Queer Body Politic(s)
I actually had set out to avoid curating this kind of exhibition -- one devoted to images and texts about the male body. Such work is so prevalent in queer-art discourse, often to the detriment of more inclusive and more broadly political works. When I started considering themes for this show in August, my two top contenders were aging (having unhappily entered my forties) and religion (having an everlasting fixation on Catholic iconography). But making final choices in November required thinking within a new political context. The Bush administration was (and is) bombing Afghanistan, eroding the civil rights of immigrants here at home, and fostering suspicion of "foreigners" in our midst. Issues of homeland security, border patrol and patria are in the foreground.
The construction and maintenance of corporeal boundaries, gendered territories and national borders are inextricably linked. Thinkers as diverse as anthropologist Mary Douglas and gender theorist Judith Butler have argued that understanding gender identity and sex-practice norms requires asking how and for what larger political purpose they are created and sustained. Borders aren't given; they're drawn to establish stable identities, both individual and political. They mark off inside and out, denote who belongs within and who should remain without. Their seeming solidity makes "inside" and "outside" appear fundamental, rather than the product of ideological discourse.
The notion of a stable hetero-normative male masculinity not only underlies mainstream sex practice and gender identity, it boosts our national resolve and helps us depict our enemies. Lately, this dual purpose has been easy to spot. Consider the illiterate graffiti scrawled on a bomb headed for Afghanistan: "High jack this fags." Consider a flyer I saw in a mid-Manhattan shop widow depicting a naked Osama bin Laden, bent over with the Twin Towers shoved up his butt. The caption: "So, you like skyscrapers, huh, bitch?" A piece in The New York Times Magazine (12/16/01) summarized the ways in which the press has questioned the sexuality of Mohammed Atta, the mama's boy in the pink house. Consider the protests over the views of Susan Sontag and Bill Maher, each of whom said the September 11 attacks took courage. How could such manly virtue be ascribed to terrorists?
Art in the age of AIDS (an age in which we still live) has often spoken viscerally and eloquently of male and female bodies as sites of physical and social struggle. Images of the body are powerful witness and metaphor; they speak of lived experience and discursive realities.
The artists in "Queer Body Politic(s)" participate in a counter-discourse around men and masculinity. Through self-portraits, autobiographical texts, eroticism, regendering, images of older and weighted bodies, and a courageous vulnerability, they push to the foreground a broad masculinity, one that unmasks its instability. That these images collectively date from 1978 (Jimmy DeSana's Egg) to 2001 (Max Greenberg's Nausea III) is testament to the persistence of queer male masculinities, those that cross borders of identity and practice.
"Democracy is not about settling conflict, but sustaining it," Rosalyn Deutsche [an author, art historian and critic] has said. "It is there we sort out the society in which we want to live." Democracy is born of instability. It is kept alive by the continued border crossings of all of us -- women and men, from outside the U.S. and from within -- and by our insistence that such acts are integral to the democratic project. I guess democracy is queer. How 'bout that?
George Kimmerling is a New York-based artist whose work addresses the construction of and contests over public space. His work is in the 2001 Altoids/New Museum of Contemporary Art collection and the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He is currently in the P.S. 1/Museum of Modern Art National Studio Program and completed the Whitney Independent Study Program in 2000. Kimmerling's latest project concerns the geographic markers of migration through the Arizona desert.
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