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Texts for a queer art history


Kink is a cross-disciplinary working group researching and formalising a history of queer Australian art. Our work is defined by an interest in publishing, scholarship, advocacy, and public access. We are deeply passionate about generating new and open resources for and about the Australian LGBTQIA+ visual arts community. Below, each of our group’s current members offers a reflection on a text that is significant to their current thinking, research, or outlook, and to our framing of a queer art history.

Octavia Butler, Imago
(book three of Xenogenesis Trilogy), 1989.

The third book in Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Imago is an extraordinary interspecies love story between three characters of three different genders, set at a time where alien gene traders are compelled to colonise and merge with what is left of humanity to create a new, hybridised form of life. A human female, a human male, and an alien ‘ooloi’ of a non-binary third gender are brought together through a powerful physical and chemical attraction that becomes literally inescapable: without constant contact with each other, all three will sicken and die.

Sex, love, desire, and partnership are built both between and outside of the restraints of their material bodies. Connections take place through complex entanglements of neurologically stimulated tastes and smells, generating sensations more powerful and pleasurable than physical touch or emotional connections alone. Although neither human physically touches the other during sex with an ooloi, they are instead linked by the tentacle-like sense organs of their non-binary lover, which act as neurotransmitters that create something like a third, consensual reality enabling each to feel what the others feel in exquisite depth.

We are granted access to this world through the perspective of Jodahs, a young Oankali ‘construct’ who grew up expecting to become an adult male, but who on reaching adolescence begins to transition into an ooloi, a shock to everyone in the community. Neither male nor female, equipped with sensory tentacles and the ability to mate and bond with humans, Jodahs is the first of its kind: an ooloi born from once-human parents. Butler creates with astonishing clarity a radically alien perspective. Jodahs can not only ‘taste’ and perceive the environment in extreme detail through data from the sense organs distributed across its body (I imagine this being something akin to an octopus sense), but they can also alter DNA, expertly probing cellular structures and molecular memories to mutate genetic material – healing tumours, curing cancers, fixing and preserving life.

Like the rest of their species, Jodahs is also a shapeshifter. When Jodahs meets Tomás and Jesusa and realises its desperate hunger to bond with the pair – a hunger so strong that without the human couple it would not survive – it changes its appearance to resemble a form attractive to its potential mates, and with the help of chemical connectors becomes irresistible to them. They, in turn, become addicted to alien sex. The horrific side effect of this bonding is that after the union is set, Tomás and Jesusa are unable to physically touch each other outside of their threeways – even a short embrace between them may provoke revulsion or discomfort. This effect is permanent, irreversible, and unknown to the humans when they were seduced into entering the relationship. As with all of Butler’s works, questions of ethics, power, and exploitation are never far from the surface.

Most well known as a black, female, feminist science fiction author of the 1970s through to the 1990s, Butler’s work is marked by deeply intricate deconstructions of power, hierarchy, and identity, including race, gender, and sexuality. Although
she was described in her 2006 obituary by Kodwo Eshun as
a ‘famously reclusive lesbian’ (and it has also been speculated
she was asexual), Butler never publicly labelled herself as such during her lifetime. As she confessed in a 1998 interview:

Because of the way I looked, when I was growing up, I was called various and unsavory [sic] names by people who thought I was gay (though at the time nobody used that word). I eventually wondered if they might not be right, so I called the Gay and Lesbian Services Center and asked if they had meetings where people could talk about such things. I wound up going down there twice, at which point I realized, Nope, this ain’t it. I also realised, when I thought it over, that I’m a hermit. At any rate, I was intrigued by gay sexuality, enough so that I wanted to play around with it in my imagination and in my work.1

Across her work, this exploration has resulted in the creation of multiple queer hybridities that must survive in the face of terrible violence and oppression, including the creation of non-binary queer poly characters that for me hold a strong personal resonance.

Although Imago was written at a time when the vocabulary and visibility around queer, and particularly trans and non-binary experiences, was severely limited, Imago is a radically queer text, unflinching in its ambition to imagine otherwise. If, as José Estaban Muñoz wrote, ‘queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility in another world,’ then Butler compels us into a reality where sex might be displaced beyond the physical, beyond categories, where gender identities and relations are fluid, and heteronormative hierarchies are profoundly and anarchically disrupted.2
What the book does not displace, however, is the significance of community, connection, and family to interpersonal connections. As Butler once said,

even though I don’t have a husband and children, I have other family, and it seems to me our most important set of relationships. It is so much of what we are. Family does not have to mean purely biological relationships either. I know families that have adopted outside individuals... other adults, friends, people who simply came into the household and stay.3

To me, the queer kinships, partnerships and bondings figured in her books are an immense source of hope and inspiration, in all of their beautifully tentacular possibilities.

Amelia Barikin

Luke Roberts, Alice Jitterbug: Transformer, 1977,
Photographic performance: Inkjet prints from archival black and white photographs on paper.

Back in 2014, during my second year of art school at the Queensland University of Technology, the late Mark Webb, who at the time was running the studio program, introduced me to this series of photographs by Luke Roberts. Outside of regular art-history programming, this was the first queer Australian art I personally engaged with.

The series of forty-two images taken in 1977 are of Roberts’ drag persona Alice Jitterbug, who predated the now iconic Pope Alice. Jitterbug’s debut outing was in 1974 on a trip to the NGV dressed in Joan Crawford-esq drag. Alice performed regularly in Brisbane during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years, quite subversive given the criminalisation of homosexuality in Queensland at the time. During this period Queensland really lagged behind the changing perception towards queer people in the other states. This is a legacy that can still be felt today. Despite Roberts’ being one of the only gay artists at the time actively making such transgressive work, these early performances and photographs were explicitly excluded from art discourse. Not until much later were they taken seriously and, many years after that, finally acquired. I first saw the images in person a few years after my initial encounter when they belatedly entered the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art collection, a gift from James C. Sourris AM.

The black and white images depict Roberts in various stages of undress in predominately fem and androgynous garb. Flirty, performative and spontaneous, the images are both joyous and transgressive. That said, some of the images depict Roberts donning a kimono and samurai sword, which in a contemporary context is a little questionable. However, they are images of
their time; which is both their power and undoing. Taken today, these images would merely just disappear into the vast void of oversaturated drag culture. Taken in 1977, they read historically through emancipatory politics and sexual liberation, despite being taken inside a photo-studio where Roberts embodies a state of ecstasy and freedom. One doesn’t have to read much about the artist’s life and biography to make a connection between Jitterbug and his catholic upbringing. Roberts was raised Catholic in the rural Queensland town of Alpha and Jitterbug was an anecdote to his conservative upbringing.

I think Mark showed me these images for two reasons; firstly, because he knew that I would feel seen in them – Roberts’ locality and Catholic upbring personally resonated with me. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, so I knew that queerness and art that addresses a queer subjectivity has been happening for a long time now; there is an important lineage of this kind of practice that I needed to not only be aware of, but to understand. My young gay naivety was challenged at this formative moment and sparked my interest in queer history and queer art history more specifically. An important reminder that, despite everything already being done before, there is power in recognising and building on these important legacies.

Callum McGrath

Paired, Gold: Félix González-Torres and Roni Horn.
2009. New York City: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Exhibition (viewed December 2009).

I visited this exhibition in 2009 on one of the first of many solo international trips to New York City. Curated by Nancy Spector, Paired, Gold: Félix González-Torres and Roni Horn featured two works from the Guggenheim collection; Félix González-Torres’ “Untitled” (Golden) (1995), a vast gold beaded curtain dividing the space, hung from ceiling to floor and wall to wall, and Roni Horn’s Gold Field (1980–82), a paper-thin rectangular sheet of gold placed on the floor. Installed in a large white gallery with high ceilings, the two quiet, yet shimmering, gold works vibrated as they whispered their welcome. I approached as one approaches an altar. I separated the curtain, slowly stepped through, and walked to the back of the room, turning, with both works now clearly in view. I was transfixed by the love that emanated from each of these seemingly simple works.

González-Torres’ and Horn’s works employ an economy of means in their address of subjectivity, vulnerability, memory, and identity. There is a truth telling in this kind of work for anyone willing to spend the time listening. They, like their works so beautifully paired in this exhibition, became friends, filled with mutual admiration for each other’s work, politics, and ways of being. While their friendship was cut short, it was intense and meaningful. Their deep respect for each other and the work was such that each artist created an artwork in honour of the other.

González-Torres first discovered Horn’s work in 1990 at Temporary Contemporary, when he visited with his partner Ross Laycock. Gold Field left an impression. He would convey his deep experience with the work to Horn three years later when they first met.4 In return Horn sent González-Torres a gold foil square ‘as a symbol of the newfound friendship and shared sensibilities.’5 From here, González-Torres created the 1993 work “Untitled” (Placebo – Landscape – for Roni), a large rectangular field of candies wrapped in gold foil, and Horn produced the ever-moving 1994-95 work Gold Mats, Paired—for Ross and Félix, two rectangular sheets of gold overlaid.

Paired, Gold: Félix González-Torres and Roni Horn was so much more than the sum of its parts. It was a love story. If as Riccardo Benassi states, ‘minimalism stands for honesty,’ and we might understand gold to stand for queerness, then perhaps these two works are icons for a quiet, but deep, hopeful, and loving queer honesty.6

Courtney Coombs

Hiram To, In Visible Differences, 1994–95,
Mixed media installation.

Where I came across the work of Hiram To remains unclear
to me. It may have been a book gifted to my partner, a modest thing: craft board covered and ring bound, accompanying an Institute of Modern Art (IMA) exhibition that To was in.7 Or the catalogue for a 2005 survey show of To’s at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.8 Of his art, In Visible Differences (1994-95) stays with me. If I was being technical, it is how it draws together threads of minimal, conceptual, and post-conceptual art, all within its refined, reserved form. But more honestly, it is that despite its seeming cold aloofness, it still embodies so much of the artist’s life and outlook. To’s professional work in public relations, his love of design, his life as a Hong Kong-born gay man based for much of his early artistic career abroad: firstly, in Aberdeen, Scotland, and then Brisbane, where he moved in 1986 – all seems embedded in it. In Australia, To experienced both racism and homophobia.9 Yet despite this dark cloud imposed on him by an immature society, he gave back to this country in powerful ways. He exhibited widely, contributed passionately to Brisbane’s artist-run scene, and his work entered a number of key Australian public collections. He returned to Hong Kong in 1995, where he continued making – going on to represent the region at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 – all while working full time in PR. To passed away in 2017 from asthma-related complications.

One of my persistent interests within To’s work is the tension of his two professions: PR and art. Their conflation reflects insightfully on how images elicit desire, shape perception, and, in To’s hands, articulate identity as a sometimes stifling, restrictive bind; especially when it is a plaything of the market. This is reflected especially in In Visible Differences (1994-95). Shown in groups of four or six and displayed on the gallery floor or wall-mounted, the series utilises a repeating form: a thick disc of frosted glass sits atop a found image lifted from popular culture and cut to match the glass’ diameter. The iced roundels almost recall petite, compressed versions of Roni Horn’s cast-glass lozenges. And like Horn’s lozenges, their surfaces play with the audience’s vision.

The images selected by To interrogate aspects of the artist’s identity via a history of cinema. In one set, wall-mounted medallions feature white Hollywood actors playing Asian characters in film: Peter Sellers as Dr Fu Manchu, Bette Davis as Madame Sin, amongst others. In another group, straight actors who played gay men. At first, To’s message seems to be about the very real violence of cultural appropriation; those who speak on behalf of others, or even usurp them for their own gain. However, To’s critique is more nuanced. The shape of the discs, along with the images’ careful cropping and selection – the actors’ profiles in place of typical heads of state – insinuate that these roundels also function as a form of currency. The glass acts also as a lens, with these subjects clearly under exacting analysis and speculation: by viewers, by the art world, and by broader economic forces. In these works, To describes the art world as extractive, a microcosm of larger geopolitical interactions and late capitalism, drawing together the predacious interests of Western markets towards Asia, towards queer people, all read via the soft power mechanism of Hollywood.

Importantly, To does not let his criticism lay only at the feet of cinema. Art, artists, and cultural leaders are framed as complicit and implicated in these structures of extraction; not saved by the grace of their privileged status as cultural arbiters, their purported position of ‘insight’. Etched into the surface of the floor-based discs are handwritten calculations, as if from the scanned pages of a gallerist determining value. In the wall- mounted set, the etchings are the actual signatures of Australian curators, editors, and museum directors from the time of the works’ production – photographed by To and then cut into the glass, a ghost-like scar that hovers over these faces. As Cheung King Hung notes, these are the very signatures of cultural leaders ‘who spearheaded Australia’s diplomatic ties with Asia in the mid-1990s.’10 Each, in their own way, agents of soft power and the market.

In description, the work sounds heavy handed but in their refined, high level of finish, the disks are in actuality quite restrained. They look like glossy-yet-bitter pills, focus- group tested products of a vast commercial system. Beneath their slickness – a quality integral to the critique they wield – the work seems to glimpse the future of identity politics as a toy of the contemporary art world, as if To saw something disingenuous in long-held demands for representation and equality being finally granted. As if to ask, but by whom and for what purposes? In Visible Differences seems determined to scrutinize the powers and structures that undergird culture – and in the process, articulates the need to turn a stronger lens still to the terms and conditions of this ‘emancipation’.

Tim Riley Walsh

Kink is a cross-disciplinary working group researching and formalising a history of queer Australian art. Kink’s work is defined by an interest in publishing, scholarship, advocacy, and public access. We are deeply passionate about generating new and open resources for and about the Australian LGBTQIA+ visual arts community. Currently, the group comprises art historian Amelia Barikin, artist and facilitator Courtney Coombs, artist and researcher Callum McGrath, art historian and curator Tim Riley Walsh, and research assistant Shannon Brett.

1. Octavia Butler in Larry McCaffery and Jim McMenamin, “Interview with Octavia Butler”, Conversations with Octavia Butler, edited by Francesca Consuela (Jackson: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 14.

2. Jose Esteban Munoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), p. 1.

3. Octavia Butler in Stephen Potts, “We keep playing the
same record: a conversation with Octavia Butler”, Science Fiction Studies (Vol. 23 No. 3, November 1996): 333.

4. And later in writing in, “1990: L.A., ‘The Gold Field’”, published posthumously alongside Horn’s 1997 exhibition, despite the work not being exhibited.

5. guggenheim.org/exhibition/ paired-gold

6. art-agenda.com/ criticism/237616/felix-gonzalez- torres-s-1990-l-a-the-gold-field

7. Scott Redford and Luke Roberts (eds.), You Are Here (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1993).

8. Donna McAlear and Hiram To, Hiram To: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (Winnipeg, MB: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2004).

9. Scott Redford, “Hiram To 1964-2017: Don’t let me be misunderstood,” Ran Dian, 20 March 2017, randian-online.com/np_news/ hiram-to1964-2017-dont-let-me-be- misunderstood/.

10. Cheung King Hung quoted
in Hiram To, “Collecting Desires, Archiving Secrets: From Cultural Hoards to Lost Judys,” Queer Histories Symposium, lecture performance, 14 May 2014, remix. org.au/queering-the-archives- collecting-desires-archiving- secrets-from-cultural-hoarders-to- lost-judys-by-artist-hiram-to-2/.