Gender, Sexuality, and Body – Addressed in “Performing Society: The Violence of Gender”
Pamela Rosenkranz, Sexual Power (Three Viagra Paintings), 2018. Acrylic on aluminium, transparent foil, latex gloves, aluminium, foil, sneakers, bucket, paint bottles. 210 x 150 cm
Raphaela Vogel, Uterusland (Partial), 2017. Polyurethane elastomer, breast model, milking machine, video, projector, cable, video 7’11’’. Breast model and horse: 215 × 670 × 210 cm (installation, dimensions); video sculpture: 340 × 260 × 320 cm (installation dimensions), 3’09”.
Wong Ping, Who’s the Daddy, 2017. Single-channel animation, 9’15’’. Courtesy: Wong Ping & Edouard Malingue Gallery
Oliver Laric, Untitled, 2014-2015. 4K video, colour, sound, 5’55”. Courtesy: Oliver Laric & Tanya Leighton, Berlin.
Tai Kwun Contemporary’s new exhibition “Performing Society: The Violence of Gender” aimed to bring gender, sexuality and the body to the forefront in an institutional setting. The exhibition was timely, yet set itself an ambitious task to comment on the complexities of the subject, nonetheless providing the opportunity to generate much needed discourse and perspective.
TEXT: Katherine Volk
IMAGES: Courtesy of Tai Kwun Contemporary and the artists
Recently gender boundaries are being blurred, as societies attempt to challenge deeply ingrained social conventions and restrictions. However, despite these recent movements, gender has been traditionally defined through culture and education. These structures are centuries old, establishing how one is to behave or perform as per their specific gender role to conform to society’s expectations. Eleven local and international artists presented work across the multilevel gallery space; the pieces were at times humorous while others were painful, each expanding on cultural discourse in Hong Kong and abroad. They attempted to question and abandon limitations of constructed gender roles in order to create new ideas and conversations that go beyond boundaries to disrupt a concept that has previously been binary and restricted to one’s physicality or external expectations.
The exhibition began with Pamela Rosenkranz’s Sexual Power (Three Viagra Paintings) (2018), immediately tackling the curatorial theme. Loud and gestural paintings leaned against the wall as debris was strewn across plastic sheeting, as if the artist had just left and with energy still emanating from the scene. The method of action painting is usually associated with power and masculinity – names such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline coming to mind, but here the physical act of painting was reclaimed by the artist as the series paintings was undertaken while Rosenkranz used the titled male prescription drug, allowing the work to be determined purely by chemical, not biological factors. Fleshy pinks gesturally splashed across canvas seemed to mirror medicated effects of blood pumping and one’s internal organs, while the dripping texture was reminiscent of bodily fluids and secretions. Rosenkranz’s painted gestures responds to the constructed notion of sexuality and how perceptions of it are controlled and culturally fabricated.
Opposite, Dong Jinling’s video 2-2 (2018) drew on the act of asserting one’s territory, similar to the way one would urinate to mark their area, as the video depicted a woman releasing her own breast milk indicating personal domain over her own body. The stream of milk released by her own hand explores female autonomy and identity as well as the complex entanglements of motherhood. Viewers were reminded how the intimate act is still seen as taboo, as the image in the catalogue had to be censored, similar to the censorship of female nipples across social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. The recent rise to challenge this are demonstrated by accounts such as Genderless Nipples, which has taken on Instagram’s ban on female nipples and supports all genders. As of 2019, Instagram’s guidelines don’t allow nudity on the platform, including “some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed.”
However, Dong’s second related piece, 2-1 (2012) was placed on a different floor, diluting the connection to the extent that one would be forgiven thinking they were by two different artists. The naked self-portrait revealed Dong’s choice to feed her child with only her left breast, keeping the other to herself. This decision to retain a part of her body consequentially provoked her breasts to grow asymmetrically to compensate the feeding of her child, which was accommodated through biological means beyond her control.
Raphaela Vogel’s large-scale installation, Uterusland (2017) on the upper floor continued to challenge the violence of biology and the internal conflict inside one’s own body. An anatomical breast model, half baring the muscles and other tissue, also revealed labels indicating breast cancer and disease. The other half spouted out a white milk string that morphed into a rearing wild horse. Vogel’s accompanying film was projected through a structure of a milking machine, as the clip showed a woman sliding down a pink-colored waterslide cradling her baby, whom is lost during the process. The flesh toned tunnel suggested a birthing canal and the energy it takes to give life and how humans are forced to follow our bodies in the process of reproduction and disease, life and death. The title of the piece paired with the fairground-like accordion music and the setting for the film (a public swimming pool famous for their water slides), one cannot help but link it to the theme park ride bodies go through.
Starkly contrasting Vogel’s work, Wong Ping’s approach humorously touches upon the male perspective and that gender stereotyping affects all. The somewhat crude and dark storyline in the animation Who’s the Daddy (2017) alludes to the construct of manhood and the harm that emerges from heteronormative structures. The seemingly innocent, bright cartoonish 80’s style visuals playfully misdirect from the seriousness of the issues as the story touches upon a sexual desire stemming from weakness and shame, as well as forbidden sexuality, repressed feelings, abortion, social media, politics and fatherhood. As the visual plot unfolds, the character is reprimanded for his weakness in the form of a stiletto heel gauging out his eyeball, a take on toxic masculinity, a repressive gendered behavior and its often-linked relationship to violence.
Recently the concept of toxic masculinity made news when the shaving company Gillette released their ad “We believe: the best men can be” at the beginning of this year. The company drew both praise and backlash for promoting a new kind of positive masculinity. Clips of sexist behavior from boardrooms to cartoons, news covering the #MeToo movement and similar to Wong’s approach, it also takes on the violence between boys. The ad went on to promote courage and responsibility, while challenging viewers to redefine what behavior is associated with what it means to be manly. According to the Guardian, the viral clip received more than 4 million views on YouTube within the first 48 hours of being released. However, with the mixed reactions it received (Piers Morgan said he would no longer buy the brand and “boys should be boys”), similarly concludes like Wong, that toxic masculinity is real and deeply embedded into some cultures and is met with condemnation from many when it is contested.
Oliver Laric’s animation Untitled (2014-15) offered a slightly optimistic perspective to round off the exhibition. Lacking narrative or linear evolution, figures morph fluidly from figure to figure aiming to think outside of binary structures. Characters transform from animals into humans, humans into inanimate objects and young smoothly change to old without set rules or order. The demonstration of freedom is shown in the equality of all objects and subjects, defying traditional power structures and goes beyond our bodies and physical limitations.
Overall the exhibition was effective, given the large task at hand, and not only do the selected artists bring awareness but attempt to address how to move forward. However, at times, the subject felt too broad and complex that it occasionally became blurred or slightly diluted between the multifaceted natures of each piece.
It will be interesting to see how conservative-leaning Hong Kong reacts to the exhibition and hopefully it will ignite even further conversation in the city. Additionally, there has been a global surge in increasingly conservative ideology being pushed forward and the recent advances in gender freedom are at risk of being eroded. Though, as many have professed, art has the power the change the world, so let’s hope that this is the right step forward in swapping archaic restrictions and suppression for positive change.