Cerebellum Performance Space Sydney 1 - 30 November 2002
The cerebellum is a small lateral portion of the brain which helps to maintain bodily equilibrium. But the exhibition Cerebellum promotes instability over balance. All four of the video performances selected by curator Gary Carsley use drag to expose the mutability of identity. Drag is dressing up; a performance which highlights the artificiality of gender and the negotiable nature of desire. In drag, identity becomes a deliberate construction. At its most subversive it undermines the stability of institutionalised heterosexuality, at its best it becomes a work of art.
Not surprisingly, Cerebellum features both drag queens and kings. What is surprising is that the cock-rock band Aerosmith provides the exhibition's unofficial theme song and their front man Steve Tyler's presence fills the gallery. Unlike David Bowie and other glam rockers who revelled in androgyny, Tyler manages to cross-dress without ever crossing a gender boundary. With his black mascara, long hair, trade-mark flowing scarves and luscious lips, Tyler is dressing up in order to stay the same, and his 'straight' version of drag is heterosexually sanctioned.
The irony and absurdity of this position cannot have been lost on Leigh Bowery who recorded a version of Aerosmith's 1975 hit Walk this Way, with his group Raw Sewage in 1992. This video presents three figures in fright wigs, black face and inexplicable tartan caftans; the massive figure of Bowery centre-stage as always. These crazed voodoo dolls jiggle and gyrate screeching Walk this Way in falsetto. Stripping, they reveal black arms and legs with bloated white torsos. These ambiguous creatures are both black and white. They are in drag, neither male nor female but missing crucial bits of both they adopt a far more subversive identity. When the singers bend over, masking tape is visible between their butt cheeks; visible cracks in the facade of gender. This is 'gender as performance' at its most radical, a refusal to choose between binary opposites. This video is a challenge to preconceptions about both gender and drag; try walking THIS way.
Ten years later, Sydney based collective The Kingpins attempt to rise to this challenge with their installation Versus. Their twice removed version of Walk this Way (a remake of the 1986 collaboration between Steve Tyler and black rappers Run DMC) is pitted against the Raw Sewage tape. Although drag may be seen as perverse by mainstream society, it can in fact play a very conservative role. In some forms of drag gender is performed within very narrow and rigidly proscribed boundaries. Femininity is reduced to lipstick, high heels and breasts, masculinity to facial hair, a bulge and a swagger.
These highly stylised representations of conventional gender serve to reinforce the power of the status quo. In Versus the Kingpins reinscribe these 'straight' gender identities. They perform as skinny white boy rappers and clichéd bikini clad bimbos, gratuitous females shaking their butt flesh. This may serve to distract the viewer from the fact that the macho gangsta rappers are actually women in drag. But this simple reversal is not in itself subversive. The Kingpins present a convincing imitation of any predictably sexist rock video, while Raw Sewage agitate for a confrontational identity of infinite possibilities.
The idea that identity is a performance and that gender is optional and negotiable is firmly rooted in 1990s queer theory. In the new 21st century the Human Genome Project attempts to plot all human characteristics and behaviours on the double helix; DNA is seen as destiny. In this climate of biological reductionism gender again becomes predetermined and inescapable. This shift in attitude is clear in Cerebellum, visible in the differences between the videos from the early 1990s and those made this year.
Teach, made by Charles Atlas in 1992, is an exercise in artifice. Leigh Bowery stars as an unlovely diva in a lumpy padded bra. Atlas gives instructions off camera. Bowery giggles inanely and lip-syncs Aretha Franklin through closed plastic lips safety-pinned to his face. The facade could not be made more obvious. As Bowery pointedly asks through judicious blinking of his expressive eyes, 'What's happening to your precious face?', he wilfully chooses and manufactures his own identity from an unlimited set of options.
After only a decade Monika Tichacek seems bound by biology. Her installation Lineage of the Divine highlights the performativity of identity, but women can only be women. Tichacek wears her gender as a visible construction. She is encased in an articulated exoskeleton of the female body; trapped in stasis she is a sleeping-dreaming beauty. Tichacek is watched over by a vision of hyper-femininity. This improbable creature is a woman in female drag. She wears false eye lashes, fake nails and stiletto heels, she minces, pouts and preens in a parody of femininity fit for any queen. Tichacek invokes a luscious opacity and lassitude worthy of Matthew Barney. Lineage of the Divine is intriguing, sexy and slick. But the crude videos of Leigh Bowery and his cronies have more power. Their strange physical manifestations perfectly articulate the radical potential of queer as something volatile, in flux and incapable of being naturalised.