Nick Yu, curator of “Holy Mosses” which is on view until 18 January, 2020, at Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong, poses the wonderfully pertinent question: “How do we give expression to a world where all genders thrive in freedom?” In an extension of his curatorial statement, he shares the depth of his research in the quest for an answer.
TEXT: Nick Yu
IMAGES: Courtesy of Blindspot Gallery and the artists
“Holy Mosses” is a group exhibition of eight artists who identify as female or gender non-binary. The exhibition asks a pivotal question: how do we give expression to a world where all genders thrive in freedom? Resisting essentialist narratives, and cultural and biological determinism, “Holy Mosses” explores the non-binary fluidity of gender, its expression across the amorphous expanse of organic nature, its ensuing mythology and daydreaming across cultures and peoples.
Gender and sexuality come in different sizes and shapes. They thrive in different soils, habitats, surfaces, materials, media and devices. They shift between different frequencies, movements, amplitudes, wavelengths and languages. They excite different tastes, scents, vibes, touches and temperatures. It does not matter what pathway, roads, highways or detours they take, for to meander meaningfully, that is the Tao/Dao/道. It is an anonymous and deeply personal journey of geomancy and self-discovery through observing the pattern of the universe.
There are two ways to imagine a trans-gender world. One way is to hallucinate a post-human planet queered by future technologies and pharmacopornographies. Another way is to rewrite our ancient herstory, revisiting the pre-modern world in its biological diversity and exuberant mysticism. Both routes are full of vivacious images, sensuous textures and roaming horizons stretching beyond our current knowledge.
Let’s start from one of the beginnings. Plants wear their reproductive organs prominently as flowers, who display their male and female sexual organs concomitantly. All genders coexist and transpose in the same being, neither scorning nor dominating the other. Their femininity and masculinity coproduce and collaborate seamlessly, ever since time immemorial.
Tracing the primordial and hard-to-categorize organism, So Wing Po creates mixed media installations that articulate the cellular view of underwater algae, visualizing the ancient genetics that influences observable sexual characteristics. Leelee Chan erects towering sculptures made with industrial materials, resembling giant caterpillars capable of colourful evolution, transformation and metamorphosis. Zhang Ruyi makes cement sculptures of various succulents and cacti, whose seductive flowers are often the only green growing in the arid desert. Although showing just a fraction in the diversity of the botanical and zoological world, they present a rainbow of gender differences and adaptability to the environment.
In the first part of her book Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden draws examples from diverse species in the animal kingdom, demonstrating that not only do bodies and genders not conform to a binary model, sex roles are reversible, same-sex sexuality is common, and secondary sex characteristics are not just for heterosexual mating. Roughgarden shows that the epistemology of our academic studies, including biology, medical science, social science and religions, are inherently biased against, and actively suppress diversity.
Against the prejudiced Apollonianism that Roughgarden vehemently debunks, this ensemble of artworks buoyantly reveals a rainbow of gender benders beyond the Darwinian theory of sexual selection. The caterpillars of Leelee Chan eventually metamorphose into butterflies and moths, where gynandromorphs are fairly common and are highly prized collectibles famed for their intersexed beauty. On the other hand, the algae of So Wing Po and the succulents of Zhang Ruyi are also known for their diverse sexuality, often capable of sexual and asexual reproduction depending on different genealogical, environmental and cultural factors.
The fruits of their labour have magical qualities, containing erotic hormones and aphrodisiac juices, transmitting intersexual prowess to their consumers. Channelling the essences of papaya, blood, orange and spit, Pixy Liao poses with her boyfriend in Experimental Relationship (2007– ), an on-going series of photographic self-portraits that stage an intimate relationship where gender roles are playful, fungible and reversible. Against the grand gestures of confrontational identity politics, Liao and her partner demonstrate that the terms of any private relationship are negotiated in the details of quotidian life. For the personal is ever more political.
Using hair embroidery, Angela Su narrates a series of Renaissance French poetry, Blasons anatomiques du corps féminin (2016), written by heterosexual cis males, that praises and fetishizes individual female organs. Hair embroidery is traditionally a medium practised by lay Buddhist women in late imperial China. These women were illiterate yet artisanal, and created devotional images of the female bodhisattva (Guanyin/觀音) to enunciate their faith. These hair embroideries were the complete alienation of their labour and their bodies. Not only is hair one of the defining features of mammals (like scales for reptiles and feathers for birds), hair is also one of the most prominent and symbolic sexual characteristics of human beings. The duality of hair is such that well-placed and well-groomed hairs are virile and attractive, while other hairs are scorned and purged, and its arbitrary standard of beauty used by society to police gender “deviance.” Su’s video montage Sewing Machine (2016) represents the sewing of body parts as gestures of protest, acts of rebellion and the suppression of freedom of speech. The video alludes to the history of stitching body parts as performative acts of radical protests, for example, the lip sewing of detained asylum seekers in Manus Island (2014), and artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz (1989), as well as the vagina sewing of performance artist Kembra Pfahler (1992).
Wong Wai Yin satirizes gender stereotypes in He She It (2019) and the nativity scene, and rethinks the fallacy in age old preconceptions imbued in the gendered pronouns of the Anglophonic Christian world. In the third part of Evolution’s Rainbow, Roughgarden launches an adamant review of intersexuality and homosexuality in Biblical scriptures, against the prevalent and often weaponized homophobic reading of religious texts. Their mobilization of language and literature in the critique of gender is pertinent, because the true nature of gender has always been unsayable, and any attempt to articulate is but treacherous and doomed to fail. However, we keep trying and the creative evolution of language is at the forefront of the evolutions of homo sapiens. This conceptual evolution materializes in epic poetry, meditative incantations, and irreverent confessions.
Oh sing in me, Cthulhu and Persephone, tell the stories of men you have devoured in the underworld! Oh Tiresias and Guanyin, tell me of your feminizing odyssey to and back! Beneath the History and Science of men are the multiplicity of mythologies, alive with androgynous demigods, drag queens and fairies, and transgender reveries. Drag is not merely the wearing of the clothing of the opposite gender (crossdressing), a formalist definition that inadvertently affirms the stringent binarism of gender. For Victoria Sin, whose preferred pronoun is “they/them,” drag is rather an intentional embodiment of gender identities which are idealized, referential, linguistic, performative and reflexive. Sin enlists technologies of representation to create fragmentary experiences of sexuality, questioning the systems of looking and desiring, and the principles of pleasure.
Call me androsexual, sometimes omnisexual or polysexual, with a dash of demisexual or autosexual, but most certainly sapiosexual. For the truth is “a great mind must be androgynous,” wrote the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1832). Being man-womanly and woman-manly at once is at the crux of being a creator, as the creator must master the yin and yang elements at will. In the profoundly intelligent and narcissistic video essay From Its Mouth Came a River of High-End Residential Appliances (2017–18), WangShui transforms themselves into a dragon-cum-drone camera, soaring above misty clouds and penetrating the orifices in the residential buildings of Hong Kong. Relaying the Chinese traditions of geomancy (feng shui /風水), bibliomancy (I-Ching /易經) and mythologies (The Classic of Mountains and Seas /山海經), WangShui articulates a fecundly futurist post-human cosmologico-techno-sensuality wherein intelligent beings have never been fixed, but always wisely porous and intentionally transformational. Call me flux (Heraclitus), metamorphosis (Ovid), or yi (I-Ching), our naturalist philosophers have long iterated the shifting intelligence of our sex and gender, ever evolving, ever becoming, ever reimagining to its own will.
Epilogue – A Divination
How do we give expression to a world where all genders thrive in freedom? I search for answers by consulting the I-Ching《易經》, or Book of Change, the ancient Chinese oracle and book of wisdom. I tossed three coins into the air, and repeated the toss six times to arrive at six lines, divided or undivided, yin or yang.
The result is the Hexagram LXIV, which is “Wei Ji” (未濟), Incomplete. The hexagram consists of two trigrams, Li/Fire above Kan/Abyss. Fire above water, the relative positions of the two trigrams are inauspicious, and the two elements do not interact in a fruitful way. Technically, every line is in the “wrong” position, Yin is where Yang ‘should’ be, and vice versa. This is a time of instability and transition, disorder capable of consummation and perfection. This is ominous, and not to mention, oddly fitting to our contemporary moment.
I read on and learn that the Kan trigram (one Yang line surrounded by two Yin, Yang within Yin), represents Yin/Female elements (Water, Kidneys, White Tiger, Earthly Anima), while the Li trigram (one Yin line surrounded by two Yang, Yin within Yang) represents Yang/Male elements (Fire, Heart, Green Dragon, Celestial Animus). No wonder the instability and incompletion! Male is on top and Female is bottom, Yang dominating Yin. Yet, surely, no line is unyielding and unchanging, no difficult times without chance for amelioration and transformation. But equally surely, there is no convenient way to achieve completion. How do we cultivate ourselves such that our gendered elements will change to their truthful and harmonious ways?
Hopefully one day, we will be complete.
 A method of penetrating moments of the cosmic order to learn how the Way, or Tao, is configured and what direction it takes at such moments and to determine what one’s place is and should be in the scheme of things.
 Roughgarden, Joan, 2004, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, California, University of California Press.
 Gynandromorphy is a condition when one of the chromosomes mutate during development, and the mature animal contains both male and female characteristics. Bilateral gynandromorphs have one male side and one female side in the body, while mosaic gynandromorphs have differently sexed portions scattered randomly throughout their bodies.
 “Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought. But it would be well to test what one meant by man-womanly, and conversely by woman-manly, by pausing and looking at a book or two.
Coleridge meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. In fact one goes back to Shakespeare’s mind as the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind… And if it be true that it is one of the tokens of the fully developed mind that it does not think specially or separately of sex, how much harder it is to attain that condition now than ever before… No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own…”
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
未濟(Wei Ji) / Incomplete
離(Li) / Fire
坎(Kan) / Abyss / Water
 I ching: the essential translation of the ancient Chinese oracle and book of wisdom, translated by John Minford, (Penguin: New York, 2014), p.491
 Ibid., xix