The Hayward Gallery’s current exhibition, Kiss My Genders, displays an array of international artists whose daring and thought-provoking works open up infinite possibilities with regard to gender.
The Hayward Gallery’s current exhibition, Kiss My Genders, displays an array of international artists roaming the spheres of gender identity and gender fluidity, showing what these can and could look like and opening up infinite possibilities with regard to gender
Kiss My Genders is a group exhibition of 35 international artists, many of whom identify as non-binary, and includes over 100 pieces of art from the last 50 years. Spanning paintings, photography, sculptures, immersive video installations and one very important dress, the exhibition currently shown at the Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery addresses gender identity and gender fluidity beyond the three genders of female, male, and non-binary.
Less bold than I initially expected, the exhibition’s guide describes Kiss My Genders’ “tone and approach [as] often light, [although] the questions they raise and the subjects they address are not”. My first impression was that of a ‘polished’ exhibition; a smooth, shiny, clear-cut ensemble. Of course, not clear in the sense of complete transparency. The beholder is not presented with one singular truth, one singular view on what is portrayed. Instead, a variety, a fluidity of possibilities for self-expression and self-realisation is opened up through the lenses of the artists, all of whom approach the topic from every possible angle yet still leave space for their own individual interpretation.
The art displayed is as diverse as those who’ve made it, especially in terms of sexuality, gender identity, religious, cultural and national background. Art has the potential to be universal; to connect people and bridge language barriers, cultural differences and time periods. In the gallery spaces of Kiss My Genders, contemporary artists are juxtaposed with works compiled decades ago. With a variety of everything, the question of categorising and grouping artworks arises. But I appreciated the curator’s decision not to structure the order of works by time or place of production. The showcasing of newer pieces alongside older ones, as well as those by South African, Indian, French and North American artists, was seamless and refreshing. Although the mediums and forms used slightly control the layout, they’re not strictly limiting. For example, photography dominates the lower galleries, but it also features on the upper ones. All spaces are identified merely by the artists’ names on the visitor’s map, escaping being labelled, put in a box, and constricted by a designated theme or room.
The exhibition is about defining oneself through something other than one’s genitals, and although genitals feature in several of the works, they are not always in focus. Instead the various artists focus on what identity, specifically gender identity, mean for them as expressed through animate and inanimate objects filmed, photographed, painted, cut out and put together, coloured or drained of colour. More importantly, we are shown what gender identity and fluidity can look like, without pressure and constraints.
Fluidity is signified in a variety of materials, such as glass and fabric. It is also depicted in imagery like water, as seen in Peter Hujar’s photographs Hudson River and Hudson River (IV) (1975). Fluidity is also evinced in and represented by the fabric curtains of two video installations. In the first artwork your eyes and ears observe Victoria Sin’s video installation, A View from Elsewhere, Act 1, She Postures in Context (2018), in which they question human identity under the aspects of racism and misogyny. The three intricately hung pieces of white fabric function as the screen on which the film is projected, while still retaining their transparency. The curtains allow one to freely enter the space without being shut off from the rest of the exhibition. This reiterates Sin’s simultaneous sense of security and containment while not being restricted by a solid, impervious boundary – the way one’s identity should feel to oneself.
In Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’ film, Something for the Boys (2018), which examines two very different queer community spaces in Blackpool, fabric is used to create a cave-like space. It is closed off but still open and, taking into consideration that Quinlan and Hastings “were considering the closure of queer spaces but also more broadly the loss of public space and the dismantling of state infrastructure”, their use of the fabric and its installation in a round, spiral-like arrangement contains a powerful message about queer spaces within our world that often have to exist behind closed doors or curtains. These spaces are frequently kept hidden, but like the fabric they challenge the oppositions of privacy versus no privacy, autonomy versus no autonomy.
Identity in art is often closely linked to portraiture, whether painted or photographed, self-representations or images seen through other’s eyes. While Kiss My Genders has some stunning portraits, of which I would like to mention Juliana Huxtable’s fantastical self-portrait Untitled (Lil’ Marvel) (2015) and Zanele Muholi’s Phila I, Parktown (2016), it is the art that goes beyond portraiture and depicting the human body in any form whatsoever that fills out the exhibition. Are (self-)portraits the epitome of capturing and displaying identity? Del LaGrace Volcano, who is devoted to displaying gender norms disobeyed, disrupted, defied, literally inverses the portrait and depicts two models facing away from the camera, showing their backs. Volcano seems to say ‘our backs should say as much about us as our faces, as our genitals do, shouldn’t they?’
Identity is also related to the way one dresses. Another mesmerising piece is Hunter Reynold’s The Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress (1993-2007), which was first worn in front of 2,000 people at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, in 1993. The names of 25,000 individuals who are known to have died of AIDS-related illnesses are featured on the black ball gown. Here it rotates on a stage, making sure those individuals are never forgotten, their names immortalised on the glamorous yet sombre gown. Shown years after its initial presentation, the Memorial Dress travelled alongside a Memorial Book in which viewers were asked to add more names which were later displayed on a second dress.
In addition to Reynold’s work, I was especially fascinated by South African artist Nicholas Hlobo’s art, which saw him stitching ribbons, rubber, and leather onto canvas, as seen in Intlantsana (2017) and Babelana Ngentloko (2017). His aesthetic combs the feminine activity and tradition of stitching with materials related to “sex and industrialisation”. Hlobo’s works indicate that there are no boundaries – not in life or on the canvas. All can be expanded, deconstructed, reinterpreted. His work suggests that no matter the struggle, we can always piece ourselves together and emerge even more beautiful than before. We may all carry additional burdens, but we should proudly present them. We should not hide who we were and are now.
One of the aims of Kiss My Genders is to assist and guide visitors in the construction of their own identity and self-expression. It shows us that we do not need to fit into stereotypically labelled boxes – or any kind of box for that matter. It works as much with the presence of the art included as it does with negative space between the works; space that asks to be filled by the visitor and to have one’s own image projected onto the white walls. Moreover, the mirrors that accompany the display in part of the lower galleries not only reflect the artworks themselves but their beholder. They provide another angle of the artists’ interpretations of gender identity and fluidity as well as our own. The exhibition is an open, inclusive, and de-stigmatised space in which a variety of individuals – artists, their models, and beholders – come together to celebrate life in all its forms. It shows what gender and identity can and could look like, and leaves room for infinitely more.
Kiss My Genders will close at the Hayward Gallery on 8th September. To book tickets or for information about the exhibition, click here.