The Intersectional Self
By Sara Reisman
Whatever gender identity each of us holds true, our current conception of gender is dramatically expanding. Historically, feminism has always been intersectional, in the sense that women’s notions of self have often been rooted in a number of simultaneous affiliations tied to race, economic status, sexual orientation, religion, age, and education, among others. If, for instance, we agree for a moment that gender is primary to self identification, race secondary, then religion, nationality, and so on, it must be acknowledged that the order of these aspects of identity has a tendency to be fluid and dependent on context. The extent of this intersectionality is undoubtedly connected to the level of agency one has to claim these affiliations in order of preference. In certain communities this sense of agency is intertwined with privilege.
The Intersectional Self explores gender as it has been expressed by ten 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—most of whom identify as women, who explore gender along a spectrum of possibilities ranging from performance to embodiment, drag to parody, and trans to pandrogyne. Between the gender one is assigned at birth and that which is lived, there is an unfixed, elastic quality to gender identity. Beyond its biological underpinnings, the performance of gender can be modulated, both individually and collectively, and its coding varies widely across cultural climates.
Included in The Intersectional Self are works by Martha Wilson produced between 1972 and 2016. Her earliest works in the exhibition examine gender. In Posturing: Male Impersonator (Butch), 1973/2008, Wilson performs “butch” as if male, and in Posturing: Drag (1972), she appears as a man in female drag, which she describes as a “double sex transformation.” In the former she wears an athletic letterman-style jacket with a crewneck shirt; in the latter a wig and wrap-dress with a plunging neckline. Of Posturing: Drag Wilson states, “…I am dressed in ‘drag’ so that the transformation is from female into male, back into female. Theoretically, the uninitiated audience sees only half of this process, from ‘male’ into ‘female.’”1 In these works, the idea of being female is mutable, and open to interpretation by both the artist who performs it and the viewer who observes it. Mutability is also evident in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #479 (1975), comprised of a series of portraits of the artist transitioning frame by frame, from ambiguously gendered to hyper-feminine. The photographic layout reads like a page from a high school yearbook, yet, rather than individual student portraits, we see the arc of one student, performed by Sherman. The subject finds herself in various stages of identity formation, moving between two pejorative stereotypes—the tomboy at one end of the spectrum and the tramp at the other—both of which are social constructs related to heteronormative ideas of female behavior and appearance. Sherman’s facial expressions, if read by her eyes alone, convey the accumulation of knowledge, or knowingness acquired in exchange for loss of innocence, suggesting that between the polar opposites of the gender binary exist a multitude of possible selves.
Sherman and Wilson enact what Judith Butler has coined “gender parody,” a practice which “reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin. To be more precise, it is a production which, in effect—that is, in its effect—postures as an imitation. This perpetual displacement constitutes a fluidity of identities that suggests an openness to resignification and recontextualization; parodic proliferation deprives hegemonic culture and its critics of the claim to naturalized or essentialist gender identity.”2
Butler implies that parody can be performed by someone of the same gender—Sherman posturing as teenager, for instance—and that it operates as an act of resistance to the larger power structure. In her Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), 1972, Ana Mendieta documents, in a series of seven photographs, the transfer of facial hair from her classmate Morty Sklar to herself. Unlike Wilson and Sherman’s masculine impersonations (young male and tomboy-ish girl, respectively), Mendieta’s Facial Hair Transplants represent a hybrid in which she remains female and identifiably herself, despite the addition of facial hair. Appearing without makeup, she shows how easy it is to change our perception of gender through a simple, but significant, adjustment to the face.
Two decades later, another kind of gender bending self-portrait arrived in the form of Janine Antoni’s Mom and Dad (1994). The three photographs capture her mother and father in prosthetic makeup and wigs, taking on the other’s gender: in one photograph they are both dressed and madeup as Antoni’s father, in another they are both her mother, and in a third photograph they trade personas completely. Antoni describes the triptych as an indirect self-portrait, explaining “What became fascinating during the process was the resistance or the impossibility of turning my parents into each other. What I was arriving at was half-mom, half-dad creature, but to create this composite I had to reverse our roles in the sense that my parents made me, and now I was re-making them.”3 The piece also questions the possibility of the reversal of traditional parental roles, and the differing responsibilities projected onto each gender. Patty Chang has also collaborated with her parents in the production of her two-channel performance video In Love (2001). On each screen, Chang appears to be in an embrace, one with her mother, the other with her father. Together, they share a raw onion in a tearful, meditative exercise. Edited to play in reverse, as the video progresses the onion emerges as a recognizable object, suspended between the mouths of each pair. Their closeness, coupled with unpleasantness of consuming the acidic vegetable, conjures the repulsion associated with excessive displays of intimacy, and the painful separation of parent and offspring that is essential for the development of adult identity. Of In Love, Chang states, “I was extremely nervous about approaching [my parents] to do the piece… I called my mom and explained to her what I wanted to do and I was surprised when she said she thought it was a nice idea. Then she said I had to ask my father because he doesn’t like to eat onions. He decided that once in a while was Ok.”4
The traditional notion of family as the ultimate intent of heteronormative relations between man and woman is increasingly tested by newer ideas of what constitutes a family, which is no longer reliant on conventional reproduction. In Catherine Opie’s Miggi & Ilene, Los Angeles, California (1995), part of her Domestic series, the expanded nature of family structures is celebrated. This idea is further personalized in Self Portrait/Nursing (2004), in which Opie challenges butch and femme stereotypes in a pictorial format reminiscent of Old Master paintings of Madonna and Child. Opie says, “I’m more interested in the idea of the private relationship to a public politics versus those lines of purely public or private. I’ve always been interested in the idea that politics come first so you have to put yourself out there in an honest way in terms of representation, living as we do in such an extremely homophobic society.”5 Homophobia and misogyny are similarly rooted, at least in part, in a fear of the unknown. One of the most regressive attitudes towards homosexuality is the idea that it is a curable pathology.
In Patty Chang’s Melons (At a Loss), 1999, she tells the story of her inheritance of a commemorative plate from an aunt who had recently passed away. Shot from the waist up, facing the camera and wearing only a bra, Chang explains that she is unable to eat off the plate because the ink with which it is decorated is poisonous. During her narration she cuts open the left cup of her bra, revealing a cantaloupe that she proceeds to scoop out with a spoon, eating the fruit and spooning some of it onto the plate, which she balances on her head. The incongruous elements of Melons (At a Loss) suggest a narrative embedded with trauma. Eve Oishi writes that “Despite the variety of media she uses, Chang’s body of work is drawn together by the bold, outrageous, and yet subtle use of her own body to test the borders of flesh and the body and to explore the physical and ideological ways in which women’s bodies are stitched, clamped, hooked, squeezed and dismantled into femininity.”6
One of the issues that Antoni, Chang, and Opie’s works obliquely raise is how in mainstream culture the primary social structure is the nuclear family and that motherhood is still an expected rite of passage. Included in the exhibition are works by Cindy Sherman and Catherine Opie depicting pregnant women, who, in differing ways, resist the mold of heteronormativity. Sherman’s Untitled (2002/04) portrays a pregnant woman with an unspecified racial identity. As is Sherman’s standard practice, the figure is positioned alone in front of the camera, in this case gazing sideways towards the viewer. When compared to Opie’s Miggi & Ilene, Los Angeles, California, the singularity of Sherman’s subject might imply single motherhood, her expression defiant in the face of the loneliness implied by her situation, in contrast to the familial atmosphere of Miggi & Ilene, whose buoyant togetherness is palpable. But what do we make of women who—by choice or circumstance—enter into motherhood alone? And women whose family structures don’t include having children?
For those whose political awakenings took place between the 1960s and 1990s, the second wave feminist proposition that “the personal is political” was, if not unifying, a useful way to articulate the impact of politics on our personal lives. In the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, one largely based on gender politics, the statement may sound dated, or to some, unfamiliar, yet, it has helped establish a basis for defining the complexity of movements rooted in identity—such as Feminism, Civil Rights, and Black Power—contributing to an intersectional and collective political engagement that binds us through our lived experiences. If we acknowledge and embody the specifics of our differences, these layered variations can enable alliances between and among diverse subcultures. “The personal is political” helped many to develop individual, particular foundations for our respective political beliefs, and now intersectionality can be used as a means for self-determination that also enables an appreciation for the universal, that which connects us to one another.
Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being (1973), a performance-based video in which she emulates a male persona, one that is “seeming opposite: a third world, working-class, overtly hostile male,” is one of several inquiries she has made into society’s reading of gender, race, and class. For The Mythic Being, Piper excerpted 144 passages from her diary as a structure for enacting the same number of corresponding performances, each associated with a mantra based on one of the diary excerpts. According to Piper, the piece explores “Internal expectations versus external audience perceptions. The idea is very much to see what would happen if there was a being who had exactly my history only a completely different visual appearance to the rest of society, and that’s why I dressed as a man.”7 Over the course of two years Piper tested out these in-situ drag performances on unwitting audiences on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts and New York City, for observers who were most often unaware of the performance before them. Of Piper’s social experiment, Cherise Smith writes, “a mythic being [is] a fictitious or abstract personality that is generally part of a story or folktale used to explain or sanctify social or legal institutions or natural phenomena.”8 More than a decade later, Piper introduced her Calling Cards (1986-the present), which are described as “one part guerrilla performance, one part social intervention,” a project that, “extends the practice of her 1970’s Catalysis works into an even more direct and intimate confrontation with social and interpersonal encounters at the scene of ‘racial’ recognition and its lapses.”9 My Calling (Card) #1 (for Dinners and Cocktail Parties) and My Calling (Card) #2 (for Bars and Discos) reflect the intersectional nature of how identity in general, and Piper’s in particular, is perceived. The Calling Cards can then be deployed in response to the misrecognition of identity, in the context of prejudicial—sexist and/or racist—interactions that encroach on one’s sense of agency. This series gives visibility to the under-recognized daily struggles commonly experienced by women and people of color.
In Piper’s practice we see the link between art and activism, a hallmark of a number of artists in The Intersectional Self. Understanding art’s potential as an agent of change, Piper states “…my work springs from a belief that we are transformed—and occasionally reformed—by immediate experience, independently of our abstract evaluation of it and despite our attempts to resist it.”10 Martha Wilson’s drag photographs from the 1970s led to an ongoing series of political drag performances encompassing spoken word and song, in which she postures as first ladies such as Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. In her most recent performances as Donald Trump leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, Wilson provided a humorous outlet for the anxiety produced by this particular presidential race. In contrast to her other performances, Wilson described not wanting to get inside Trump’s head because she “couldn’t go there.” Instead, she assumed his persona up to a point, while allowing for breaks in character in order to not be fully consumed by his being. As Trump, Wilson sang a tragicomic falsetto that reflects the anxieties about the fascism permeating American politics:
I will make America great again
I will make America hate again,
I will make America white again,
I will make performance and life one and the same.11
Wilson’s last line seems to undermine the first three. As ephemeral as her performances are, the videos of Trump and Barbara Bush serve as historical records of political dissent of specific moments. Similarly, artworks by Abigail DeVille and Andrea Bowers highlight inequities based on racial, economic, gender, and immigrant identities that pervade society. Using found objects and salvaged material, DeVille explains that her process of assemblage is an exercise in acknowledgement. “I think of trash as a record of existence, that these things were used by people. They are the archeological evidence of the present moment. History is permeating everything, whether you know it or not.”12 Two of her sculptures in the exhibition poignantly signal a combination of anguish and the need to honor those whose lives have been crushed through oppressive means. DeVille’s Untitled (Till, Martin, Garner, Brown), 2015, commemorates the lives of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, four men who were killed in lynching or encounters with the police. Lynched in 1955 at the age of fourteen, Till’s death is considered one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement. Composed of materials such as debris, seashells, tar, palms, a mop head, wax, an American flag, a chair, and stockings, the accumulation of objects in Untitled (Till, Martin, Garner, Brown) is intended to tell a story of racial injustice in America. While her sculptures are somewhat abstract, DeVille’s use of trash is laden with meaning, as she asserts that it is the ideal material for talking about a forgotten history “because that’s how those people were treated.”13 Her Invisible Women (2012) similarly conveys the abject realities that many face on a daily basis. Together the two sculptures bring to mind the #SayHerName movement, which Kimberle Crenshaw, Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum describes as being organized in response to gender inequity. “Although black women are routinely killed, raped, and beaten by police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality. Yet, inclusion of black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives, and policy demands around policing and police brutality is critical to effectively combating racialized state violence for black communities and other communities of color.”14
Andrea Bowers’ Roundtable Discussion (2016) is an ambitious and successful effort to give a group of potentially ‘forgotten women’ a platform to discuss a myriad of political concerns, “reflecting key issues of our time including gender, black liberation, the prison industrial complex, immigration, among others.”15 Under the umbrella of Bowers’ 2016 solo exhibition Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?, Roundtable Discussion was an intimately scaled, but powerful convening of Jennicet Gutiérrez, a founding member of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, working on behalf of trans women immigrants; CeCe McDonald, a bisexual trans activist who was sentenced to prison in an all-male facility for a crime committed in self-defense; and Patrisse Cullors, a performance artist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter.
In addition to instigating this conversation, Bowers also created artwork for Whose Feminism is it Anyway? commemorating these activists and many others, including detailed drawings of protestors, recreations of historical feminist political posters and portraits of activists. Portrait with Gun and Hood (Jennicet Gutiérrez), 2016, is a large-scale photograph of Gutiérrez, who is known in more mainstream politics as the activist who interrupted President Obama while he spoke at a White House convening about recognizing the LGBTQ community. Gutiérrez interrupted with questions about the need to protect trans immigrants. Regarding this portrait, art critic Ben Davis notes that Gutiérrez is depicted “proudly brandishing a rifle,” as if “to take a side in a living argument about tactics. The fact that the resulting image evokes canonical political imagery becomes a way for the artist to point out the historical provenance of Gutiérrez’s militancy.”16 The rage expressed in Roundtable Discussion and in Bowers’ portraits of trans activists is based on real danger and macro-aggressions. The level of anti-trans violence has reached epidemic proportions:
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) 2013 report on hate violence against lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected communities, 72 percent of the victims of LGBTQ or HIV-motivated hate violence homicides in 2013 were transgender women, and 67 percent were transgender women of color. When compared to their non-transgender LGBQ and HIV affected peers, the report found that transgender people of color were 6 times more likely to experience physical violence from the police, 1.5 times more likely to experience discrimination, 1.5 times more likely to face sexual violence and 1.8 times more likely to experience bias-based violence in shelters.18
This 2015 report by the Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition shows that trans people and trans people of color are exposed to alarming levels of risk, yet this crisis has largely remained under the radar. Bowers’ engagement with trans feminist activists is a catalyst for activism, producing creative media, facilitating dialogue, and providing an alternative platform via the artistic community. Bowers’ Work Table with Feminist Political Graphics (2016) charts the visual history of women’s protest, reinforcing the idea that art is an inextricable component of making change.
Operating as performance-based public protest, Piper and Wilson’s interventions have taken drag to the streets, and the consequences of passing as male or as another are engaged according to the duration determined by the framework of their projects. If these artworks are temporary, what are the stakes of fully and permanently embodying another gender? Bowers’ work with Jennicet Gutiérrez and CeCe McDonald gives a view into the ongoing fight for visibility, safety, and equity that trans women face on a daily basis. One of the criticisms of feminist theory in relation to trans identity is an insistence on binaries, being either/or. The work and life of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge resists this binary, having continually challenged how gender is regarded and lived. They are perhaps one of the first artists to claim the preferred gender pronoun of they/them, rather than he/him or she/her. Originally two, Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge sought to merge into one being, for which they coined the term pandrogyne. Their assigned genders were male and female, respectively, but over the course of several decades they underwent a series of surgeries, a process of moving towards a third gender. Of their motives, Krista Miranda explains, “Through pandrogeny, then, Genesis and Lady Jaye undermined theories of embodiment that conceive the body as a fixed, autonomous entity.”18
In a 2015 interview they explained, “We never thought of it as transitioning as much as evolution…. We wanted to demonstrate that the human body is not the person… the mind is the person. And ultimately, the body’s supposed to be discarded altogether, and we become pure consciousness, that’s our belief… and so this is a step symbolizing the beginning of seeing the species differently, and looking towards an ultimate future where thereis no either/or, and ultimately there is no body, there’s just divine thought, and divine consciousness.”19
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s interest in a divine consciousness hearkens back to Adrian Piper’s The Mythic Being, helping those who see gender as a fixed position to consider how the world will change—what will be possible?— as trans awareness and acceptance grows. Quoting artist and musician Patti Smith, Breyer P-Orridge incorporates this statement in one of their collages: “As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag…” However being trans is inherently intersectional, possibly more than any gender. Instead of fixating on binaries, the trans community can be looked to for a particular kind of wisdom, a model that can inform other communities in their thinking about how to address the complexities of identity. If we agree that future is female, it follows that the future is also trans.
—Sara Reisman, January 2017
1. Tannenbaum, Judith. “Performing Women, Then and Now.” Moore Women Artists. October 16, 2015. http://moorewomenartists.org/performing-women-then-now.
2. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. p.138.
3. Martínez, Rosa. “Conjunctions and Disjunctions.” In Janine Antoni, edited by Cristina Bechtler. Hatje Cantz Publishers & Ink Tree, 2000. J. Antoni quoted, p.124.
4. Jenkins, Nicolas, and Short Sterile Cowboys & Co. “”In Love” With Patty Chang.” Vimeo. December 29, 2012. https://vimeo.com/channels/448291/56484644.
5. “Creating a New Iconicity: an Interview with Catherine Opie.” Interview by Juliette Mélia. Https://transatlantica.revues.org. January 2013. https://transatlantica.revues.org/6430.
6. Oishi, Eve. “Interview with Patty Chang.” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 18, no. 3 (2003): 118–29.
7. The Mythic Being. Performed by Adrian Piper. 1973. Transcription from video.
8. Smith, Cherise. Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper, and Anna Deavere Smith. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. p.47.
9. Steinmetz, Julia. “The Power of Now: Adrian Piper’s Indexical Present.” Art21 Magazine. May 07, 2009. http://magazine.art21.org/2009/05/07/the-power-of-now-adrian-pipers-indexical-present.
11. Voein, Guelda. “Martha Wilson as Donald Trump, One Last Time Before the World May End.” The Observer, November 04, 2016. http://observer.com/2016/11/martha-wilson-as-donald-trump-one-last-time-before-theworld-may-end.
12. Munar, Jonathan. “Abigail DeVille’s Harlem Stories.” Art21 Magazine, September 19, 2014.
14. Crenshaw, Kimberle. “#SayHerName.” AAPF. http://www.aapf.org/sayhername.
15. Andrew Kreps Gallery. “Andrea Bowers: Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?” Press Release, February 2016.
16. Davis, Ben. “Andrea Bowers Fights for Transgender Icons in New Chelsea Show.” artnet News, February 24, 2016. https://news.artnet.com/market/andrea-bowers-transgender-icons-exhibition-432452.
17. Broadus, Kylar W. Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence: Exploring Realities, Challenges and Solutions for Policy Makers and Community Advocates, a report assembled by Human Rights Campaign and Trans People of Color Coalition. Report.http://hrcassets.s3websiteuseast1.amazonaws.com//files/assets/resources/HRCAntiTransgenderViolence-0519.pdf.
18. Miranda, Krista. “DNA, AND: A Meditation on Pandrogeny.” Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory 20, no. 3 (January 2011): 347-53.
19. Molotkow, Alexandra. ““The Pandrogyne Just Feels Trapped In A Body”.” The Hairpin, August 28, 2015. https://thehairpin.com/thepandrogyne-just-feels-trapped-in-a-body-6c1315c168fa#.vi7y097rm.
Glossary of Terms
First wave Feminism took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emerging out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics. The goal of this wave was to open up opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage.
Second wave Feminism began in the 1960s and continued into the 90s. In this phase, sexuality and reproductive rights were dominant issues, and much of the movement’s energy was focused on passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing social equality regardless of sex.
Third wave Feminism refers to several diverse strains of feminist activity and study, beginning in the early 1990s and continuing to the present. This wave of feminism partially destabilized constructs from second wave feminism and attempts to expand the topic of feminism to include a diverse group of women with a diverse set of identities.
Heteronormative/heteronormativity is a system that works to normalize behaviors and societal expectations that are tied to the presumption of heterosexuality and an adherence to a strict gender binary.
Intersectionality refers to the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
Pandrogeny/pandrogyne refers to Positive Androgeny, a practice conceived by Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge to break down the limitations of biological sex and express their unconditional love for each other, creating a “conceptually more precise body” through elective surgeries, cross-dressing, and behavioral modifications. (From Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Try to Altar Everything, The Rubin Museum of Art, March 11-August 1, 2016)
The personal is political, also termed the private is political, is a political argument used as a rallying slogan of student movement and second wave feminism from the late 1960s. It underscored the connections between personal experience and larger social and political structures. In the context of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it was a challenge to the nuclear family and family values.
Transgender is a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is a broad term and is good for non-transgender people to use. “Trans” is shorthand for “transgender.” (Note: Transgender is correctly used as an adjective, not a noun, thus “transgender people” is appropriate but “transgenders” is often viewed as disrespectful.)
Trans is a shorthand for transgender
February 15, 2017