I’m from a generation when librarians raised a disapproving finger to their lips to shush even the quietest whispers. So it felt odd (but liberating) to sit with a group of some fifty people in the Amsterdam Public Library and be encouraged – by a teacher, no less – to raise our voices in a resounding chant. “Gender is like a banana! Gender is like a banana!”
The library’s sixth floor is home to the International Gay and Lesbian Information Center and Archives (IHLIA), the largest collection of LGBT resource material in Europe. A global list of keywords called the Homosaurus can help anyone search an online catalogue of over 100,000 titles of LGBT interest. IHLIA also hosts cultural events, such as films, book launches and exhibitions.
In this case, the opening of Gender as a Performance, a series of photographs by Chris Rijksen, winner of the Pride Photo Award 2012. Eliza Steinbock, lecturer of Literature and Art at Maastricht University, led the battle cry when she introduced Chris as a “canonized queer artist.” Quite an honor for the student still attending the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (due to graduate in June.)
“Bananas are bananas because people say they are. Gender is constructed the same way. One is a woman because people say one is. One is a man because people say so. Therefore, gender is no more than a performative act, in no way related to any biological aspects.”
Am I a dress?
The young artist has an androgynous beauty that would make Tyra Banks gush like a schoolgirl. But that’s not why Chris chose to be both photographer and model for this series. With subtle shifts in posture, facial expression and understated fashion, all captured using an old wire shutter release that’s visible to the viewer, Chris exposes a high level of honesty in a medium that is inherently dishonest. The series raises more questions than it attempts to answer.
“I put on a dress,” muses Chris with a beguiling grin. “Am I a woman? Am I a man in a dress? Am I a dress?” According to Professor Steinbock, the photos reveal “ the potential of queerness in the ordinary.” I’m drawn to the playful ambiguity of the series, also seen in Chris’s interactive video installation called Gendergenerator. A silhouetted figure is seen engaged in various activities. Is it a man? Is it a woman? Press a button when you think you know. But the game is rigged. No matter which button you press, you will always be wrong.
Back in September, ten days before Gender as a Performance was introduced in Amsterdam at the Pride Photo Award exhibition, I was in NYC for the opening of a retrospective of Del LaGrace Volcano at the Leslie Lohman Gay and Lesbian Museum of Art. A pioneer in queer art, Volcano’s “gender variant” work, as both photographer and subject, is clearly reflected and brought into current focus with Chris’s series.
This is important on many levels. A day before the opening at IHLIA, 100 transgender people and supporters staged a protest in London outside the offices of the Guardian Media Group. The organizers were asking the Observer newspaper to apologize for a recent column/rant filled with “transphobic hate speech.” Media portrayal of the LGBT community is still full of stereotypes and misrepresentation, both in words and images. The gathering in the Amsterdam library may have been preaching to the choir as they chanted, “Gender is like a banana!” But I was happy to add my voice in support of a rising queerious artist like Chris Rijksen.