ROB PETERSON (CURATOR, ELSEWHERE, GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA, USA.)
CHRIS KENNEDY (EDUCATION CURATOR, ELSEWHERE, GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA, USA.)
“If we are no more than the sum total of the gendered expressions we perform, is there ever any chance to stop the performance for a while, to pull the curtain down, and let it rise only if one can have a say in the production of the play itself?”
Benhabib, Seyla. (1994), p.59.
Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. Routledge: New York.
The ongoing performativity of gender is something we engage in daily and the confines of the Elsewhere Commonwealth are no exception. We enact our notions of what we think a man or a woman should be with little cognizance of our complicity in a process driven by socio-cultural norms unseen but nonetheless there. Specific clothing, colors, walking styles, gestures and vocal ranges construct a dualistic reality in which we participate within and forge a specific sexual and gender identities that heeds a spectrum of maleness and femaleness.
Yet, what does it mean to inhabit a liminal space in which one’s gender or sexual identity is located somewhere in the middle, along the spectrum of maleness and femaleness? The work of Norbert Francis Attard seeks to address this quandary in approaching this very question. His time here at Elsewhere has sought to blur the lines between what a male or female could be, not just within the realm of people, but within the collection of Elsewhere objects as well. In a photographic and performative series of works, Attard explores the relationships between maleness and femaleness, carving out an in-between space through which the viewer can inhabitant and question for themselves their own identity.
Using bas relief sculpture as a platform for meditating on this inscribed and constructed heteronormativity Attard has created four works from toys, ribbon, tacks, marbles and reclaimed mannequin parts. The works are at once sideways glances and deeply inquisitive derives into the use of associativity to create objects rich in metaphorical significance. Using toys typically associated with boyhood like plastic cowboys and miniature racecars Attard juxtaposes the component objects’ associative gender specificities and each piece’s broader gender narrative. His use of gender constructs as materials to be manipulated and reconstructed is freshest when he uses girls fashion dolls to represent male genitals. Beyond being a powerful moment ripe with symbolism, the fact that the penis is a black female fashion doll and the testicles are white and smaller than the black doll is the disquieting signal that this is a point to dive deeper into the conversation brought about by the larger body of work.
Contrary to the Hermaphrodite, the Androgyn resides in a state of gender nullification. Androgynous space is liminal space within which an individual often attempts through action to subvert heteronormative behavior and modes of dress and question the agency of the physical self over the identity of the whole individual.
Androgyny is performative gesture that blurs the notion of an identifiable gender - to perform in an androgynous way is a process of rejecting accepted gender norms that confine the fluidity of one’s sexual or gender identity. Androgyny is an in-between space, often activated by an individual or group as a subversive gesture aimed at disrupting the conventional notions of heterosexual livelihood - to incite confusion, question agency over identity, and perhaps generate participation and collectivity.
Attard’s portraits construct their own sense of androgyny by piecing together through association different individual gestures, glances, gazes, and postures. The nuances of style comparatively represented in each portrait are placed between the male-female pole where they incorporate cultural elements from each, an aggressively masculine lean-to lends its meaning to a more feminine laying of hands upon crossed legs. In each case the subject’s own visage defies the characteristic of either, or, and neither, and persons appear in each portrait to address the collective confusion that comes with the viewer’s own insistence at regulating identity.
Attard’s project is a subversive gesture, a challenge and a question rolled into one attempt at exploring what gender is, and how we perceive it. The idea of gender and sexual identity is incredibly meta, we are performing gender all of the time: we wear pants instead of dresses, we use certain bathrooms instead of others and conform to accepted social roles daily. Attard adds another layer, he asks subjects to reconstruct their gender identity visually within a pre-existing construct of a gendered experience, a kind of simultaneous play. In so doing, we are witness to a trail of evident subversion, a glimpse at what a certain prompt and layer of makeup (or wiping away of makeup) can produce in reaction. Is he interested in a reactionary response, its not quite clear, but it is apparent that he’s looking for internal questioning and perhaps a twice-examined inquiry into the role of gender in everyday life.
Attard achieves a “third gender” by combining and averaging cultural koans from both sides of the binary. Through the act of attempting aesthetic averaging, or conversely it could be seen as a nullifying action, Attard is presenting the potential for a new way of seeing people rather than constructing impressions based on gender identity. Through temporary states of confusion come deeper and more insightful understandings of who we are in the reflection of others.
Although we are born into a gendered and sexed world there is potential to activate a certain kind of agency that questions and provides a platform for imagining something different. Attard’s project provides a time and a place to explore just that, a queered notion of performativity1. that becomes an ongoing project for transforming the way we define and break boundaries toward identity. In transforming and blurring the gender of his participant’s, Attard’s process becomes a queered and performative gesture that considers the idea of gender as a site of inquiry, undulating between satiric critique and subconscious longings to overcome the myth of heterosexuality.
Sedgwick, E. (1995). Performativity and Performance. Routledge.
Trans Formations exposes the elemental forms of a performative gesture orchestrated between gender, identity, and theatricality. For this series Attard employed artists from Greensboro to style models as a means of transformation from one pole to the other. The performance, however, cannot be located in a singular frame or a single element of style, but instead is composed of the movements between frames and between identities. Attard’s images of men turning into women and women into men explore a gendered and sexed performance of styles, composed as much of gestures, costumes, make-up, and hair-cuts as they are of the perceived characteristic of masculinity and femininity that emerge in each portrait. The studio as a lab is evident in this work. The lack of any other information in the photograph except what is literally on the faces and bodies of the subjects allows the process of transformation to be revealed in as matter of fact a manor as is possible.
The video of this series shows another dimension still. The process becomes a training moment, a moment where cultural information is passed from one steeped in it to a group of novitiates at different points of entre into that culture. In this way the hair and makeup artists become teachers, if only for an instant, one day for a few hours. The plucking of brows, the jerking of scalps and pulling of hairs, the shaving of legs, all with strategies and design, all for a reason. The video reveals the relationship between thesis, antithesis and synthesis and all of the negotiations that are carried out between them. Man becomes woman through a series of negotiable aesthetic decisions, this is how the synthesis is achieved, it’s a political moment that must be driven by aesthetics.