The transgender body in art
In this section I examine the formal properties of transgender artists’ images of self-representation. Here, I discuss moving image works in which the body of the artist is the subject. How does this fit into a wider rubric of how we acknowledge physical diﬀerence? How, and in which ways might the reading of visual cues and categories of binary gender based bodily reading be overrun by the fluid duration of transaesthetics? I seek to examine how artists circumvent viewers’ visual-based analyses, delay them, or to render themselves intentionally ambiguous. What methods can artists use to reveal a body, while also denying the viewer signs of conclusive evidence to categorise it? Are these bodies allowing themselves to ‘be read’ or self-consciously manipulating our own in/abilities to read and recognise? I explore how the body has potential to be a communicative tool, and how this alters when the body is directly recorded by a camera. Physical transitioning is understood as something many gender-diverse individuals see as vital to their sense of self, and as a medical requirement in order to alleviate dysphoria. For many others, their gender identity may be expressed in diﬀerent ways, or they may feel no desire to make bodily alterations. A common experience of many transgender individuals is a sense of discomfort in their body. Often described as an ever-present sense of discomfort and disgust at their body, this is termed gender dysphoria, and is considered one element that may lead to a diagnosis of someone being transgender.66 This dysphoria is often a large priority for an individual to alleviate through medical transition — such as hormone therapy and surgery. These choices around appearance and transitioning are matters that individuals navigate for themselves, often continually. I step tentatively, not wanting to fix or capture these images as I attempt to infer their fluid durations and nuances. However the internal conceptualisation of gender is understood, it is contingent on the physical body of the individual, and to what extent they have an associative connection with it. Thinking of this not in terms of medicalisation, but as ‘transsubjectivity’ enables us to understand the individual in terms of their own experiences and how they interact with others.67 Often cisgender people experience their body congruent with their gender, and although some may elect to alter or modify their appearance, it may not be perceived as intrinsically tied to their gender identity. Non-invasive methods of minimising gender dysphoria range from gendered clothing, makeup, wig usage, undergarments such as binders and cinchers, padding, prosthetics and sex toys. Many images, both emic and etic ones, of transgender bodies show a high level of fascination over the transformative process of transition, and the end result.68 It is often seen as a visual based climax, in which one physical transition narrative is repeated, prioritising the surface and eﬀacing the intricacies of the individual.69 Within the medical terminology developed by mainly Western scientific methods and traditions, and incorporated into terminology within transgender and LGBTQI+ communities, there is a rigorous focus on the medicalisation of the body, and I am interested in how discrepancies between body and mind are negotiated in moving image art. Currently, transgender experience is considered a medical, rather than holistic issue, and is treated as such — to the extent that Bernice Hausman has termed that a transgender ‘relationship to technology is a dependent one.’70 This transformation to be recognized as congruent with one’s gender identity is a contentious subject. Although it empowers individuals to live free of the continual surveillance of not passing, it can be seen to replicate binary ideas of gender in subsuming the visibility of gender diversity.71 This rigid emphasis seated around medical transition elevates the state of the individual’s body as the epitome of their gender expression, and thus, identification.72 This reduction of transgender experience to a medical concern to alter the perceived inconsistencies between the topography of the gendered body, and the individual’s perception of a true and correct body, centres on a process of addition or subtraction. By surgical methods and hormonal methods, surface addition, here, is of breasts in transfeminine individuals, and an enlarged clitoris or penis in transmasculine individuals. Surface subtraction also, of breasts in transmasculine individuals, and of larynx cartilage, penis and testicles in transfeminine individuals.73 This process of subtraction is also repeated in non-surgical bodily interventions individuals may elect; such as the use of chest binders in transmasculine individuals, and the use of waist cinching and intimate tucking undergarments in transfeminine individuals to negate body weight distribution and intimate organs. Subtraction can also be sought in numerous other ways, such as through photographic cropping in selfies, the selection of loose clothing, and makeup. Through these methods and many others exist a plethora of options in the pursuit of rendering aspects of the body less visible. Transgender corporeal existence becomes a focusing on the the body as a site of erasure. How does this erasure manifest itself in moving image art, where while appearing in the frame of an image, an artist simultaneously seeks to render aspects of their body less visible? One technique that appears through several diﬀerent artists’ works, whether it is intentional or unintentional, are modes of detachment or subtraction. In some works from we see this evidenced as a physical removal, a literal segmentation and violent cropping of the perceived redundant or dysphoric parts. As a compositional method, detachment occurs between the face and shoulders of an artist, and between the body of an artist, or parts of it; areas of the body which are more likely to be weighted with feelings of dysphoria. There seems to be a repeated pattern of cropping the face and head out of images in which the image of the body, as seen by the artist, could provoke a sense of discomfort or distress. Thus, the face and identity of the individual is removed from the body which is pictured. In particular, this appears regularly in the practices of Jordana Bragg and Aliyah Winter’s works, where over many diﬀerent works, one can see this particular element visually evident, beyond what may be coincidental. This cannot be explained away as in relation to privacy or anonymity in these examples, as the artists make no attempts to disguise the fact that their body is bared in these works. Nor can it be explained by the physical proximity between the camera and subject when the camera is hand held, like when an individual takes a selfie and cannot fit their whole body in the frame. Both artists often use self-timers, and both occasionally use a diﬀerent artist to film their works. At times, the artists use close shots of their faces excluding their bodies, and at times use close shots of their bodies excluding their faces. Over several works, there emerges a discernible pattern of exclusion of the whole body in favour of fragmentation and division. I think the lack of exposure of the full body to inspection is not just a decision regarding nakedness, but also one of dissonance. In Aliyah Winter’s The horror of nothing to see (2016) and Jordana Bragg’s Eﬀortless (2017), the artists’ naked torsos are shown with such a tight crop that their from their necks up, and from their waists down are excluded. Their torsos are thus solitary body parts truncated out from the wider context of the individuals. In the climax of Larz Randa’s music video Turtles (2015), Mainard wrenches oﬀ his shirt to reveal his chest, which bears the scars from top surgery. Following this, he masks his face with a beanie, rendering himself faceless. Below I discuss each of these works at length, but for each of these artists it seems that there is a fierce reluctance, whether conscious or unconscious, to represent their face and their torso within the same space. The dissonance of gender dysphoria here aﬀects each of these artists: Aliyah’s growing breasts assert hormone therapy; Mainard’s top surgery scars have healed but are still raw and pink; Jordana deigns to show the lower third of their breasts but fidgets in discomfort. The torso is an area of the body which lends ambivalence to gendered readings based on binary divisions, as with the absence of large breasts, and depending on camera angles and lighting, it can simultaneously read as female and male. An image of a flat chest, or small breasts, is charged with intimacy which renders the torso an ideal ambiguous bodily surface. It is sexually suggestive to the viewer, yet without revealing the sex of the individual, and more emotive and personal than a back or limbs, yet without revealing the face, the torso exists as an in-between area of the body. The torso troubles a viewer’s ability to discern the gender of an individual, and resists the tendency to define individuals as cisgender, transgender, or ‘passing.’ While the genital area is never shown, the bodies that are so severely cropped often border on nakedness. John Berger has argued for a point of diﬀerence between nudity and nakedness, stating ‘Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.’74 Jane Harris has discussed Berger’s ideas further, defining the nude as ‘an object … an admired and appreciated figure whose presentation is a pleasure to behold.’75 Berger thus distinguishes the diﬀerence between nakedness as being exposed unclothed, and nudity as one being acceptably clothed within a set of visual conventions, which demarcate a state of being subjected to an objectifying gaze. To be naked is thus ‘to be oneself.’76 In the works outlined below, where the artist is unclothed, they fall into Berger’s category of being naked. They reject traditional conventions of displaying the figure, and opt for awkward self-consciousness, a casual (dis)comfort within their own bodies, and entirely enveloped in their own concerns. By facing the camera and using alert and confrontational postures, the artists display awareness of the viewer’s presence, and a resistance to being fetishized. The cropped body becomes dissected at the expense of wholeness. In Surrealist art of the 1920s-30s, in approaching the nude (female) body there is a similar rejection for showing the whole body and face in preference for showing fragmented parts. This interplay between distance and presence can be seen in works such as René Magritte’s Les liasons dangereuses (1936), which, like many of his works show a woman’s body at the expense of her face, or Man Ray’s portrait of Meret Oppenheim (1933), where her body is exposed yet her arms obscure her face. This convention of eﬀacement in Surrealist art has been discussed at length by Mary Ann Caws, and defined as ‘repetitions of fragments of females’, where throughout diﬀerent works, ‘never is the flow of vision … integral.’77 Instead ‘the disjunction of parts’ occurs as a device which fractures a sense of the unity of an individual, particularly between their face, representing the centre of their psyche and self, and their chest and genitals, signifiers of their sexuality and gender.78 It is considered to enact an ocular violence on the subject, severing and limiting them so they may ‘neither speak nor think nor see.’79 Robert Giard’s early photographic self-portraits show a similar approach in their combination of the obscured or cropped face and the exposed body, becoming ‘“headless” and thus “faceless” at the same time.’80 This divide between self and self-representation (that is, the image of the body) occurs again in the process of photography itself; a splitting which Roland Barthes has termed ‘a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity.’81 With gender dysphoria, this division is immense, and individuals experience this ‘identity/body incongruence’ as painful to the point of causing suicide, anxiety, and depression.82 This common feeling of dissonance between mind and body as a specifically transgender experience thus becomes a catalyst for this specific aesthetic rubric through these transgender artists’ works. By representing themselves unclothed, these artists make the decision to vulnerably expose themselves to bodily interpretation. By surrendering themselves to the viewer’s gaze, the artists open themselves to reading, and therefore, the possibility of misreading. Unfortunately, many people still look with the unconscious habit of attempting to distinguish the sex of the person’s body, and this classify individuals based on cisnormative assumptions. This categorization of individuals into binary genders comes from the ingrained and reductive assumption that genitalia is the determinant of gender identity.83 Thus, one is scrutinized for visual signifiers of sex, in the supposition that this knowledge will reveal the core of a person’s individuality. This act of looking impeaches on identity as self-determined, and instead renders transgender identities as ‘fictitious.’84 This classification is instant and automatic, whereas art slows down instant aspect identification so that more classes and identities can come into frame as possibilities.
I The transgender body in language
II The transgender body in art
III The transgender body in culture
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A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Art History, the University of Auckland, 2018.