Reconsidering queer histories in Derek Sargent's Genuine & Authentic
by Chelsea Farquhar
“There is nothing intrinsically queer about a form. Rather, queer capacities are engendered by activating relations—between forms, against an opposition or context, or (in the case of complex forms) among the internal dynamics of their components” — David J. Getsy
Four large pink boxes sit suspended from the ceiling. Zippers have been sewn into the centre of the sixteen sides. Spread open, they act as a metaphor for control and desire—the act, both public and private—within queer sexual practices. These forms unintentionally but unquestionably allude to vaginal imagery. I aim to call into question the intentionality of these forms and how throughout the history of Queer art bodily representation has been utilised and the effect that has on queer lives today.
Genuine & Authentic by Adelaide-based artist Derek Sargent is an ambitious exhibition that explores themes of queer identity, the public made private, and the commodification of the queer experience. Jess Miley states in their catalogue essay that “Genuine & Authentic … is an invitation to reconsider our contemporary formulations of queer life within and outside of the neo-liberal hetero-normative society we occupy. By exposing the duplicity of history we are able to more clearly carve a new type of story” (1). Whilst successful in interrogating ownership of histories and the commercialisation of experiences, the underlying themes challenge me as they continue to reinforce the archetype of the hyper-sexual gay person. Being queer is more than what genitals you have and who you choose to sleep with, it is a relational position, a way of seeing, thinking and moving through the world. To simply use a body as a stand in for an idea only objectifies, sexualises and falsely reifies the queer experience. Through historical social ostracisation queer people have built communities in nightclubs, public bathrooms and in park shadows and, because of this, Queer art uses motifs that speak to experiences that are often sexual and body focused. How can we recognise Queer art unless there are disco balls, genitals, leather, glitter, dicks, dildos, tits, vaginas, glory holes? I could go on, but you get my point.
During the 1960s numerous Western queer artists codified their experiences through Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism. Artists like Agnes Martin and Robert Morris were steering away from identification, and this rejection of the Subject provided broader readings whilst remaining authentically queer. After Stonewall, The Gay Rights movement created an environment where artists could openly create work about their identities. These early Camp works had connections to nightlife, gender expression, and pre- and post- AIDs sexuality. While these works and artists were incredibly important for visibility and the normalisation of queerness, what was once an act of defiance and political non-conformity has become the norm. Works in this vein can create a subject-object relationship in which the viewer becomes a voyeur thus creating a space for surveillance over queer bodies.
Genuine & Authentic was complicated for me in regards to my relationship to Queer art. While Sargent’s work aims to critique the commodification of queer lives, he utilises a history of materials and themes that reify the queer experience as primarily sexual. However, some works in this show create new and interesting moves that I believe connect queer lives with Queer art.
An example of this is seen within four physically demanding acrylic panels, each with small punctures that form the words Pervert, Overlook, Deviant and Screen respectively. Their presence commands visibility through their invisibility and translucency. Made for public consumption, these antagonistic works speak to the commodification of queer lives whilst controlling our gaze upon them.
Between the text panels sit Sargent’s paired boxes Public vs Private. The pink mirrored acrylic forms re-articulate the concerns of the Pop Art movement. Admittedly I found myself succumbing to the millennial impulse to take a selfie in any reflective surface, but as I lined up my phone I noticed that I was not only seeing myself. I had unknowingly entered a complex relationship of reciprocal observation - catching eyes for a moment, only to look away into another’s gaze. Incredibly nuanced moments of looking and ultimately being looked at, these interactions give insight to the act of ‘cruising’ (2). This lived experience of seeing and being seen highlights the complexities of the integral relational components of the queer experience.
Sargent’s conceptual concerns are well intentioned, yet I find myself questioning whether this work speaks for the collective experience. Broadly, as queer people, we tend to hinge our identities on social and cultural histories, and use the arts to locate ourselves within the world. When I see queerness and non-normative experiences depicted solely as body focused and by overt sexual encounters I feel objectified and disconnected to a history that I co-exist within. In my own bodily experience, the tensions created between the art forms and the bodies that co-inhabited FELTspace were the most genuine and authentic element of the show.
Jess Miley, Catalogue Statement for Derek Sargent’s Genuine & Authentic at FELTspace Gallery March 8-24, 2018.
Cruising or Gay Cruising is the act or practice of wandering about a place in search of a casual sexual partner.