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Queer art now, for better and worse

"Strange Bedfellows," a traveling collection of collaborative work, surveys a subversive genre. But has queer representation reached its limits?


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Anyone interested in the question of where queer artistic representation stands today should see "Strange Bedfellows." I deliver this recommendation not because I think this show will thrill minds and conquer hearts, but because, in its sometimes hesitant and sometimes even problematic ways, this traveling collection of collaborative work manages to be evocative rather than simply declarative. It leaves open the many questions it raises: What do we mean by queer art today? Who makes it? Do we still need it?

Queer theory exploded into prominence in the early 1990s, most notably with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet and Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. But proponents from the academy are apt to forget that the word "queer," a reclamation of stigma, had already been in circulation among a growing and increasingly angry number of activists who were working furiously to get the state and the public to notice the AIDS epidemic.

Out of this anger came several political collaborations that employed artistic work. The collective Gran Fury, for instance, produced a series of slick posters that called out the apathy of the Reagan administration, including the now famous Silence=Death poster, in stark pink and black, as well as Read My Lips, which showed same-sex couples kissing passionately—a fuck you to the then prevalent idea that AIDS was the price to pay for queer sexuality.

"Strange Bedfellows" gestures to this history. But it's less interested in recycling nostalgia than in demonstrating what newer work looks like. In her notes on the project, curator Amy Cancelmo writes that "to queer something is to make it strange . . . and present a point of rupture in what we think we know," and that collaboration of the sort presented here can be an act of "queering the singular artist/author paradigm." But as she also points out, collective work is not inherently oppositional.

We Do!, a video by Annie Sprinkle and her wife, Elizabeth Stephens, makes one wish the 90s would stop returning. Sprinkle is most well-known for public performances advocating on behalf of porn and sex work, and her flamboyant, buxom playfulness—one of her pieces involved inviting audience members to view her cervix—seemed, in times past, at least interesting. Here Sprinkle and her partner are shown marrying each other 16 times, in rituals that encompass every form of cultural appropriation: Native American headdresses, cringe-inducing pagan rituals. The point about this as a performance is unclear—jointly staging various marital customs is hardly more than a private contract being performed publicly. The fact that the rituals are often highly sexual (there is a great deal of cervix peering and nudity) says nothing new about the institution of marriage itself.

The work with trans and gender-bending themes has more to say. In the video Friends of Dorothy, Screen Test, Tara Mateik recasts The Wizard of Oz with queer and trans actors, challenging the limits of gender and time. Sean Fader's Photoshopped images provide a touch of visual wit, showing his head attached to the bodies of friends and family—including that of a nude woman—with a zipper superimposed down the center. Photographer Amos Mac collaborates with Juliana Huxtable LaDosha to re-create the latter's tenure in the New York offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. The text is cryptic, saying only that LaDosha encountered "liberal racism and transphobia" while working there, and that the photos, which show her stridently occupying desks and chairs, are a way of reclaiming that space after she left her job.

Whether all of this is really cutting-edge is debatable. At some point, we may have to acknowledge that queer art has met its limits if it cannot go beyond seeking to simply "queer" representation. Until then, "Strange Bedfellows" at least gives us a sampling of what has been and what is.


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