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Until the modern and contemporary eras, art has predominantly catered to only the highest echelons of society. A select few could afford to commission artists we regard as “the greats” today, such as Rembrandt or Raphael. It was the rich and religious’ way to capture flattering portraiture, landscapes, and divine imagery. But this changed with technological innovations and transformative artistic movements, like those of the avant-garde or abstractionist. Cameras made the demand for artistic capturing increasingly obsolete, and the concept of art, in turn, transformed into something much more controversial and undefinable.
Because it became increasingly accessible to the masses, marginalized “weirdos” of society began to find comfort in it. Art was something that was now up to their own interpretation and discipline. Transgender people were certainly no exception, and significantly contributed to the new wave of art from the early twentieth century to the present day. Because the rest of society largely ostracizes the trans community, modern and contemporary art-through varying methods and media-was and continues to be used by people within this subculture in order to express both personal and universal narratives of trans identity.
Through the analysis of a handful of contemporary transgender artists and their work, individual processes and concepts reveal the ways in which they give themselves and others like them validity and recognition.
The transcendental, ever-colorful Vaginal Davis is certainly a well-known transgender artist of the present day, with her art and queer activism dating back to the early 1980s. A lot of her work focuses on “woman worship,” and celebrates those who feel that they do not have their own place in the artistic community or society as a whole.
Instead, Davis embraces the idea of being an outsider, and wants nothing to do with fitting in anywhere that won’t take all of her. In an interview with Grace Dunham, she explains “I don’t fit into mainstream society, but I also don’t really fit into “alternative culture,’ either…I am a societal threat.” Dunham also elaborates: “Referring to herself as a drag queen, a hermaphrodite, and a ‘sexual repulsive,’ Davis uses her performances to critique the many contexts in which she was undesirable….. She does what she wants, makes what she wants, and mocks who she wants; she rejects inclusion, and its limiting factors.”? Besides being a performance drag queen, (some of) the ways in which Davis portrays herself as extraordinary is through unorthodox painting and sculpture, particularly her works “Various Hags” and “Come on Daughter Save Me.” “Various Hags,” done in 2012, consists of sixty-four small-scale paintings made from a variety of materials including mascara, nail polish, glycerin, and food coloring. These paintings are a celebration of women, as symbolically depicted through the traditionally “feminine” nature of the products she used, along with female portraiture and phrases such as “I am a woman trapped in the body of a woman inside a binder.” Because Davis has identified as a woman since she was able to say her name, the celebration and visibility of cis and trans women alike is imperative to her.
“Come on Daughter Save Me,” which is one of Davis’ most recent pieces made in late 2015, also speaks to this theme, but in a much more personal tone. It consists of sixteen “blood red wall sculptures,” which were made in Berlin from whatever traditionally “feminine” materials Davis had on hand, much like “Various Hags.” The sculptures are abstract, with most resembling faces or warped genitals. “Come on Daughter Save Me” is an homage to Davis’ mother, who referred to Davis as female since the day she was born, even though she was biologically male. The redness of the sculptures suggests a womb-like symbolism, as though she knew who she was even in utero. “Their [the Davises’] household…was a ‘Druid Wiccan witches’ coven’ where her identity as a daughter was not questioned but affirmed.” The piece is also described as a cautionary tale which speaks to Davis’ ideals, letting people know “you can’t change institutions from the inside, as they always wind up changing you.” She believes in self-affirmation as a powerful way to overcome oppression, and her work is created as a staple of self-love. Her philosophy indicates that instead of fighting for a place among the others, it is better to embrace the identity of “misfit.” Since Davis supposes that society will never accept her for everything she is—which is a whole lot-she won’t welcome anything less.
British-Israeli artist Yishay Garbasz epitomizes the ideas of gender construction, identity, and human rights within her work. She does not, however, refer to herself as a trans woman, explaining in an interview that “…a disability is only a single attribute of the person rather than a qualifier for personhood. “Trans woman’ makes the ‘trans’ the bigger aspect and ‘woman’ the smaller aspect. I can only speak about my current understanding of myself.” Rather than self-describing as second to the concept of “trans,” Garbasz eliminates it from her identity completely. Utilizing photography as her main medium of expression, Garbasz’s piece “Becoming,” made between 2008 and 2010, documents herself nude in a series of self portraits before and after gender reassignment surgery. Her transition takes place against a sterile white background, with the artist posed in a simple stance gazing out at the viewer. The piece speaks to Garbasz’s reservations about identifying as anything other than simply a woman and an artist, reflecting on the ways in which our culture exaggerates mere aspects of people’s identities, creating the idea that these facets are the individual’s entire personality. In self-summarization, Garbasz states “I was born a woman…. It’s not a big deal. I’m going to die a woman…..I’m an artist. I’m not a trans artist, I’m not a Jewish artist, just an artist. And I think that’s important, a lot of people struggle with gender as something that shapes their life… There’s a lot more to life than that. Society constrains a lot of people into very specific things, and if there wasn’t a social ostracism they would have much bigger lives.” Rather than putting an emphasis on surface identification, trans or other, Garbasz believes that the focus of our culture should be on the individual as a whole.
Micha Cárdenas takes a fantastical, technologically innovative approach to the question of “being” in a transgender and transversal-context. In 2008, she (using preferred pronouns) performed “Becoming Dragon,” which was a three hundred and sixty-five-hour long endeavor in which the artist was “immersed in the online 3D environment of Second Life with a head mounted display, only seeing the physical world through a video-feed, and used a motion-capture system to map my movements into Second Life…. A Puredata patch was used to process my voice to create a virtual dragon’s voice.” ‘ By existing in a mixed reality environment in the process of becoming a “dragon” for this period of time, Cárdenas creates a commentary on the one-year requirement of “real life experience” that transgender people must fulfill in order to receive reassignment surgery. She challenges the notions of reality and what qualifies as “true becoming” by delving into a virtual world-labeled “Second Life”-in which her cyber-transformative journey takes place.
In an analytical essay on “Becoming Dragon,” Cárdenas explains “In the specific case of becoming, one can never fully grasp the reality of the being to come, its details and nuances, which only become apparent through lived experience. A decision to become something else, other than what one is in the present moment, can therefore only be based on the limited knowledge of informed speculation. For transsexuals and transgender people, this is particularly evident in the process of deciding to change one’s gender or one’s body.” Because she is so passionate about epistemology and the study of human limitations, the artist uses her virtual environment to explore a world in which humans could change into whatever they desired, outside of just gender reassignment. During her time in Second Life, Cárdenas “the dragon” discovered the boundaries that exist within this world, such as being kicked out of a sex dungeon for pole dancing after a cat-woman hybrid made sexual innuendos at her. She then found out that dragons are not allowed in the club described because “they break the illusion, they distract from the arousing, ostensibly transgressive, scene.” Much like the world we live in, Second Life has its own sorts of discrimination.
The fact that Cárdenas identifies as outside of the gender binary is definitely reflected in this experiment as well, as she is often seen as invalid or less than human when others try to configure a “male” or “female” representation of her. Existing on the outskirts of a traditionally solidified gender construction as a human translates similarly as an animal or human hybrid within Second Life; others don’t entirely know what to make of you. Cárdenas elaborates: “When thinking of the uncanny, of viewing something that looks almost human, there is an experience of a shifting in and out of multiple simultaneous readings. Similarly, while not implying that trans people are less than human…..the experience of looking at a transgender person or at an avatar in Second Life often contains this characteristic. One looks at the person or avatar and, in the process of looking, multiple readings of the subject shift in and out of one’s mind. I have felt this myself as well as seen people interacting with me, looking at me and displaying this kind of shifting or confusion, switching language, ‘ma’am, um, I mean, sir,’ or something similar……Often my gender expression is seen as impossible or outside of categories and so the viewer attempts to read my gender as male or female. For them, I am simultaneously multiple genders, which is impossible in a way, until they have resolved in their minds that I’m transgender, or queer, or gay or that my gender presentation is false, or less real than my biological makeup.” With “Becoming Dragon,” Micha Cárdenas utilizes scientific abstraction to explore the hardships that exist within the real-world transgender community, particularly for those outside of the binary.
Performance artist Heather Cassils has a strong concentration on the idea that being transgender is a perpetual process rather than a finite destination and emphasizes this notion through blood, sweat, and tears-literally. Identifying as outside of the binary with female preferred pronouns, Cassils uses her cut, sinewy body as a medium of representation. Describing her artistic direction, she claims “….I aim to make images that bash through binaries and the notion that in order to be officially transgender, you have to have surgery or take hormones. I perform trans not as something about a crossing from one sex to another but as a continual being, a process-oriented way of being that works in a space of indeterminacy, spasm, and slipperiness.” In one of her most famous works performed in 2013 titled “Becoming an Image,” Cassils wore nothing but a pair of shorts and attacked a two thousand pound heap of clay in complete darkness, illuminated sporadically by a photographer’s flash. After approximately twenty-five minutes, the resulting “sculpture” is exhibited accompanied by a slightly haunting audio of Cassils’ grunts and breathing during the performance. “Becoming an Image” is a reflection of the personal struggle Cassils faces in maintaining her toned appearance, as well one of the undocumented violence inflicted upon transgender people on a daily basis. She elaborates “A black, concrete cast of the beaten clay from a previous iteration of the performance is displayed as an enduring monument to senseless acts of violence against trans and queer bodies that occur outside the realm of statistical notation and beyond the periphery of the historical lens. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that many of our genderqueer and trans brothers and sisters are 28-percent more likely to experience physical violence.” 14 With this lumpy, stoic edifice, Cassils seems to force the viewer to address these sobering statistics.
In regards to the personal aspect of the project, writer Amy Albracht comments “The work is what the title says (and a lot more): a physical exercise that aids in maintaining the artist’s image, at the same time that it beats an image into the clay. The ‘fight’ also references Cassils’ struggle to maintain a body image that requires an intense amount of work. The bulk and tone fades quickly if training goes by the wayside.” If Cassils’ physical regimen falters, her body will revert back to its feminine origins. However, by strictly training rather than taking hormones, she challenges the ideas of “masculine” and “feminine” by presenting as one but biologically being the other. “Becoming an Image” reaffirms the sentiment that gender is a spectral, continuous concept that suffers from constant scrutiny and violence, and the physical toil behind the project represents the struggle of creating an image that the rest of the world considers acceptable while still maintaining personal integrity.
These artists and many others like them depict the personal experiences they’ve had as well as the ubiquitous struggles of being transgender through diverse means. Whether it’s Heather Cassils (literally) beating up the binary, Yishay Garbasz photographing her bodily transition, or Micha Cárdenas opening up the viewer to a transreal universe, the various aspects of transgender identity are made tangible. The transition into modern and contemporary art gave marginalized people like these a means of visibility and individual interpretation in the midst of being snubbed and judged by the rest of society, and continues to provide a versatile weapon in the lingering fight for equal treatment and acceptance.
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