“Bring Your Own Body,” a showcase of historical documents and contemporary art at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery, aims to highlight self-identified transgender histories as opposed to narratives by those outside the transgender community. In this show, trans artists decide how their community is documented, and they do it through various mediums.
The exhibit is staged in a reverse time line, its first half a display of contemporary works by transgender artists-printed handouts, collage, and installations that together focus on materials other than photographic work. “The contemporary art that we did select focused more on non-lens-based representation because there is quite a lot of photography of trans people by nontrans photographers,” said Jeanne Vaccaro, who cocurated the exhibition with Stamatina Gregory. “We wanted to err on the side of artistic representation that had a relationship to archive.”
Chris Vargas’s Transvestism Through the News (2015) is composed of trans-related headlines from 1940s-1960s newspapers that have been crudely collaged and reprinted onto stacks of newsprint handouts in the gallery. Although produced 50 to 70 years ago, titles like “Haircut Turns ‘Girl’ Into Boy” and “Is a Boy-Girl a Man or a (gulp) Woman?” are oddly reminiscent of present-day sensationalized headlines. Vaccaro and Gregory hope the contemporary work presented is not just a reaction to misappropriated trans history, but another stage in the community’s narrative. “We wanted to show contemporary art that engages with an archive and an inherited set of representations of transgender,” said Vaccaro. “It is not merely a response, but an incorporation for an historical evolution.”
Artist-produced documentation of the community is evident in the late Mark Aguhar‘s work, which explores the relationship between the artist and the most immense archive there is: the Internet. Pieces include work displayed through Tumblr-bright, fringed costumes she photographed herself in; patterned collages of sexually engaged bodies; and meme-style watercolors that read “CUTTING OFF UR DICK JUST CUZ U FEEL LIKE IT” and “I’D RATHER BE BEAUTIFUL THAN MALE.” These statements scan as antithetical responses to Vargas’s collaged headlines: Aguhar personally claims the sensational language as a trans woman, whereas the headlines in Vargas’s piece are initially used to call attention to trans bodies.
The collaged titles within Vargas’s work were pulled from sources at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, which also provided some of the historical photography of trans individuals presented toward the back of the exhibition, or near the beginning of the time line. However, in some black-and-white images of trans subjects it is not apparent whether the anonymously shown individuals self-identified as trans or were simply paid to pose for research purposes. For this reason the images are presented in the exhibition as purely archival material in need of critical intervention, explicitly linked to art made by contemporary transgender voices.
The Kinsey Institute photos are displayed next to the Flawless Sabrina Archive, a collection of film, painting, and photography by the famed transgender film consultant, political activist, and leader of the countercultural drag scene of the 50s and 60s. The archive includes portraits of Flawless Sabrina by the likes of Andy Warhol and Diane Arbus, yet these portraits are not presented as artworks but as part of an archive of trans history. By referencing these two distinctly different bodies of work as archival rather than artistic, the curators recontextualize work like Warhol’s portrait of Flawless Sabrina as a part of trans history while simultaneously challenging the images taken from the Kinsey Institute. This shifting of historical material is one of the important curatorial moves of Vaccaro and Gregory: transferring the critical power to the audience rather than the documenter.
“It was important to us to destabilize ideas of authorship in this exhibition,” Gregory said, “since the field of contemporary art and the greater art world tend to obscure the sociocultural structures that validate what art is, and who gets to be an artist.”