The artists subverting the gender binary

What gender? Meet the creatives manipulating their mediums and blurring the boring lines of male-female conformity

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Moved by the Motion
A still from Wu Tsang’s Moved by the Motion, a 2-channel film installation featuring frequent collaborator boychildvia houstonmuseumdistrict.org

From the day we are born we’re assigned a gender, and so, defined and delineated by society. Male or female? Check. Birth certificates force a choice within this gender binary, as do national passports, and pretty much any bureaucratic functions that require us to give personal information about ourselves. The truth is that nobody exists as the ideal man or woman that advertising promotes, which is changing all the time. What is a metrosexual, other than a man now incorporating more “feminine” attributes? The lived realities always differs from these definitions, however wide we may want to cast the net (as seen in Facebook’s introduction of over 70 gender options this year).

But people are free to self-define, or reject the gender binary. Frida Kahlo made self-portraits that emphasise the fluidity of gender, rejecting rigid masculine and feminine characteristics. Man Ray famously photographed Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy in 1921, a female persona he kept throughout his life. Meanwhile, this year’s Whitney Biennial was invigorated with a number of queer artists, and a section of an upcoming exhibition called The Institute of Sexology at London’s Wellcome Collection consider early transgender practices. What better time to celebrate the artists subverting gender conformity.

WU TSANG

Los Angeles filmmaker Wu Tsang is a Chinese-Swedish-American video artist whose work combines activism and community organising. Identifying as "transfeminine and transguy", Tsang documents queer and trans community stories, often working alongside other members such as art radical – and another notable creative breaking down the gender binary – boychild. In the video Green Room, Tsang tells of a transgender woman who recounts leaving persecution in Honduras for Los Angeles and finding sanctuary in a local bar. The work sheds light on the troubling journeys that gender non-conformists must go through.

HEATHER CASSILS

Heather Cassils is a Canadian transgender bodybuilder, who uses the physicality of his body to rupture social norms. The performance piece Becoming an Image involved Cassils pounding a one-tonne block for a 20-minute period, challenging the notion of a binary gender with his own female body. “It is with sweat, blood and sinew that I construct a visual critique and discourse around physical and gender ideologies and histories," Cassils explained.

BEATRIZ PRECIADO

Spanish philosopher and writer Beatriz Preciado is thought of by some as a queer oracle, radically critique gender norms both academically and performatively. In the project Testo Junkie, Preciado decided to starting taking testosterone as a recreational drug, in the form a gel called “Testogel”, giving a high akin to cocaine. As a way of subverting the gender codes that prescribe our social identities, this self-managed use testosterone is what Preciado describes as "gender-hacking".

JACOLBY SATTERWHITE

Brooklyn-based artist Jacolby Satterwhite' work merges performance, 3D animation, crossdressing, and his own personal history as a black, queer person. At this year’s Whitney Biennial he presented a surrealist performance piece called Reifying Desire, in which Satterwhite was strapped into a harness, taking up Kama Sutra positions with porn star Antonio Biaggi while a giant digitised tree magically carried them around a colorful cosmos. This is Satterwhite exploring potential narratives of his queerness in a surrealist performance universe.

ZAK KREVITT

As featured in our States of Independence project earlier this year, 23-year old photographer Zak Krevitt often casts his lens on the queer community that he is a part of. “It’s about opposing forces, being pulled in an infinite number of directions, sexuality, artifice, love, lust, chaos and control, decontextualizing  and recontextualizing images that are simultaneously foreign and familiar,” Krevitt says. A recent graduate of New York's iconic School of Visual Arts, his images provide insight into the striking live realities of queer activists.

DRUCKER AND ERNST

Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst are two transgender artists who documented their romantic relationship and gender transitions in a beguiling series called Relationship. It exhibited at this year’s Whitney Biennial, and as the New York Times said, this project puts “queer consciousness on the front burner.” Over the last five years, Drucker has transitioned from male to female, Ernst from female to male, and Relationship traces both the mundane and intimate moments of gender transition, and so humanises these people that are usually rejected by society.

JJ LEVINE

Canadian photographer JJ Levine attempts to reveal the superficial nature of gendered appearance. For the Montreal-based artist’s photographic series Alone Time, Levine asked friends to pose as both men and women for each photograph, therefore showing how malleable and subject-to-change gender can be. "Gender is nuanced and can exist in multiple forms within any given person," Levine argues. "I'd like to move away from the gender binary, and I think my images suggest that could be a reality."

CARLOS MOTTA

Carlos Motta is a multi-disciplinary artist who creates counter narratives for suppressed histories, communities, and identities. The Colombian-born artist explores the idea of sexual and gender "difference" within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, and queer community. Motta’s video art piece We Who Feel Differently was based on 50 interviews with academics, artists, politicians, and researchers, promoting a "concept of equality that provides for greater personal freedom." Watch the project below.

DEL LAGRACE VOLCANO

The Californian gender variant visual artist Del LaGrace Volcano is a pioneer of LGBTQ photography, undercutting assumptions about the legibility of gender. Volcano's colourful portraits and self-portraits play with usual signs of identifying a body and assumptions about gender, including one image where a gender indeterminate model wears both bespoke menswear as well as a sequined bra and garters. "Art, particularly work, focusing on heroic representations of bodily and sexual difference, will become a long-lost relic of the past," she erupts.

AMOS MAC

Brooklyn-based photographer Amos Mac captures what he describes as “non-model-identified models” in jarring, lurid colours, which often appear far more extreme than the socially-maligned people in his photographs. Mac co-founded Original Plumbing, a magazine dedicated to the culture of transgender men, and his imagery follows along the same lines. His Trans in America project, in collaboration with Dazed, is a snapshot of what it means to be trans today.

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