What is more natural, given, universal – and at the same time complex, vexed and sensitive than the human body? We are born in our own skin, and nevertheless it can take us a lifetime to know it, accept it and respect it. And this is only the first step. Our skin – and our sexuality with it – is much more than just “ours.” It is a frontline where the personal and the political meet. It is the biggest instrument of intimacy, love and care, as well as the most harmful weapon of mass hate and social discrimination.
“The body as home, but only if it is understood that bodies are never singular, but rather haunted, strengthened, underscored by countless other bodies” wrote Eli Clare, disabled and genderqueer poet, essayist and activist who has the body as the focus of his research about impairment, queer and trans identities and social justice.
Some of these thoughts are reflected in Under the Anti Lies the Body, a group show curated by the nomadic gallery Slowroom Contemporary at Stefanskirken in Copenhagen. The exhibition sheds light on a very specific question: is there place for queer people in the house of God? And if their place exists, where in the church are these seats to be found? A spectrum of possible answers is to be found in the works of the four queer artists comprised in the show, each exploring the human body in their own way.
Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell us a bit about where the idea of the show comes from and the motivations behind it?
As soon as we started discussing about creating an exhibition solely with queer artists, we took a dive into the current political and social climate issues that affect the queer community worldwide. A disturbing wave, larger than expected, of information was brought to our attention: queer people being the subject to imprisonment and death penalty in a large number of countries, trans people being the target of killings, shop owners excluding queer costumers and doctors, in certain states in the U.S., refusing to treat queer people in the name of religious belief. Brunei recently implemented death by stoning to their already existing strict antigay laws.
On top of this, queer people are on an ever rising rate to commit suicide due to physical and psychological violence in the form of bullying, being disenfranchised from basic rights and being disowned by family. A growing number of queer teenagers are daily taking their own lives due to the pressure of hostile environments. And this is just the top of the iceberg. With all progress made in regards to equality, we had hoped to witness some signs of moving forward, but it somehow feels otherwise. We noticed that all the laws which grant the possibility of most of these actions have one thing in common. They all focus on the differences between normality and deviance, and are based on the same trite and yet dangerous rhetoric: us versus them.
Your drive is clearly political, and it couldn’t be otherwise, given the subject’s actuality and sensitiveness. How did you canalize your (I imagine) anger and frustration about the current situation into the show’s creative process?
With this in mind, we discussed what the focal point of the exhibition could look like without it becoming too much of a political agenda. We felt like the works, if placed in a church’s hall, would become a very clear political statement in itself and wanted this to stand alone in all its power, without too much additional noise. So we began stripping everything back: sexuality, race, political parties, sex and religion and looked on what was left – our organic body.
This was key to how we could really begin our creative process and focus on which artists could help us shaping the project in this direction. At this point, the biggest challenge was finding a church willing to embrace the project. This was a very important piece of the puzzle for the project to have a clout, as religious belief seemed to be one thing all this “anti” had in common.
The choice of focusing on the body was for you a means of finding a common denominator among the multitude of identities that are expressed within the queer world. This is also conveyed in the exhibition’s title: beyond gender, age, race and sex, beyond all definitions and categories, lies our organic nature. Would you like to elaborate a bit on your idea? What are your thoughts about the ways the body is perceived and communicated in our society?
To have the physical body as a focal aspect came as a natural consequence of our thinking process. We tried to strip everything away to find a core to work from, something everyone has a relationship to, individually and collectively. The body is an entity that is subject to endless opinions, and yet is the most basic thing we have.
Within the queer community there is a movement that grants the perception of one’s body and sexuality as being of fluid nature, beyond the rigorous binary boxes we all know and often have to relate to. We both find quite interesting that this approach has reached “out” part of the world in recent times, whereas in a number of non-Western societies, other genders have been acknowledged and even celebrated for centuries.
Your point is very interesting. We are used to consider our perspective as “the one,” and we forget that the very same issue is seen very differently in other cultures, both far and near. Did you have this multiplicity of visions in mind while choosing the artists to be included in the show?
It took us months of reviewing a large amount of artists we had an eye for, checking their work and getting everything boiled down to just a few. It was a tricky decision, as it was important for us that the narratives featured in the exhibition presented a somewhat broad spectrum of views and perceptions connected to its topic. We wanted to convey a literal observation of the body as “object”, as well as to give space to a poetic and metaphorical approach.
Birk Thomassen presents a very young, naive and poetic kind of narrative that throws us back to when life was almost careless and free. Florian Hetz dominates with its very tightly framed masculinity, reducing the “alpha male body” to its almost feminine details. Laurence Philomène provides a fluid and romantic idea of gender, sex and carnality, and Sophia Wallace calls for a feminist queer approach on the subject matter based on biological evidence.
“The body is an entity that is subject to endless opinions, and yet is the most basic thing we have.”
I would like to conclude by going back to the fact that the show takes place in a church. This aspect is obviously crucial on the political level – but also on the “purely” artistic one. Until relatively recent times, the Church was the main art commissioner and cathedrals are the repository of an inestimable artistic patrimony. How do you relate to this very important heritage?
Executing the exhibition in a church was surely essential for us, given the exhibition’s topic, the choice of artists and our overall aim with the project. When we first spoke about the idea we were, honestly, very uncertain of whether this could ever take place. So when Stefanskirken welcomed us and the project, we immediately grabbed the chance with great respect to the priests and their open-minded profile. It is indeed through mutual respect that all the details fell into place.
We did not want to intervene on the appearance of the church hall, and opted for some very subtle solutions on installing the artworks. Everything about the church hall has its history, including the art that is already present, and we wanted this to be part of the experience. For us, it has never been a question of taking over or crucifying the history with a modern queer touch – we merely wanted to be included.
We cannot change history, but we can shed light and question the direction of the future.
Under the Anti Lies the Body
Artists Florian Hetz, Birk Thomassen, Laurence Philomène, and Sophia Wallace
August 13–18, 2019 / Stefanskirken, Copenhagen
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