act of self-preservation, depending on one’s cultural and political environment.
Croatian artist Siniša Labrović absolutely encapsulated this problematic in his work for Performing Gender, Inner Light which was performed alongside work by Cecilia Moisio, Jan Martens and Poliana Lima in Zagreb’s Museum of Modern Art (MSU). In the second part of his performance Siniša, dressed in women’s clothes and standing astride a mirror, allowed gallery visitors to catch glimpses of reflected light shining from a torch hanging between his legs, a luminous appendage hiding beneath his dress. With not a little absurdity, a neat upending of religious imagery and a surprising degree of delicacy in the tenderness of his physical presence, Siniša suggested that perhaps we can never fully hide the radiance of our desires and individuality anyway; that the energy, if not the ‘truth’ (always a suspicious notion best given a wide berth) of our sexuality and gender will always shine through.
The question is then, how can we share or express our desires and identities within the shaping context of our social and cultural environments? Siniša’s action was intended as universal but yet in his home context carried risk since he does not identify as LGBTQ and therefore felt keenly the possibility of his participation in the project being seen either as jumping on the queer bandwagon or as a genuine proclamation of queerness by a home crowd not necessarily very accommodating to the perceived wafting of a rainbow flag. He was, ironically for a straight, white male, placing himself in a precarious, liminal position both physically and politically: on the stairs, between levels of the museum, and for a prolonged duration, swaying slightly with fatigue causing the torchlight, and perhaps his resolve, to quiver. But he nevertheless made a stand for himself, for the recognition that straight, white men may also have something to bring to a discussion of sexual and gender issues and for the celebration of all the varieties of orientation and identity intended by the PG project, even those that have traditionally part of the patriarchy.
In this way, the context and the spirit of standing out like a sore thumb is, of course, everything. In some situations even the notion of standing out can itself be the stuff of cliché and in others, truly life threatening. For instance being “the only gay in the village” in TV show Little Britain can justifiably become a self-satirising sketch on a gay man’s comical need to cling to a sense of lonely, self-righteous martyrdom since in the UK such an attitude is so outmoded it is almost ridiculous. The joke rests on the idea that rather than exclusion and victimisation, the protagonist not only finds respect and understanding but shocking levels of sexual frankness and political engagement in the cosy rural grannies and guileless country bumpkins around him. Such a scenario is absolutely no joke somewhere like Uganda where being “the only gay in the village” can be a death sentence. Living without threat of persecution is a basic human right that many of us take for granted but others are denied due to the fear and ignorance surrounding unconventional sexual and gender identities, practices and expressions. Yet still, the violence, discrimination and exclusion many women and LGBTQ people meet with on a daily basis can never be challenged unless somebody takes a stand, doing so physically, visibly, palpably.
The necessity of embodying one’s principles, struggles and questions in order to engender understanding in others strikes me strongly as a keystone of the Performing Gender project. Uniquely, the project brings together culturally and politically driven organisations from several European countries, occupying a dynamic space between activism and artistic practice not only within the scope of each work made for the project, but also within the architecture of the project as whole. This was particularly evident in Zagreb where Domino and Queer Zagreb focus their energies on the intersection of culture and politics in what can be seen as the most conservative of the PG countries. It made me think about how confronting negative stereotyping both imaginatively through art and directly through protest, education, lobbying or demonstrating, means literally physically standing up and, crucially, standing out for who you are and what you believe in. Sex, gender and sexuality can only exist in so far as we embody them and so by putting your peculiar physicality “out there” whether in protest or performance, risking feeling exposed in your uniqueness, making your bodily presence felt and visible with all its experiences of love and desire, all its complexities of masculine and feminine incorporated into every gesture and move, has in itself the potential to disrupt and reorganise accepted norms. Despite obvious and important differences between acts of political activism and politically engaged artistic endeavours, I saw through the PG project how the two can be momentarily and powerfully be drawn parallel by the fundamental state of physical vulnerability required by both.
But then how exactly does standing out like a sore thumb actually engage those around us? How might it trigger questions or shifts of attitude? Aside from the aims of the project overall, what spaces and strategies are available to each artist to engage people in their own terms within the framework of a project with such an explicit agenda? A first premise of PG’s is to debunk stereotypes and open constructive, imaginative debate around gender and sexuality, and it aims to do that through its unabashedly mainstream focus. It aims to encompass and make visible the fullest diversity of concerns, experiences and expressions around gender and sexuality with a view to normalising and destigmatising queer and feminist issues in particular. Some of the largest and most prestigious art galleries in the participating countries were chosen as performance locations, social media is geared to attain the largest reach, much needed EU funding ensures the highest production values are aspired to. Simply put, the project’s attempts at standing out aren’t about opting out of the mainstream but instead standing up for the cultivation of the widest possible sense of common respect even when, perhaps especially when, diverse experiences and beliefs are not shared by everyone.
These are vital and admirable sentiments of course but yet there is also something of a tension implicit in a project that on the one hand claims for itself a queer agenda and on the other aims to mainstream that agenda. By its very definition “queerness” is a word which encapsulates strangeness and otherness, so the notion of a queered mainstream or a mainstream queer is not only difficult but, for some, results in the relinquishing of the truly subversive heart of queerness. Furthermore, moving towards a mainstream for any reason is often given short shrift in the experimental art and performance scenes. Why would one want to move towards acceptance or, worse still, tolerance by those who reject one’s values and whose values you likewise reject? There are then frictions between movements that seek to mainstream the marginal and to transform or subvert norms by incorporating oppositional voices; and those that seek to maintain and even cultivate their marginalisation as a way to keep a vital critical distance from those norms.
However being in Zagreb particularly, I was again reminded of the importance of context. Since all of the Performing Gender cities have a Catholic tradition, several of them with dictatorships in the recent past, all of them prey to an increasingly popular and conservative right-wing, the urgency to advocate respect for diversity in the mainstream makes sense and is of even greater importance. Queer Zagreb itself is set up on the idea that “mainstreaming is activism”. It rests on the idea that radical militancy, separatism and self-ghettoisation have huge power at certain times and places, but at others can in fact serve to maintain exclusion and foster alienation. The perverse enjoyment of these states and rejection of mainstreaming by the cutting edge in cities like London seems result of a more comfortable liberalism afforded in part by the struggles of the mainstreaming activists of the 60s and 70s.
Visibility then, the standing out I have been talking about, is itself a powerful force for change. However PG presents a unique and highly stimulating context for the participating artists because it asks them to reconcile their own politics and strategies for visibility with those of the project as a whole. If PG is itself announcing its agenda so strongly in its title, making its focus and implied political aims so obvious, what space is left for each artist to make his or her own individual stand on his own terms? Is making a work exploring gender and sexuality within such a plainly declared framework over-egging the pudding? If, on the other hand, one then engages with the themes in a more veiled way, is that only sidestepping the issues? How can one deal with the expectations implicit in the project’s title but yet invite a very personal response?
These were the tensions PG artist Jan Martens explored in the process of creating Darwin. Through Jan’s works runs a thread of what he calls “soft activism”. For Jan it is important to confront and subvert taboos, but in a way that might creep up softly on a viewer. Like many of the PG artists, he had no interest in making a blunt, dogmatic statement, but was rather much more interested in the nuances with which we feel and perceive gender and sexuality. Here, like many of the artists, Jan possibly came up against the fear that labelling his work as ‘gay’, ‘queer’, ‘political’ could have a reductive effect. He was not afraid of the stigma of those terms, for him indeed they signal positive connotations, but rather he questioned the need to declare the issues at the heart of the project so directly, wondering if subtly and ambiguity could be lost as a result. The concern that the title would give the game away was played out in process.
Jan initially intended his work for PG as a duet for two men which would engage the viewer firstly on a more abstract, aesthetic level. He imagined the two men naked, travelling though the gallery locked in a series of weight exchanges and physical connections that might suggest an athleticism or an alien quality not immediately connected to sexuality. Over time he imagined the movement becoming subtly more animal, more sexual so that it might only dawn on the viewer slowly that s/he could be watching an expression of lovemaking. In this way Jan hoped to draw in viewers and then only through an almost imperceptible process, lead them to a point of having to question their own attitudes towards such a raw physicality. Yet held within the frame of the declared themes of the project and under its banner title, he soon wondered, how far can we ever see two naked men touching without finding it homoerotic? The project’s agenda seemed at once to inspire him but also to queer his pitch.
Eventually the presented work perhaps did not employ the soft activism Jan had initially imagined but rather attained an immense amount of ambiguity and nuance by engaging directly with the topic. There was an intricate layering of touch, look, trust, power, proximity and intimacy between the two men at first clothed and clasped in a travelling, seemingly never ending kiss and then later naked and locked in a constantly fluctuating but unbroken gaze as they slowly tussled, clambered on each other and held each other sweating, straining, surrendering, slumping into each other. The idea of representing an increasingly sexualised movement vocabulary slipped away in favour of simply completing the two tasks, a kiss and a gaze and the performers’ slow sensitivity and easy humanity while exploring these tasks was hugely beguiling. It seemed once Jan let Performing Gender’s title do some of the work in carrying the weight of its implications for him, he let go the control of the audience’s slow discovery of a sexuality and let it just be present, undeniable from the start. As a result, somehow the shades of sensuality and sexuality actually became lighter, less laboured and part of a dynamic, shifting interpretation of the performers’ flow of energy and touch. Rather than reducing the readings of his work, releasing himself into the cradle of the project’s bounds, Jan was possibly freer to delve into the richness of textures and particularities of his ideas and leaving gallery visitors similarly free to do the same.
Perhaps less concerned with the potentially prohibitive weight of the PG title and more motivated by the possibilities of visibility it offered as a subject matter, were fellow Zagreb makers Cecilia Moisio and Poliana Lima. With strikingly contrasting physicalities but with comparable boldness the two women personally embodied typically unseen, overlooked or oppressed aspects of female identity. Here particularly, the standing up and standing out became more than an innate strategy of the project but a manifest content of the work. This took on a particularly political tone in Poliana’s Cuerpo-Trapo (literally, “body-rag”). Poliana was inspired by the invisible thread she perceived between iconic Croatian feminist artist Sanja Ivanović’s Women’s House which deals with survivors of domestic abuse and Amerika by Kristina Leko which charts the stories of immigrants, both shown at MSU. In her own work Poliana made manifest the often hidden plight of immigrant women, not uncommonly leaving their homes and families due to domestic abuse (that most hidden of crimes) which is compounded by the disbelief and ostracisation that can follow and then further discrimination upon arrival in a new country. Such a chain of insidious societal oppression and indifference can leave a woman voiceless, invisible and also prey to a process of internalisation where she physically incorporates such forces, her body holding the potential but often unable to make herself truly seen or heard.
Inspired by the story of one female immigrant who found employment as a cleaner in her new country, Poliana also noted, with piercing irony, that for a cleaner the sign of a job well done is absolute invisibility. Dressed in a uniform and moving around the museum with a cleaning machine, Poliana disappeared in plain sight, ignored by the visitors and creating vanishing trails of water like the vanishing trails of an immigrant’s travel, lines of a narrative written with the disappearing ink of the disenfranchised. Then later, parking the machine, she peeled off her uniform, exposing the soft vulnerability of her flesh and unravelling layers of bandages which clothed her. Suddenly her humanity, her individuality became visible and as movement began to compel her floorwards, so too the fierce violence at her core. Shockingly and powerfully thrown, thrust and flung by unseen forces acting through her, across her and from within her, viewers witnessed a woman’s refusal to allow a violently oppressive patriarchy to wipe the floor with her. Here too then was the gesture of really standing out like a sore thumb; exposing a deep vulnerability alone through a physical show of conflict and humility in order to make seen and felt and to therefore to weaken the mechanisms of power whose violence relies so heavily on remaining unnoticed.
Paradoxically however, while such a gesture necessitates the risk of painful isolation, something in its pure humanity in fact generates empathy and even solidarity amongst others. It was while walking in the Pride march during the PG Research week in Zagreb that this wonderful paradox of the sore thumb first became apparent. As I put my body in the throng of people, facing a greater conservatism than I currently experience in my home city and so feeling its power more keenly, I realised that by risking setting oneself apart through a genuinely felt expression, an act of physically showing vulnerability, one finds the greatest sense of strength and connection with other people. This is perhaps the essence of solidarity. It calls to mind Italian thinker and activist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s call to ‘reactivate the social body’. Berardi is primarily looking at acts of social protest as a means of developing a deeper physical empathy to remedy the somato-political ill effects of neo-liberal economic regimes. However watching the diversity of the performances of the PG project I have, in a myriad of ways, witnessed the potential of performance to ‘reactivate the social body’. It aims to move beyond the protective façade of cynicism, the self-defeating apathy and the timorous lack of belief in direct political potential assumed all too easily in dance. In so doing, Performing Gender has, for me, generated an energy and body of work which is truly creative.