Straitjacketed Actuality

Following on from the sunny Surrealist sojourn of last week’s blog, the weather has suffered a sudden spell of bipolarisation with winds from the north causing a climatic case of depression, or some such malign meteorological situation made manifest by unremitting sobs of rain and the expression of a generally much chillier dispositional temperament.  I am, therefore, once again enshrouded in my silver puffer jacket and ensconced within the useful hoodie attachment as I emerge from Waterloo underground station and push past the puddles to get to the Hayward Gallery for their current thematic exhibition which has, unfortunately, been lumbered with the rather too archly arresting title of Kiss My Genders.  As the Gallery guide explains, the exhibition contains ‘work from more than 30 international artists whose work explores and engages with gender identity’ and ‘who employ a wide range of approaches to articulate and engage with gender fluidity, as well as with non-binary, trans and intersex identities’.  So, I suppose I was expecting some kind of exciting, sexy, shocking, transgressive, revelatory insights into a strange other-world of hidden mysteriousness that would make me questions the stultifying straight normality and seriously straightjacketed actuality of the quotidian identity with which I currently identify, exemplify, personify.

And maybe about forty or fifty years ago that might well have been the case except, that in the intervening years, popular culture has so very actively and attentively embraced the concepts of cultural cross-dressing, and all the accompanying blurring of boring binary boundaries, that few can be completely unaware of the fact that the facts of the facts of life that were once so straightforward have been bent backward – a revision that has shifted old solid certainties to current fluid questionabilities.  So much so that I kind of think that if the likes of David Bowie, Mark Bolan and Madonna or Quentin Crisp, Julian Clary and Lily Savage were ever really once considered to be dangerous radicals promoting lifestyles liable to corrupt and corrode the innocent morals of the nation’s youth, well, that must have been a very long time ago indeed.  Surely, the fact that no-one batted an eye-shadowed eyelid or gave so much as a dissolute toss when such prime time TV fare as the Eurovision Song Contest was won by a bearded transvestite says something about the liberal nature of contemporary mores, at least among most of the nations who take part in this international festival of camp musicality

Of course, not all the battles have been won.  Homophobic hate crimes are apparently on the rise as evidenced by the recent viralised photo of the bloodied lesbians who were battered on a bus by a gang of teenage thugs.  Although, since this was greeted by the sympathetic condolences of the Prime Minister and universal condemnation and outrage by just about everyone else, surely this again confirms the relative permissiveness of societal norms in this country and most of the western world.

Then again, I suppose before we liberals congratulate ourselves with too much smug self-satisfaction and proud pontifical virtue signaling, it’s worth noting that there are some more recent conundra that are still awaiting consensual resolution, particularly as related to the current cases of the rights of transgenderal minorities.  So, while I don’t suppose that there are many men who really care very much if women wish to be allowed to use the gents to avoid the eternal congestion of the ladies, when it comes to whether pre-op men who identify as women but who have committed serious violent crimes should be allowed to serve their sentences in what are classed as women’s prisons; or whether Caster Semenya, with her naturally unnaturally high testosterone levels, should be allowed to compete in so-called womens’ sporting events, well, I admit I’m as equivocational as the next man…woman…person.

Anyway, let’s quickly exit that particular moral maze (hopefully not pursued by trolls of any kind) and re-enter the Hayward Gallery.  And while I accept that the exhibition here is meant to be a sort of celebratory historical review of gender agenda issues, I have to say that I did find the whole show looked a bit drab, dated and dull.  Aside from a large deflated inflatable rabbit, some odd abstract sculptures (both of which seemed to me to be utterly unrelated to the exotic theme) and a few figurative paintings showing someone communing with grizzly bears (that again seemed to me to be only very tenuously connected to anything in the rest of the show), the great majority of the photographs and videos on display seems to be documentations of assorted drag acts, whether it’s Amrou Al-Kadhi dressed up as Glamrou,  Luciano Castelli in the guise of Lucille,  Hunter Reynolds posing as Patina du Prey, Kent Monkman appearing as Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, etc etc etc.  Which is all very well but I’m not sure what he point is of so much repetition and frankly, after a while, I found it all a bit of a…er…drag.

Ok, so there are shiny ruched velour curtains, flashing strobe lights and disco dance tunes thumping out of some of the installations, which are presumably meant to be trying to add a bit of excitement and glamour to the proceedings but, again, these seems to me to be almost entirely neutered when set within the sterile confines of an art gallery setting.  And for me the most entertaining aspect of the whole show was Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz’s immersive room-size environment with its latex clad walls and floor – not because of the supposedly suggestive setting, or the curiously doctored documentary presentation contained therein, but because of the requirement to don a pair absurd protective felt overshoes of such bizarre extra-large design that I slipped around and felt like a circus clown.  It really was the only time in the whole exhibition when I had any insight or inkling at all as to what it might feel like to be walking in someone else shoes, metaphorically or otherwise.  And I’m not entirely joking when I say that it made me think that maybe there should have been a follow up room where the audience could further challenge their own sense of self and stereotypical sartorial standards by being encouraged to try out stilettoes or spats, wellys or kinkyboots or maybe even those iconic red ruby slippers.

I suppose for me the main problem with the exhibition as a whole was that there just didn’t seem to be enough very interesting art on the walls.  So while there was lots of documentation and, as mentioned already, some curiosities that seem to have sneaked in from an entirely separate show, there just wasn’t enough of relevant visual interest to keep me relevantly visually interested.  Of the few exceptions that did seem to warrant a second look, I quite liked Flo Brooks’ Pop Art collage paintings depicting the work of the Scrubbers Cleaning Company (see above) and Martine Gutierrez’s series of photos where she masks her head in extravagant fruit cocktail combinations in a sort of homage to the Renaissance Italian proto Surrealist Arcimboldo (see below).


By curious coincidence, the next exhibition I go to take a look at features an artist who was encouraged to leave home after his father caught him dressing up in his mother’s clothes.  A man who seemed to be utterly unbothered about proclaiming his own gay sexuality and whose apparent pursuit of masochistic gratification led him to meet all sorts of interesting new people and engage in entertaining adventures of the most exceptional kind.  I think it’s fair to say that he was also one of the most celebrated and highly regarded of British artists of the second half of the 20th century and one of the very few who attained a truly international status – a situation that seems fairly certain to survive the test of time.

Yes, it’s that most meaty of painters, Francis Bacon, and the Gagosian Gallery has assembled a rather impressive selection of his large paintings which they are now displaying over at their handsomely large gallery in Grosvenor Hill.  The highlight of the show is undoubtedly the work entitled Two Figures (see above) which features a pair of intertwined bodies engaging in what might euphemistically be called a wrestling match.  And, indeed, Bacon was wont to use photographs depicting contact sports as inspiration for his artworks, although it’s hard not to see a kind of urgent intimacy and tender entanglement in this particular artwork that speaks of the physical expression of love and lust, power and submission and raw aching carnality that I suspect will strike a near universal chord whatever the gender, identity or disposition of the viewer.  It really is a very arresting work of art and shows that, at his best, the artist really could bring home the cured porcine products.

Which is also to say that, at times, I think Bacon could quite often be a bit lazy and formulaic, happy just to mark time by playing around with variations on some of his familiar archetypal innovations.  It’s a problem that, for me at least, was very apparent in his Tate retrospective of some years ago but in this, obviously, much smaller exhibition the work looks consistently strong.  While, sadly, there are no shrieking popes on view here, there are easily enough of the cage constructions, lightbulbs and shadows, bruised blurred faces and assorted contorted distorted bodies to keep one staring and marveling at the messy magnificence of the maestro’s interior personal world of fluid formulations.


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