As a society, we speak often about ‘masculinity’ as if it’s a fixed concept, one with a stable, universal meaning. The reality is, however, that there are various alternate masculinities rarely discussed or even acknowledged by mainstream media. Offering a remedy to these one-dimensional portrayals are Robert Summers and Stiofan O’Ceallaigh, co-curators of upcoming exhibition HE, which promises to “question and queer ‘masculinity’”.
Opening tonight at LA’s Last Projects, the exhibition features work by Dazed favourites Matt Lambert, Slava Mogutin and Florian Hetz, alongside various other pieces which aim to make us question what it truly means to be ‘masculine’ in a society still dominated by traditional ideals and gender roles. Ahead of the launch, we reached out to the co-curators to discuss Trump, toxic masculinity and the ever-increasing importance of diverse representation.
What was the catalyst for this exhibition – why now?
Robert Summers:I had an urge to do this show after seeing a lot of art that was rethinking masculinity, at least according to my reading of them. Also, I have seen, as most of us have, a rise in traditional, dominant ‘masculinity’ with the rise of ‘Trumpism’ and Brexit alongside the rise of nationalism and ‘traditional’ gender roles. Masculinity, as of late has morphed into ‘toxic masculinity’, so I felt an urgent need, as an art historian and curator who does queer work, to do a show that revisits and re-intervenes with this notion of ‘masculinity’.
“Masculinity, as of late has morphed into ‘toxic masculinity’, so I felt an urgent need...to do a show that revisits and re-intervenes with this notion of ‘masculinity’” – Robert Summers
Stiofan O’Ceallaigh: I felt it was necessary to champion new, or alternative, forms of ‘masculinity’ – everything from femme, non-binary, androgyny, female and queer masculinities. From the show’s inception, as well as creating the title ‘HE’, I kept at the forefront of my selection process artworks – specifically video works – that subvert, question and queer traditional masculine traits: namely, assertiveness, sexual dominance and protectiveness.
The works on show mirror the cross-cultural and gender conversations about these traits and the reactions on social media. Without social media, this art show wouldn't have the level of reach or international pool of talent it currently has. This is a really exciting time for ‘HE’, which will act as a satellite show and sounding board for a much larger version of the show in 2018/19. The hope is that the show will tour internationally.
Queer masculinities – trans and female masculinities – are often erased from mainstream discussions. Why do you think this is?
Robert Summers: It’s simple – these masculinities confuse and problematise, if not terrorise, dominant notions of masculinity, which is what we’re seeking to do. The gallery, museum and art history worlds are still relatively conservative, so these images which queer something as old as traditional masculinity aren’t readily accepted. It’s only recently that feminist art shows have been in major exhibitions, and I think we’re a few decades away from any queer – which does not necessarily mean LGBT – exhibitions taking place in the dominant art world.
What drew you to the artists involved?
Robert Summer: I respect every artist in this show on a profound level, even though some of the artists take different stances on ‘masculinity’ and have different aesthetic takes. My co-curator, Stiofan, has curated the art video component of this exhibition and has been instrumental in helping me finding artists I didn’t know about. I am drawn to these artists because their work is visually and intellectually engaging; they’re a talented bunch of gay, trans and feminist artists who have spent a great deal of time dealing with issues around ‘masculinity’.
Stiofan O’Ceallaigh: I run Balaclava.Q, which is a reaction to the Orlando massacre and the censorship of, specifically, queer art. As a platform, we generate a global community of artists and connect them, so we launched HIVideo on World Aids Day 2016, which is an annual showcase of video art related to HIV/AIDS. Some of the artists that took part, like Jose Louis Cortes, Emmanuel Barrouyer and myself are also showing at ‘HE’, alongside other artists involved with Balaclava.Q.
How did you approach curating a queer exhibition in a society which often commodifies queerness?
Robert Summers: My approach has been to not conflate queer with LGBT – although they may cross at various points – and to ignore what’s trending in the art world. I looked for artists who have worked on issues of ‘tender’, ‘trans-’ and ‘queer masculinities’ for a while now. I have also been self-conscious about not promoting one idea of ‘masculinity’ over the other, so I’ve looked to gay men, butch lesbians, queer feminists and queer studies. I’ve attempted to be as inclusive as possible, but some things are impossible to do – hence, more exhibitions like this are needed by other people.
“(We chose works) that subvert, question and queer traditional masculine traits: namely, assertiveness, sexual dominance and protectiveness” – Stiofan O’Ceallaigh
What does the word ‘masculinity’ mean to you personally?
Robert Summers: It means many things which depend on various factors but, for this exhibition, it mean undoing ‘dominant masculinity’ which is considered to be natural for very political and patriarchal reasons. It has been deconstructed by feminists and queer theorists for several decades now, but, sadly, it’s something that must be redone and reiterated for other generations to not make the same mistakes.
Stiofan O’Ceallaigh: For me, it’s just a construct that favours a certain performance over others. It’s in a state of flux and it’s suppressed but, basically, I mean the prevailing masculinity that men – never women – are demanded to ‘perform’ correctly. I have huge issues with it, because it has limits and binds people to specific roles which must – and have been – undone.
Do you think art can promote a new way of thinking about queerness and masculinity?
Robert Summers: I don’t think that art “says” anything, as such, but I do think it contributes to a conversation. It is relational and it does stir conversation, which I hope this exhibition does – although, with regards to “bridging gaps”, I do think that art and life have the ability to become more interwined in a more visible way and, in this exhibition, aid in the creation of various queer aesthetics of existences.
HE opens tonight at LA’s Last Projects and runs until 12 May 2017
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