#4. Thoughts on Kiss My Genders: a Deficiency of Radicalness

The developing philosophical frameworks for the relation/correlation amongst subjectivity, corporeality and identity have shaped the politics of recognition and the theories of (gendered) embodiment that provided the theoretical basis and thrived the critical engagement of artworks towards the structural/symbolic/physical struggle within the heteropatriarchy from the late 1960s (circumstantially, from the ‘emergence’ of post-structuralism to the period of ‘third-wave’ feminism and after). Kiss My Genders at the Hayward Gallery where Joan Jett Blakk’s 1992-presidential campaign posters (Fig.1) plastered on exterior walls, which are constitutive of the imitation of Huey P. Newton’s iconic gun-toting image (the co-founder of the Black Panther Party), and the appropriation of “by any means necessary” a phrase prominently used by Malcolm X. Speculating the current global political landscape, the timing and intention of the entire exhibition seem to indicate a retrospective of the historically contingent of the intersectionality of multifarious affirmative movements (feminism, LGBTQA+ social movements, civil rights movements, and such); moreover, endeavours to reverberate and advocate a sort of gender activism to manifest the antagonistic position towards the rising far-right politics including their backlash against gender ideology. Notwithstanding, the exhibition itself, as depicted by the curator, Vincent Honoré, in the exhibition catalogue: “celebrating the artists whose work explores and engages with gender identity” (Honoré, 2019: 9) — it is literally just a celebration of practices related to gender issues, without influential proclamation or social intervention, merely unpretentious representation and pride. Such a deficit of radicalness could be considered fatigued under the existing neoliberalism condition, distinctly when it comes to gender issues. Hence this essay aims to scrutinise the value and probability of the whole exhibition in today’s socio-cultural context as a strategy of ‘resistance action’ confronting the hegemony of phallogocentric discourses and disciplines of power regime by employing segmental postmodern gender/queer theories.

Postmodern gender/queer theories view genealogy, language and subject as the basis for its examination and reflection, which are similarly intertwined with the postmodernist framework: the subject, is regarding the body, identity, cognisance, thought, acts, et cetera (the idiom ‘subjectivity’ encapsulates these existential states); the perspective and investigation schemes of genealogy reveal the political reasons why and how existing social culture designates existent identity categories as the ‘origin’ and ‘cause’. The subject/ Gender is no longer the ‘cause’, but a continuum, a state of becoming, a discourse in the regulated-internalisation process, which is the ‘effects’ of the power mechanism, disciplinary discourses and practices. The existence of the discourse which precedes the subject further signifies that gender is discursively constructed, namely, the Gender Performativity — gender is the effect of a series of reiterated non-autonomic performances regarding the idiosyncratic subject vocabulary (woman, man and so forth) instituted and sustained by the ‘reiterative power of discourse’; It is not what a person is, but what a person does. As Judith Butler cited and transformed Nietzsche’s [1] contention in a gendered analogy: “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (Butler, 2006:34). [2] [3]

When stepping into the gallery which is the representation of concealed, absent, dispersed disciplinary power, the consciousness of the individual affected by the collective intentionality has already been exposed when contemplating the artworks. In Zoe Leonard’s photographic work Pin-up #1(1992/1997), in which the character Jennifer Miller utilises her sexed hermaphrodite body to simulate the posture of Marilyn Monroe’s 1995 nude calendar photo, Miller, with her naturally grown beard, is culturally associated with ‘masculinity’ relishes the voyeuristic gaze from spectators through exposing a hairy armpit which is socioculturally considered as ‘female shame’. She uses parody to mock the viewers’ common sense, discloses the inscription and discipline of the hegemonic culture on the body and also reveals the social and cultural construction of the anatomic sex. The viewers who toured the exhibition unconsciously plunged into the gender-ambiguous visual trap exceeding the existing gender binary system, imperatively intended to identify the gender of those visible characters, to adhere the floating signifiers such as body parts, postures and appearances, to the gendered signified in the signification system. While in Catherine Opie’s Pig Pen (1993, Fig.2), Mike and Sky (1993, Fig.2), such moustachioed characters with massive tattoos wearing ‘rough’ vests against monochromatic background present a compelling gender ambiguity performance (strategically autonomic performance to destruct the hegemonic gender discourse), along with conveying a new gender dimension that irritates the viewer’s perception which is driven by the compulsive gender congruity. Sex, as a framework of distinction given particular meaning by social culture, is by no means a neutral distinction criterion nor a historically contingent product, but a historically coincidental interpellated discourse structure, the ‘non-natural’ corporeality cannot be determined in the infinite delay of the meaning of discourse, and cannot reach the standard of discourse, but is always a status of perpetual materialisation and naturalisation.

Most works in the exhibition display not only physical disobediences countering social norms but also multiplied and imbricated identifications, accordingly, presenting body modifications in both biological and cultural dimensions that reject the recognition and formation governed by compulsory cisheterosexuality — the hegemonic naturalisation and reification of cisheterosexuality. Del LaGrace Volcano deconstructs the heteronormative erotic imagery in relation to the transsexual body to accentuate present sex variation, repudiating the gender-binarism framework that has already subsumed the sex. In their work, Jax Back II (1994), there is the half-naked model wearing a sailor cap, inserting a robust right arm into the waistband with the back facing the lens, engulfed within a black background, with the muscular lines, well-trimmed hairless neck and rough stance, which all seem to imply that they[4] are waiting for the interpellation of ‘masculinity’. However, in another work, Jakie II (1994), the figure, whose face is still covered, unveils bulging breasts. Citation for some texts (gender norms) appears invalid; the hidden genitals have also concealed the sex with cultural implications — just like Vaginal Davis, born intersexual in a portrait with covered genitals taken by Catherine Opie in 1994 (Fig.2) and a hand with lace gloves holding an erectile phallus in Cock and Glove by Ajamu (1993) — when audiences deliberate and examine these so-called ‘reproductive’ parts as male/female with corresponding masculinity/femininity, they are already thinking and discussing sex in the dimension of gender (culture), rather than the pure biological characteristics with differences — gendered labels are already attached to different physical appearances.

Lower galleries contain various installations with drag performance elements in order to historically and culturally contextualise the resignification of rigid binarism via the subversive parody. The non-binary drag artist Victoria Sin who was assigned female at birth addresses a lecture on speech-act theory and Taiwanese song singing in a triptych-like video installation (Fig.3), adopting a lip-sync narrative method to summons discrete identities gently and pleasantly in a mesmerising sphere formed by dangling uneven-folded white cloths and delineating dislocated desires that cannot even be primitively acknowledged. Not far from this, over a winding passage of dim violet light, inside the chamber ornamented with glistening metallic-pink cabaret curtains is Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’s Something for the Boys (2018, Fig.4). Their scintillating opus interweaves distinctive scenes of two queer spaces in Blackpool, incorporating archival material and soundtrack with a barely-naked model performing an erotic seductive go-go dance on-off-covered throughout dazzling strobe lights in a Growlr sex club scenario, while a drag performer presents an enthusiastic rendition at the grandiose cabaret venues, forming both emancipatory and fragmentary libidinal fantasies upon the intensified atmosphere, illuminating precarious bodies that are regularly abject, hidden and eliminated. Queer enactments of gender cannot be perceived utterly as duplicating the patriarchal gender norms since gender practices do not always have the same connotations in the queer subcultural and mainstream cultural context. For instance, drag in queer contexts only matters because it exposes the hidden imitative character of normative cisheterosexual gender identity through parody (especially for ‘femininity’ imitation of drag queens) to subvert the norms, renouncing stable identities, orientations, and sexed bodies that precede gendered behaviour.

Notwithstanding, juxtaposed with the current more dynamic, heterogeneous and decentralised affirmative actions, the form and theme of the works integrated by the exhibition present only a repetitive operation, a formation inheritance and a paradigm repetition. Most of the audiences are passive throughout the viewing and subject to the spectres of sexual dimorphism[5] within the heteropatriarchal framework, which is systematically embedded in social institutions and practices. The initiative role has been eliminated. The exhibition (perhaps) tries to subvert this discourse structure, but the curation fails to glue the separate thematic sections adequately. It is indeed an excellent presentation, but these represented works do not interweave and integrate with the current precarious group obscured by the political framework to form new proliferated, radical, subversive forces. The introduction of Spivakian strategic essentialism in the Feminist and Trans* movements enable people to adopt a ‘characteristic sign’ that can describe themselves under the current social background, historical background, personal knowledge and cognition to present the ‘subject’ in the complicated situation. Capitalised exhibition and the mechanism of artistic production commodify identity politics as well as form it to a spectacle. When they launch movements in the name of anti-system and anti-utilitarianism, they not only speak up for the vulnerable precarious assemblage but also contain the potentiality of totalitarian ‘hegemony of others’ to attain the dominant position within the movements. Be alert to whether representations’ voice have been systematically filtered.



[1] See “there is no ‘being’ behind doing, acting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction imposed on the doing – the doing itself is everything” (Nietzsche, 2007:26).

[2] See also “… (2) the understanding of [gender] performativity not as the act by which a subject brings into being what she/he[/they] names, but, rather, as that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains; (3) the construal of “sex” no longer as a bodily given on which the construct of gender is artificially imposed, but as a cultural norm which governs the materialization of bodies” (Butler, 1993: xii).

[3] See also Ásta Sveinsdóttir’s (2011) critique on Butlerian account of sex and gender, as well as her theory of social categories which she proposes a conferralist framework to understand better sex and gender being subject to different societal constraints in different ways. This essay does not designate to engage in a more rigorous metaphysical discussion. For those interested, see, e.g., Witt (2011), Haslanger (2000).

[4] The term ‘they’ appears here is used as a gender-neutral pronoun (some non-binary folks may also go by ze/zir). The term is used in different ways throughout the article and should be judged according to the context.

[5] Here, ‘sex’ is already a gendered idiom with certain kind of incomplete fragmentation and complex tension that can better apprehend the complex existence state of the transgender subject.



Reference List:

Ásta Sveinsdóttir. (2011). “The Metaphysics of Sex and Gender” in Charlotte Witt (ed.) Feminist Metaphysics: Explorations in the Ontology of Sex, Gender and the Self. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 47-65.

Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex”. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2006) [1990]. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (2nd ed., Routledge classics). New York ; London: Routledge.

Haslanger, S. (2000). “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them to Be?”. Noûs 34 (1): 31–55

Honore, V., Rugoff, R. and Hayward Gallery. (2019). Kiss My Genders. London: Hayward Gallery Publishing : [distributor] NBN International.

Nietzsche, F., Ansell-Pearson, K. and Diethe, C. (2007) [1887]. On the Genealogy of Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Witt, C. (2011). Feminist Metaphysics: Explorations in the Ontology of Sex, Gender and the Self. Dordrecht: Springer.