Bologna, 31 October – 1 November 2014
By Amy Bell
I’m in an art gallery and someone is checking me out. This is not the kind of thing that usually happens to me. At first I’m incredulous but it’s unmistakable, the charming smirk, the slow swagger, the enquiring, furtive glances flashed from under long Mediterranean lashes… at me. Flattered but uneasy, I fumble with my belongings, eyes darting about in search for my own fast disappearing composure. To be honest I’m not sure if I like being looked at this way. There’s something a little seedy, a little hard about the scrutiny. But yet the gaze also draws me in, radiating a warmth and charisma that make my surroundings drop away. Maybe I do like it. This thought surprises me, and I’m beginning to feel at something of a loss. I remind myself that this is a performance, that she’s probably only playing and so could I, but I’m genuinely confused. I’m self-conscious, I fidget. Unruffled, emboldened even, she draws closer. She is scanning me shamelessly, taking her time, savouring her power. I start to feel a touch invaded. She’s definitely giving me the hairy eyeball. It’s almost getting embarrassing. Actually, it is getting embarrassing, people are staring. I look about me for signs of amused solidarity in the smattering of fellow visitors, but really I’m annoyed at the thought my unease might be visible, might be seeping out of me despite my best efforts.
But why is all this getting under my skin? Drag? Great. Audience interaction? Fine. What then is making me so edgy? I realise here there’s something that doesn’t quite fit. The figure approaching me is slick-haired and sharp-suited as a smooth-tongued lothario, but yet there is no attempt to actually pass as a man. She’s macho but yet reads as womanly, skin-pricklingly pervy but yet soft and decidedly feminine. This is a drag that obviously points to its own incompleteness; the illusion is half done, half undone and then paradoxically seems to touch on something very real. My desire-o-meter and gay-dar, wayward at the best of times, flicker and fail me. I can’t tell what is ‘real’ and what is being ‘played’, I can’t point to a stable reading of her gender or her desire. And, alarmingly, I no longer seem able to pin down my own. She makes me feel oddly girlish, a sensation I’m not used to. Surely this can’t be caused by something as superficial as assuming the stereotypical codes of machismo? Would I really fall for such a cheap trick? I’m aware that she is still more feminine than me anyway. Or is she? I’m not sure. The codes are only half employed, obscured, teased at. With no small amount of surprise and resistance, I share this ambivalence, even begin to wonder if I’m not slightly enjoying being accosted, something that usually makes me unspeakably furious. Under her gaze I am gently losing grasp of my own gender bearings, she is sexually dis-orientating me.
“Ciao” she nods, confidently snaking her way over. She begins looking at me closer, making a little whispered conversation. When she calls me “bella” a mildly mortifying, too-loud gaffaw escapes me. She is joking, surely, pulling my leg. But just as I think I understand the game and relax, she wrong foots me. “How much?’ she asks. I squirm. I wonder what she wants to buy, although I think I know. She is propositioning me. Just like that. She wants to buy me. And, for a millisecond, I actually consider what price I would put on myself. I flush with… what, shame? excitement? rage? I evade and dodge her question, I try to keep my cool and play along. But she can see I am actually thinking about it, I imagine myself a prostitute. I am insulted, amused. “It is absurd! It is ironic!”, I tell myself, but is it? For a moment, as she caresses me, I am forced to rub up against my own prejudices and I recoil slightly. Am I so judgmental? Am I really so up tight? Seeing I reached some kind of limit and perceiving me interactive small-fry, she begins to unhook me and slip me back into the pool of gallery visitors. But before casting her eyes about for a bigger fish, perhaps one willing to risk a little more, she pays me for our interaction. With slow relish and evident pride, she slides an elegant hand down inside the front of her trousers and produces from the bulge waiting for me there, a plastic wrapped, warm and slightly squashed Magdalena cake.
This is Cristina Henríquez’ Marìa Magdalena. Autorretrato which was performed over a duration of several hours at Bologna’s Museo d’Arte Moderna (MAMbo) alongside the works of Juanjo Arques, Riccardo Buscarini and Vlasta Delimar for Performing Gender. As I gingerly nibble on my prize I ruminate on the supposed repentant prostitute Mary Magdalene and remembrances of the writings of gender theorist Judith Butler. Butler’s ideas positively ripple out from the two words of this project’s title. Performing Gender. Impossible to hear without thinking of Butler’s game changing debunking of the oft-perceived naturalness and connectedness of sex, gender and sexuality. Butler reframes these aspects of identity as continuously created, recreated and embodied by repeated stylised performative acts regulated by societal norms. She writes famously in Gender Trouble, ‘Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.’
On reading Butler, we see how when ‘doing’ or creating our sex, gender and sexual orientations through repeated, everyday enactments of our identities, it is through the mesh of norms, stereotypes, taboos and practices of the dominant discourses. Moving through MAMbo I come across the figure of Riccardo Buscarini in his work for PG Bologna, Blur. His subversively delicate, subtly camp and seductive male dancing body tugs at, languishes and rages beneath just such a net of patriarchal, hetero-normative prejudice and control. Caught cruelly in a giant fishing net spread across the gallery space he is, as we all are, unable to slip though the warp and weft of societal mores because of his own frail and animalistic corporeality.
It is tempting to become preoccupied with these monumental societal forces and with how they form, create or ‘do’ our identities. However it is equally important to think about how our identities are also ‘undone’, and here I return to the power of the hairy eyeball. Like Cristina, Riccardo commands the entire space with his look. Free of theatre convention and within touching distance, he too gives me the hairy eyeball; he looks at me, we look at each other. It is a gaze shot though downcast lashes, flashed sideways or held with a seething squint. I am scrutinised, serenaded, seduced or rejected, appealed to, made doubtful, uneasy, I see and feel myself, my maleness my femaleness and my desire differently through his eyes and vice versa. In this way we might more easily grasp the seemingly overpowering, invisible societal mechanisms that create our sense of selfhood. Instead of focusing on vast and intangible forces when we think about identity, we can think about the simple power of eye contact between two people. It is through this mirrored gaze that our sense of self is disrupted, unravelled and we see how relative and how precarious our identities really are.
This basic interpersonal focus is an approach to sex, gender and sexuality proposed by workshop leader and PG partner Peggy Olislaegers. During the initial research week in Bologna she asked the PG artists to question whether their identities could ever exist in a vacuum and to consider how they were formed and re-formed under the reciprocal gaze of an ‘other’. I am reminded again of Butler, who writes in Undoing Gender:
Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re
missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.
This is precisely what occurred to me in a playful way in Cristina’s presence but what I know to be gloriously and disastrously true of my ‘real’ life. Any hard-won sense of a recognisable self botched together soon unravels, wobbles or even collapses entirely through the desire and grief we feel for and with others. Clearly Cristina is also making a smart comment on power dynamics between spectators and performers, men and women, sex workers and their clients, consumers and products. She shoots an objectifying male gaze from a woman’s eyes and surveys the resulting havoc she wreaks on the museum visitors. (It was amusingly satisfying to see her ballsily swaggering up to a suave, middle aged man, look him up and down and ask him “how much?”) But more fundamentally however, it was moving to see her tapping into what I think Butler might be talking about, the undoing of our partial, teetering and mutable self-knowledge through seeing and being seen by another.
This is perhaps a view of identity that Croatian PG artist Vlasta Delimar might well argue with. Her recent retrospective in Zagreb’s Museum of Modern Art, This is I at first seems a defiant stance against a decentralised, relative self. Likewise, her work for PG Bologna was a text installed in the pool of water between Il Cassero and MAMbo proclaiming Io sono/Io sono una persona/Io sono una buona persona (I am/I am a person/I am a good person). Vlasta is an outspoken individual who, resisting feminist and theory-driven interpretations of her work, maintains with a shrug and quietly steely gaze that one is simply oneself. However despite this, Vlasta’s work also charts how a sense of groundedness and personal coherence is not necessarily at odds with how we are shaped and affected by other people over time. The impact of creative and personal relationships feature strongly in her work and self-portraits are a mainstay that map continuity and change across her body and especially her face over her 35 years of making art. Interestingly too, part of Io sono… is the invitation to speak with Vlasta eyeball to eyeball. During the performance she lingered on the bridge above her installation discussing ideas or simply shooting the breeze with whoever came along, as if her titular proclamation of selfhood is in fact subject to dialogue and questioning after all.
I move around MAMbo, looking at the visitors and being looked at in return. I drift between one work and the other and I am struck not only by the way in which the gaze of the other holds, defines and essentially destroys the self we think we are, but also how this happens differently with each person we encounter. The hairy eyeball then recalls the ‘pelo nell’uovo’, literally ‘the hair in the egg’ which means to ‘split hairs’ or to ‘pick holes’ in something. The phrase was the theme of the Gender Bender festival during PG Research Week and so became a focus, metaphor and a possible methodology for the project. We picked at, questioned and zoomed in on the cracks and discontinuities in each of us, on our peculiarities and endlessly curious ‘suchness’. Striking for me however is to take this attention to the reciprocal ‘undoing’ of sex, gender and sexuality occurring through the exchanges of glances around the museum. I tune into the quality and texture of each performer’s gaze, to each unique invitation to be seen. I become a different me as each performer looks at me differently, relates to me differently, moves and behaves differently depending on the feel of my presence and the decisions I make. I see people around me differently too, I wonder if they are affected, whether the hours at the museum have loosened the fetters and binds of identity and allowed, even if just for a moment, a greater sense of playfulness, uncertainty and dynamism in who we feel we are. I wonder too if this is perhaps why I have always loved performance in the first place, as a welcome raft upon which to ride the waves of the sometimes perilous waves of human inter-subjectivity.