MAY 20, 2012
I stumbled upon my favorite piece at this year’s Whitney Biennial in the corner of the third floor. Unassuming and haphazardly arranged, Fluid Employment by Sam Lewitt consists of a series of brownish, stained tarps lying on the floor. A few small rotating electric fans sit by the tarps, behind them a group of emptied chemical bottles. The piece could easily have been mistaken for trash or the forgotten materials of a work crew (indeed, my friend and I briefly pondered whether a precariously balanced ladder in another hallway of the biennial was art or just a ladder—it was just a ladder). On closer inspection, though, the tarps were home to something magical: amorphous black shapes, sometimes smooth, sometimes spiked. They moved and vibrated like deep-sea creatures as the wind of the rotating fans moved over them. Their black sheen was both grotesque and slickly beautiful, at once resembling an oil spill and the sides of a Mercedes. They were immensely seductive; I couldn’t turn away.
A few weeks earlier, I had attended “Making it Queer: Art, Ambivalence, and Desire in the New Century,” a Yale Pride panel event on queer art. The panel still lingered in my mind as I strolled through the Whitney Museum. My own artistic practice had almost entirely eschewed any considerations of gender and sexuality, despite a deep intellectual interest in both, and I think a desire to make my art “queer” drove me to the event. What exactly is queer art? I wondered. To what extent did artwork have to engage with sexuality or gender to be considered queer? Was any art made by a queer individual, regardless of subject matter, queer? Similarly: was any art that contained depictions of gender and sexuality necessarily queer?
I did not find my answers at the panel, as any discussion of what exactly constituted queer art was avoided. The panel, composed of artists Jonathan Weinberg, Doron Langberg, Sonia Finley, Katie Koti, and Kyle Coniglio, took on the form of a slideshow, with each artist sharing their work. Judging by most of the artwork shown, queer art was understood to be any art that dealt with queer sexuality. The paintings of Doron Langberg and Jonathan Weinberg approached ideas of gay male sexuality and romance through interpretations of the male nude. Katie Koti’s stunning photographs examined a wider spectrum of gender identities, as well as depictions of lesbian relationships and families.
However, the idea that any art dealing with sexuality can be considered queer art seems too far-reaching to do justice to the complexities of the themes these pieces try to address. Some twenty-plus years ago, Robert Mapplethorpe’s (in)famous photographs of homoeroticism and sadomasochism sparked wide public controversy, and the photographs themselves were compelling, radical, and inventive in their newness. However, in our contemporary moment, mere depictions of the male erotic gaze don’t seem to hold the same power that they once did. Today, the definition of queer art seems to have shifted; artists exploring queer identity in their artwork must now delve deeper to take a more nuanced look at queerness in its many forms. There is, of course, still value in creating artworks that explore male or female homosexuality, but some paintings shown at the panel, such as the more explicitly sexual work of Weinberg and Coniglio, fell flat in the context of queer art’s contemporary challenges. Their depictions of male nudes felt like shallow investigations into queer identity, failing to probe beyond surface explorations of the queer gaze.
Amongst these artists, I found Sonia Finley’s alternative perspective on queerness a refreshing expansion of the more commonly accepted definitions of queer art. Finley, a 2012 graduate of Yale’s Sculpture MFA program, began by explaining that this was the first time she had ever talked about her artwork as queer art. Her work deals with alterations of the gallery space, with sculptures changing the shape of the room in often awkward and uncomfortable ways. One sculpture, for instance, created the appearance of a slight indentation of a body on a gallery wall. Despite a lack of explicitly queer images in her work, Finley explained how her pieces still expressed queer themes. More than standalone art objects the viewer peruses from a safe distance, Finley’s sculptures invade the viewer’s space, forcing the audience to actively interact with the pieces. They make the viewer aware of their own body, incorporating the viewer into the artwork itself. In this way, Finley’s sculptures question and complicate identities, blurring the boundaries between viewer and art, between body and space, between object and human. Though her work lacks any explicit visual cues that evoke ideas of gender or sexuality, Finley felt that her work’s messiness, its inbetweenness, was queer in its own way, and I’m inclined to agree.
The Whitney Biennial, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, presents itself as a snapshot of American contemporary art. Such a devotion to keeping current invariably means that much of the art in the Biennial is fad-based. Not all of the pieces shown are destined to become timeless masterworks, but they are all exciting—the newness and the inevitable weirdness of much of the art inspires in its devotion to experimentation.
Much of the artwork at this year’s Biennial dealt explicitly with queer issues and themes. Notable was the artwork of Wu Tsang, a transgender artist (more precisely, he self-identifies as transfeminine and transguy). Tsang’s piece GREEN ROOM explores the idea of a safe space in the context of the struggles of the Latino transgender community. This year’s Whitney Biennial features an unprecedented amount of performance art, with the main room of the fourth floor of the museum converted into a performance art space. Behind the main room is GREEN ROOM, a room that Tsang has converted into a lounge and dressing room for the performers. When not used by performers, GREEN ROOM is opened up to visitors to the Whitney. The room looks exactly like a dressing room interior, complete with dressing room lighting, carpeting, and custom designed furniture. When opened up to Whitney visitors, the room plays a 2-channel video installation, showing footage of a transgender bar in Los Angeles, The Silver Platter, and telling the story of the dangers patrons of the bar face.
GREEN ROOM, at once a sculpture and a video piece, is a fascinating examination of the duality of safe spaces. The piece reclaims a room in the Whitney, a public institution, and turns it into a welcoming space where the Biennial’s performers can relax and change their clothing. The performers in the Biennial are shielded from the outside world just as the transgender patrons of The Silver Platter are allowed to do as they please without judgment.
However, the privacy of the space Tsang presents remains unstable, and under threat. The dressing room must be opened up to viewers if it can be called art (what’s art if it’s not viewed?), and, inevitably, its intimacy is lost. Transforming the bar into a work of art thus expresses the way in which the privacy of The Silver Platter itself is similarly fleeting. One of the videos in the installation includes a shot of security camera footage taken from outside the bar; the intrusive footage undercuts the sense of the bar as a safe haven.
Tsang’s own attempts to organize and advocate for the bar’s patrons are also unintentional encroachments on the bar’s privacy. Tsang became heavily involved with the bar community by organizing a weekly performance art event/dance party, WILDNESS, which expanded the bar’s patronage from its transgender base to the LA arts scene at large. Opening up the bar as a safe haven to any and all individuals, its rise in popularity meant less privacy for those who needed it most. Notably, an LA journalist wrote a review of the bar for LA Weekly, calling it “a place where a lady-boy can take a load off her feet and wipe a load off her skirt before getting back to business in the back of a Toyota.” The bar had been invaded by the outside world, its previous intimacy and safeness was lost.
In using the bar as subject matter for his art, Tsang only draws more attention to it by making it known amongst thousands of Whitney Museum visitors. Attempts to create an inclusive safe space, it seems, are inevitably and paradoxically linked to that safe space’s destruction.
Tsang’s GREEN ROOM explores the divides private and public space by focusing on the moments of breakage that make them nebulous. In this way, the same sense of inbetweens present in Finley’s work pervades the Biennial in an identifiably queer manner.
Shades of Tsang and Finley’s ideas of inbetweenness re-emerged while I stared once again at the strange, amorphous black shapes of Fluid Employment. Fluid Employment exists at the center of a series of broken divides, and this inherent messiness is part of its beauty, its magic. The piece’s amorphous black masses are created by pouring ferrofluid, a mixture of magnetic particles suspended in liquid, over magnets. The resulting magnetic field turns the ferrofluid into a solid mass, giving it contours and shape. However, the masses retain their liquid properties, and are prone to evaporation. The fans, blowing wind on the masses, only speed the process of evaporation up. As such, the amorphous black shapes exist somewhere inbetween their solid and liquid states.
The objects initially seem to lean toward categorization as tiny sculptures, but this definition proves insufficient: the shapes are always changing, and the “sculptures” never stay quite the same. Further, the piece can hardly be understood as just sculpture: the rectangular tarps, stained in intricate ways, draw to mind the mediums of drawing and painting. Lewitt must also pour more ferrofluid onto the tarps weekly in order to maintain the artwork. The piece, then, also becomes both an ongoing performance and a quasi-science experiment. The impermanence and insustainability of the piece also means that it will eventually exist solely in photographic and video recordings. So, Fluid Employment rejects any characterization as a single artistic medium. It exists somewhere between sculpture, painting, performance, and photography, and its identity becomes defined by its impermanence, its constant flux.
It is perhaps bizarre to link artwork like Fluid Employment to broader trends and themes of queer art since I have no way of knowing whether the artist personally identifies himself or his art as queer. Regardless, I think queer themes lurk within Lewitt’s tarps and fluids. Like Finley’s work, Fluid Employment seems most concerned with a blurring of identities; its inbetweenness dialogues with other representations of queerness in art. This unexpected affinity attests to the degree to which ideas of queer theory and queerness have pervaded the art world, in which the deconstruction of binaries has led to a greater consideration of the fluidity of all identities. Over the past few years, artists have explored the queer inbetween in more explicit ways, as evidenced by Tsang’s moving investigation of the lives of those who exist between male and female, gay and straight. But there is also an emerging potential for a subtler exploration of inbetweens, where art like Finley’s (and perhaps even Lewitt’s), though not explicitly queer, can also play with ideas of queerness and probe viewers to broaden their queer worldview. These areas between binaries compose an exciting and fascinating territory, and, as much of it remains unexplored by the contemporary art world, is a realm rife with artistic potential.
Andrew Wagner is a sophomore in Yale College. He is Arts Editor for Broad Recognition.