The Intersectional Self

The 8th Floor, The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, New York
9 February – 19 May 2017

Occupying one corner of The 8th Floor, at The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation exhibition space, are two adjacent screens. In a time-lapse video played in reverse, a mother and daughter, in close embrace, chew on a raw onion as they pass it between their mouths. Instead of seeing the onion get smaller, it grows larger the longer we watch it. On the other screen, the daughter does the same with her father. In artist Patty Chang’s In Love (2001) the onion is abject, a symbol for awkward intimate exchanges between family members. For me, the onion layers are a metaphor for overlapping identities, and the intersections those layers suggest for feminism in The Intersectional Self, showing at The 8th Floor.

Feminism has moved towards what is now commonly known as intersectionality—a perspective which asks how multiple types of oppression can act on a person or group of people. It considers that various types of oppression are not a result of discrete actions but come about as a confluence of influences; in other words, the experience of discrimination comes in multiple forms simultaneously and its a/effects are subsequently internalised. Intersectionality elucidates these multi-layered realities of lived experience with and within various systems of domination—sexist, racist, homo/transphobic, ableist, and so on. The Intersectional Self has a timely curatorial focus, and centres on how experiences of gender fluidity have and continue to influence feminism. The exhibition starts with the premise that feminism has always been intersectional—our bodies, our senses of selves, have always been marked by these multiple forms of oppression and discrimination. At a time when the media peddles visual codes of feminism that rely heavily on white representations and perspectives (think Taylor Swift, Emma Watson, and pink pussy hats) that reduce feminism to notions of empowerment and equality, then a more complex story needs to be told, one that recognises how privilege inflects feminism. And at a time when tides of bigotry applaud anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric under Trump, those who battle injustices such as police brutality, mass incarceration, and the right to earn a living wage must also become part of that story.

The Intersectional Self offers this corrective by featuring prominent conceptual artists Janine Antoni, Andrea Bowers, Patty Chang, Abigail DeVille, Ana Mendieta, Catherine Opie, Adrian Piper, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Cindy Sherman, and Martha Wilson. A wide range of media—photography, video, sculpture, and printmaking—combat hetero-normative family structures; reveal how the social construction of femininity and masculinity has shifted along definitions of gender identity; and importantly, in the current political climate, how trans women and people of colour have and continue to be prominent figures in fights for social justice. The ‘self’ in The Intersectional Self reflects the amount of self portraiture present in the exhibition, and while not all the pieces highlight or deal directly with oppression, they all address the delicate calculation of privilege involved with articulating certain kinds of feminisms. With so many key pieces in the exhibition, only a few are detailed here.

Gender parody (recalling Judith Butler) features strongly. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #479 (1975) tracks her transformation from tomboy to hyper-feminised woman in twenty-three small images, formatted like a high school class photo found in a yearbook. As the photos progress and Sherman’s transformations increase, so too does the colour of each photo. Sherman hand tints the end of the progression, resulting in the last that eludes to a ‘painted lady’. Most striking in terms of the new US political administration are Martha Wilson’s humorous photographs of her gender parodies. Specifically, in Thump (2016), Wilson dresses up as Donald Trump standing in front of a statue which has ‘force’ carved on its plinth. As Trump, she leans to the side and gives two thumbs up, an already familiar bravado. The resemblance is uncanny—the neck pulls the chin down to form Trump’s signature pout. As a feminist icon, Wilson’s parody manages to flip the image of oppressor and draws attention to the absurdity of his posturing in support of force.

Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants) (1972) shows the artist staring directly at the camera in a series of seven photographs. Standing behind her, a male (a classmate of Mendieta’s—Morty Sklar) clips his beard and Mendieta then adds the hair to her face. In the last picture she sports a full beard. Despite this, we can still recognise Mendieta—and witness the shift from a marker of masculinity to a direct defiance of what ‘feminine’ should look like. Mendieta’s display was a prescient example of gender boundary transgression and draws attention to the social constructions of femininity by applying what is often considered abject—female facial hair—but has been a source of power for men.

Several pieces in The Intersectional Self respond to dominant views of hetero-normativity of families and their domestic lives. The aforementioned In Love by Patty Chang complements Catherine Opie’s Self Portrait/Nursing (2004) and Miggi & Ilene, Los Angeles, California (1995) that document lesbian domestic life, largely invisible until the last decade or so. Opie also subverts the picture of a hetero-normative family and explores how stereotypes of butch and femme reign in lesbian culture, and, for the context of this exhibition, she revels in her butch identity (Self Portrait/Nursing) showing herself in an intimate pose gazing down at her son as he breastfeeds.

In the main gallery are two installations in conversation with each other. At one end is a video of Adrian Piper’s performance The Mythic Being (1973), which follows the artist as she walks down a street in New York dressed as a male. Not only does she don a beard and a full wig of curly hair, she smokes and postures as a heavily masculinised figure. What makes this video installation compelling is that we witness her process, from deliberating in her study, applying the persona, to the reactions of those who encounter her on the street, giving insight into her expectations of what will happen and how those she encounters actually respond. This social experiment examines race, gender, and class. It shows the fragility of a performance that asks the question, ‘what if?’. Piper’s notable series, My Calling (Card ) #1 (For Dinners and Cocktail Parties) and My Calling (Card) #2 (for Bars and Discos) (1986-present), occupies a vitrine next to her video installation. Piper has handed out these cards at moments of personal misrecognition, in order to emphasise the daily struggles of women of colour. Piper’s themes of race are picked up with Abigail DeVille’s sculptural assemblages that are made of found and discarded objects—shells, flags, pitchforks, to name a few objects. These pieces, placed carefully on the gallery floor, speak to the way people of colour have been treated—discarded and left out of history. DeVille’s strategy of collecting and assembling posits an urgent counter memory for racial history in the US.

Opposite Piper’s video installations, a loose curtain of rainbow ribbons, referencing the suffragettes who embroidered political slogans on ribbons, hang down to form a screen over Andrea Bowers’s Roundtable Discussion (2016). Bowers hosted the roundtable discussion at Otis College of Art and Design for their Public Practice program. Featured are Jennicet Gutiérrez, founding member of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement; Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter; and CeCe McDonald, a bisexual trans activist, who sit and discuss issues ranging from empowerment and visibility for trans and people of colour, to the prison industrial complex. Watching the video through the rainbow ribbons cast an indelible hue on the participants, a reminder to see diversity and acceptance projected onto those advocating social justice for the trans and immigrant community. To complement the conversation, Bowers’s larger work, Whose Feminism is it Anyway? included large scale photographs of trans activists whose poses are reminiscent of iconic political imagery. Throwing Bricks (Johanna Saavedra) (2016), recalls French Revolutionary iconography where the Republic’s flag becomes the focal point of the image. For Throwing Bricks the flag is supplanted by a brick, which points directly to the La Beauté est dans la rue, a poster from the May ’68 student uprisings in Paris. Saavedra, a trans and Latina activist, walks along a palm lined street in Los Angeles and hurls a brick towards the camera. The brick is suspended in mid-air, seemingly stopping time, and allowing a space for viewers to recall Marsha P. Johnson who allegedly threw the first brick (or shot glass as it is often mythologised) that ignited the Stonewall riots of 1969. Weaving together these two references signals disruption, and enunciates resilience and power for these communities. Bowers’s political position advances feminism to embrace trans feminism, and offers a crucial additive to contemporary feminist representation. As a further compliment to these pieces, Bowers’s Work Table with Feminist Political Graphics (2016) features stacks of protest posters pasted onto cardboard, as an archive of protest slogans and graphics detailing women’s protest history and the compatibility of art and activism to foment change. It is this last sentiment that makes the conversation with Piper’s work so cohesive.

What can a gallery for social justice look like? Curator Sara Reisman has, over the last two years, delivered compelling group shows that confront issues of importance to contemporary society—‘care’ as it is broadly conceived, acts of stillness, to the most recent exhibition, where gender fluidity & feminism and art & activism intersect. This type of curated archaeology resists strict historicisation in favour of featuring early precedents of feminism that have already written the perennial imperative to contemporary feminism: to challenge its own privilege and demand it become more inclusive of trans and women of colour. The Intersectional Self creates an aesthetic and narrative experience at a time of political and social uncertainty. These artists and activists have layered feminism with difference and have shuttled us to the intersection of feminism and the possibility of social justice.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972. Estate print 1997. Detail. Suite of seven estate colour photographs, each: 33.7 x 50.8cm, framed each: 46.3 x 61 x 5cm. Edition 8 of 10. (GP0644.8). Courtesy the Estate of Ana Mendieta and Galerie Lelong.

Andrea Bowers, Throwing Bricks (Johanna Saavedra), 2016. Archival pigment print. Image courtesy the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York.

Martha Wilson, Thump, 2016. Colour photograph, 38 x 32ins framed. Courtesy of the artist and P•P•O•W, New York.

Adrian Piper, My Calling (Card) #1 (for Dinners and Cocktail Parties), 1986-present. Installation of a performance prop: business card with printed sign on cardboard. Collection Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. © APRA Foundation Berlin.