Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Viva la commonality

Assume Nothing: Celebrating Gender Diversity
Photography and films by Rebecca Swan and Kirsty MacDonald
MIC Toi Rerehiko
24 January - 19 February 2009

Like with last month’s Article 27 exhibition the chief sponsor of this show is the Human Rights Commission, but unlike that presentation this display is educational and documentary in focus – rather than about innovative art per se. Though immensely informative and moving, especially in the eloquence of its interviewees, it is not about experimental projects or radical intervention, but mainstream consolidation – a positive reflection of how times have changed for this country’s transsexual and cross-dressing communities for the better. Georgina Beyer’s prominence and parliamentary contribution is proof of that.

The static and moving gallery images and associated publication here are certainly very elegant, yet Assume Nothing lacks the raw intensity of say the pioneering work thirty–five years ago by Taranaki artist Fiona Clark. The public hysteria that then greeted her intensely raw images of transsexuals (and their written texts) in the touring Active Eye exhibition resulted in the police confiscating her photographs. Those works though were confrontational and calculatedly provocative. This show has none of that. The personalities, though assertive, are immensely charming, designed to win ‘conservative’ viewers over. The project is constructed to remove fear of the unknown, as well as provide a sensibly dignified discussion of topics often kept hidden. Its frankness celebrates difference whilst in a sense, physiological and psychological distinctions are also dissolved. These individuals may be unusual, but what citizens of Aotearoa have in common is also clearly demonstrated.

The exhibition provides a great opportunity for viewers to think about the way some of those interviewed can present themselves as male or female, changing not only their attire when so inclined, but also their body shape and facial ornamentation. Such actions challenge the mental baggage carried by many of those whom transsexuals and cross-dressers regularly encounter – the preconceived assumptions they might have about ‘male’ or ‘female’ behaviour patterns and core identities.

All this links up to the fascinating ideas of a ‘queer theorist’ like Judith Butler, whose discussions raise questions about the nature of role playing and self perception in identity, and their seemingly arbitrary links to the physiological. A show like this tells us not only how little we know about the range of gender types that exist (with their varieties of accompanying desire) but also how little we understand the causes of reactive hostility that can be so damaging. An excellent exhibition.

The above mixed media image is ‘Ola, Aitu, Mauli, the inner person’ (2008) by Rebecca Swan and Shigeyuki Kihara.

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