Art shows us the way, and art changes. So do politics. The two are engaged in an awkward dance, art often leading the way before politics quite has time to catch up. In the USA, we are faced with a pressing upcoming presidential election, one whose consequences could yield a remarkable regression from decades of social change.
With North Carolina’s aggressive anti-trans policy, and the several headed hydra that is the Trump/GOP monster looking to repeal same-sex marriage and award racism, artists have become more important than ever as ambassadors of change and producers of imaginative possibility. They shine light on the marginalized, oppressed, and precarious, so that we might sustain and improve progressive social policy. There are many contemporary video and performance artists producing the kind of work we need right now; work that represents, approves, encourages, and praises marginalized voices.
Wu Tsang is such an artist. Based in LA, Tsang’s work has been a strong proponent of the LGBTQ+ community. Her 2012 documentary, Wildness, told the story of her weekly performance night at the popular LA trans bar, “The Silver Spoon”, and launched her into art stardom. Her work is advocacy, representation, and action, and she remains a vital voice in progressive social change and the representation of marginalized voices.
Along with her longtime collaborator, boychild, Tsang’s recent work reaches back to late Qing Dynasty China (1644-1917), focusing on the queer relationship between Qui Jin, a dissident that was silenced by execution in 1907, and Wu Zhiying, a calligrapher. Tsang’s work is often seeded within the political, and sprouts into new imaginative roots for society to build on.
Like Tsang and boychild, Ryan Trecartin creates similar imaginative possibilities that reduce the fixity of gender norms, while simultaneously satirizing the constant stream of violence against such ideas.
Trecartin’s work is a psychedelic labyrinth of quick cuts, abrasive screaming, internet speak, bad special effects, and identity shifts. Underlying most of his videos is a deep anxiety regarding identity production, which, like Tsang and boychild, seeks to permit and encourage rumination on the difficulties of being a female or queer subject in contemporary life. Trecartin’s work is a reflection of this anxiety, and a celebration of it, existing as a kind of ecstasy of excess. Works like I B Area and Center Jenny might seem to revolve around chaos. If that’s the case, then it is a type of necessary chaos that thrives into and against rigid and oppressive normative structures, breaking them apart. Simply put: it’s weird! And awesome.
FKA Twigs uses extremely mannered and deliberate representations of femininity to depict, attack, satirize, and subvert patriarchal ideology. Twigs’ 2015 video, M3LL155X, depicts women made into dolls by the gaze of men and renders the pangs of birth and menstruation into psychedelic goo. These striking images echo the virtuosic music and performance, asserting a shameless, radical, and powerful female body singing, sneering, and dancing against rampant misogyny.
Similarly, Kate Durbin embraces feminine stereotypes only to distort them beyond belief, exposing the violence and cruelty of the stereotype she began with. Her astonishing, moving, and horribly weird video, The Supreme Gentleman, replays Elliott Rogers’ deeply unsettling Youtube video, in which the young student details his plan to punish women and men that he perceived had lived more sexually fulfilling lives, before proceeding to actually kill 6 (later killing himself) and wound 14. It provides an even more bizarre voice-over that speaks the words for him. The effect is beyond disturbing, but amidst this, we come to see that this young man’s dangerous and violent delusions are anything but mythical. They are extremely real, so real that the “goofy” reinterpretation only darkens, and sharpens, our focus on the horrors that women face at the hands of men on a daily basis. Durbin’s is a brutal imagination, but that might be what’s needed in such brutal times.
Artists like Wu Tsang, boychild, Ryan Trecartin, FKA Twigs, and Kate Durbin, along with so many other amazing cultural producers, are creating the type of vitalizing, aggressive, and powerful work that only art allows. Art has always been deeply invested in the political, and these brave practitioners of the bizarre and uncanny are equipping our collective imagination with the required weapons to combat oppression.
Images via Tosh Bosco, Rifflandia, Ryan Trecartin, FKA Twigs, Kate Durbin
Ting Ting Chen