Queer uses of colour: A tinted hermeneutics

Callum McGrath, POOFTA, 2018, installation view, Metro Arts, Brisbane. Photo: Sam Cranstoun
Callum McGrath, POOFTA, 2018, installation view, Metro Arts, Brisbane. Photo: Sam Cranstoun

In her keynote lecture for the 2018 AAANZ conference, Aesthetics, Politics and Histories: The Social Context of Art, the prominent art historian and critical feminist scholar Griselda Pollock posed the following question with regards to a cultural hermeneutics: how is the study of a culture a way to understand its “double space”, considering “what it is to belong, who we are, and at the same time how meanings are being formed for us and … lived by us”?[1] 

Pollock’s concerns, while specific to a field of interpretation that pertains to modernity’s relationship to the Holocaust, exists as part of her enduring practice of extending cultural and visual analysis through the centering of minority subjects and positions. Her questioning of how a cultural hermeneutics might be embodied, as opposed to externally materialised, is pivotal in considering how minoritarian cultures – in this case LGBTQIA+ cultures – navigate and articulate identities in relationship to majoritarian cultures. Specifically, it is the distinction that Pollock makes between cultural meaning that is being formed for as opposed to lived by, that makes this provocation so essential for thinking through queer uses of colour.

Historically and across cultures, colour has been taken up and reclaimed as a symbolically latent form of cultural signification for LGBTQIA+ people. If, as for Sara Ahmed,[2] queer use is about survival, then queer subjects can be seen to have been busy cultivating a cultural hermeneutics that is contingent on the disuse and reuse of the very materials that dominant cultures have been attempting to curtail our existence with. The phobic tendencies of colour throughout the long history of the West that David Batchelor argues for in his book Chromophobia, can be read as a corroboration of the ways that high-keyed colours have come to be synonymous with queer subjectivity.

As Batchelor writes: “the prejudice of colour is so all-embracing and generalized that, at one time or another, it has enrolled just about every other prejudice in its service … colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological.”[3] Queer subjects can be seen to have navigated relationships to colour that have had to flourish in the dark corners of history – in the marginal spaces of interior, closeted places away from the natural light of exterior, public life. In other words, queer existence has been illuminated out of necessity by the artificial and incandescent hues of pinks and purples that exist beyond the spectrum of naturally occurring colour.

Appreciating that divergent uses of colour have evolved to create a distinct contemporary queer hermeneutics requires first the absolving of colour from its historic clutches of occupation. Perhaps the most notorious example of high colour being used for dehumanising classification is in the case of the Nazi regime’s use of the Rosa Winkel (pink triangle) to identify and subjugate homosexual and bisexual men, transgender women and sexual offenders during the second world war.[4] The downward-pointing and equilateral triangular badge that was worn on the chests of these prisoners was inverted in the 1970s and controversially subsumed into a contemporary cannon of queer struggle that sought to actively abolish the likelihood of history repeating itself. During the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s – by the time the SILENCE = DEATH campaign and the organisation ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) became synonymous with the triangle’s use in rebranded hot pink[5] – the vertically-rising triangle had become a symbol of gay liberation and pride and was associated with progressive political movements that strove for the abolition of marriage, patriarchy and capitalism.[6]

Carlos Motta, La forma de la libertad (Shape of Freedom), 2013, mural on the façade of Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros (SAPS), Mexico City. vinyl sticker, banner, and newsprint publication. Photo: Carlos Motta. Courtesy Mor Charpentier Galerie, Paris and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York
Carlos Motta, La forma de la libertad (Shape of Freedom), 2013, mural on the façade of Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros (SAPS), Mexico City, vinyl sticker, banner, and newsprint publication. Photo: Carlos Motta. Courtesy Mor Charpentier Galerie, Paris and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York

Contemporary exemplars of the pink triangle’s genealogical coup show up in the highly-charged use inheritance of Brisbane-based artist Callum McGrath’s 2018 exhibition POOFTA, as well as in Carlos Motta’s 2013 work La forma de la libertad (The Shape of Freedom): an historic project charting political developments of sexual activism from a local Mexican context. In both instances, these works depict the pink triangle in ways that are cognisant of their historic use values.

In Motta’s work the upward-facing triangle has been rendered as a large-scale and exterior architectural mural, situated as an emancipatory gesturing to the progressivist politics that accompanied its rebranding in the 1980s – before a time when the rainbow flag was perceived by many to have homo-normalised such inclusive activist agendas. McGrath’s triangle on the other hand is a much smaller scale etched mirror that has been spot-lit on a stand-alone wall inside a neon-pink-saturated gallery space at Brisbane’s Metro Arts. It is shown pointing downwards in sombre reference to the realities of gay hate crimes that the original Rosa Winkel instrumentalised.

McGrath’s triangle is etched to commemorate the targeted death by drowning of Dr George Duncan in the River Torrens in South Australia in 1972, an event which led to unprecedented law reform to decriminalise consensual homosexual relations in Australia in 1975. Where other works such as River Torrens give further weight to this history, the exhibition as a whole opened up to intergenerational experiences and relationships to queer subjectivity to include a suite of small pink-tinted photographs of the artist’s father as a young football player in 1972.

Callum McGrath, POOFTA, 2018, exhibition documentation, Metro Arts, Brisbane. Photo: Sam Cranstoun
Callum McGrath, POOFTA, 2018, installation view, Metro Arts, Brisbane. Photo: Sam Cranstoun

Where this exhibition was seemingly compromised by its overt didactic qualities, it is also redeemed by these nuances of intertextuality. The unifying tendency of McGrath’s pinkwashing is, in this sense, successful in bringing a series of disparate histories and cultural artefacts together to enact a very specific aesthetic and rhetorical strategy. What this exhibition did is to communicate – on relatively more straightforward, earnest and sobering terms – something of the late artist, activist and designer David McDiarmid’s propensity for disidentification, which the late queer theorist José Estaban Muñoz also argued for as “a hermeneutic, a process of production, and a mode of performance.”[7]

McDiarmid’s Rainbow Aphorisms series from 1994 are arguably the artist’s most iconic and instantly recognisable series of works. As one of three series of aphorisms he produced in the years before his death in 1995 – the other two being the Ren and Stimpy Aphorisms series and the Gothic Aphorisms aka Leather Aphorisms series – these works carry a similar and often overlapping repertoire of verbal messages across intentionally divergent aesthetic branding.

Where McDiarmid has created a strategy of multiplicity across these works, the Rainbow Aphorisms series displays a serial logic that at once attaches to a clearly-identifiable trajectory of queer use of colour – evident through the use of rainbow gradient backgrounds – that is not limited by any one style of enunciation. As Brad Haylock remarks, the multiplicity of these works and the degree to which they call for high participation is “so high … as to make a final discernment of meaning impossible.

This is important because it maintains the mutability and thus some of the irrecuperability of McDiarmid’s activism.”[8] What Haylock deduces from this mobilising fact is that McDiarmid’s use of otherwise identifiable cultural materials – such as the earnest reference that the rainbow makes to the politics of gay culture of the 1990s – allows the work to exist beyond an easily transferable process of stylisation and therefore commodification.

David McDiarmid, I want a future that lives up to my past, 1994, from the Rainbow Aphorisms series, computer‐generated colour laserprint. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased 1994. Reproduced with permission of the David McDiarmid estate. © David McDiarmid/Copyright Agency, 2019; David McDiarmid, I want a future that lives up to my past, 1994, from the Ren and Stimpy series, photocopy and colour photocopy on synthetic polymer film on colour reflective paper. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Gift from the Estate of David McDiarmid,1998. Reproduced with permission of the David McDiarmid estate © David McDiarmid/Copyright Agency, 2019
David McDiarmid, I want a future that lives up to my past, 1994, from the Rainbow Aphorisms series, computer‐generated colour laserprint. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased 1994. Reproduced with permission of the David McDiarmid estate. © David McDiarmid/Copyright Agency, 2019; David McDiarmid, I want a future that lives up to my past, 1994, from the Ren and Stimpy series, photocopy and colour photocopy on synthetic polymer film on colour reflective paper. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Gift from the Estate of David McDiarmid,1998. Reproduced with permission of the David McDiarmid estate © David McDiarmid/Copyright Agency, 2019

For Muñoz, disidentification enables ways of relating to and incorporating cultural materials – in this case through the use of the same message in concert with vastly different aesthetic treatments – that is neither about merely identifying with or against a given culture. Rather it is about “recycling and rethinking encoded meaning”[9] through a multiplicity of inflection and conclusion (if any is possible). Disidentification is a theoretical framing and an embodied mode of production that is against a binary approach to disuse and reuse; in this sense it is a hermeneutics founded on processes of transformation that open up to audience participation to both receive and elide cultural referents as harbingers of essential meaning.

While Frances Barrett’s 2016 video work Touching has been described as a work that embodies a state of institutional fluidity and transition,[10] it can also be read within a lineage of queer use of colour. This video work documents a performance in which Barrett entered the National Gallery of Australia during the installation of Mike Parr’s major survey exhibition Foreign Looking. In it she locates and assumes the pink knitted glove that was worn by Parr after his iconic 1977 performance Cathartic Action; Social Gestus No 5 in which the artist violently and abruptly cut off a prosthetically-worn arm.

In recalling the way that the glove was originally used as a healing, reconciliatory gesture in the aftermath of this violent and traumatic performative act,[11] Barrett acquires the glove and proceeds to touch the contents of Parr’s exhibition. This work is communicated as a careful act of dissent where Barrett intentionally transgresses standard museum protocol in the touching of artworks. But it can also be seen to belong to a cannon of queer gesticulation that brings forth histories of care and exchange between those foreign bodies that Batchelor’s history of colour accounts for. The pink glove becomes a congealing apparatus that is able, through a multitude of associations, to query the ways that marginal bodies and institutional aggregates might interact.

Despite the given affect that repeated and consistent citations of colour produce transculturally – what Sara Ahmed’s concept of use inheritance communicates as “the lessening of the effort required to survive within an environment” – queer use of colour should always be considered with the local in mind, as a meditation on “use as biography, a way of telling a story of things”.[12] Ahmed’s self-professed methodology of “following words around”[13] as a form of research, can account for how queer artistic practices are often seen to follow colour around as a central mode of articulacy. The use of colour within LGBTQIA+ spaces and practices can be traced largely as an economy of survivalist aesthetics through often libidinal force; colours may adhere to one’s practice with reverberations across specific histories and cultural practices, but they are also contingent on quite subjective and intersectional approaches to disuse and reuse.

Frances Barrett, Touching, 2016, single channel HD video, live performance in Mike Parr: Foreign Looking, 2016 National Gallery of Australia, 9 August 2016. Video and edit: Kate Blackmore. Sound: Andrew McLellan. With thanks to Mike Parr and the National Gallery of Australia
Frances Barrett, Touching, 2016, single channel HD video, live performance in Mike Parr: Foreign Looking, 2016 National Gallery of Australia, 9 August 2016. Video and edit: Kate Blackmore. Sound: Andrew McLellan. With thanks to Mike Parr and the National Gallery of Australia. Installation view, Queer Economies at Bus Projects, 2019. Photo: Christo Crocker 

For emerging queer Ngarigo elder Peter Waples-Crowe, biography and a need to celebrate at the cultural intersections of his Indigenous and queer worlds have been the motivations behind his ambitious work Ngarigo Queen – Cloak of queer visibility.[14] Comprised of fifty possum skins imported from New Zealand Aotearoa and hand-stitched under the guidance of cloak-making expert Maree Clarke and a small dedicated team, Waples-Crowe’s cloak employs the tools of his Indigenous ancestry to literally envelop his queer identity.[15] With the exterior of the cloak made entirely of soft possum fur, the garment’s interior reveals an intricate sequencing of traditional Indigenous designs from his Ngarigo country in south-east Australia, rendered in a softened rainbow spectrum produced of leather dyes and hot torch etchings. While Waples-Crowe incorporates brown and black stripes into the rainbow when used in his work in Indigenous health care – a rebranding that has come out of Philadelphia to acknowledge the need for queer people of colour to be represented within the spectrum – he has intentionally sought to identify the cloak with Gilbert Baker’s since-evolved rainbow flag, as a symbol of spiritual unification for LGBTQIA+ people.

While there are numerous reasons as to why the distilled rainbow is problematic in its claim to unite and represent such a varied spectrum of individuals and communities, Waples-Crowe’s choice to use this sequencing within the context of this work is clear: he wanted the cloak to speak directly and authentically to a spiritual genealogy that finds its roots in the ancient world of his ancestors and which manifests in the environments of his contemporary queer experience. While this contemporary experience is still cauterised by the realities of colonisation and the heterosexual gaze – a burden that Waples-Crowe has symbolised through the formation of a crucifix using varying coloured pelts on the cloak’s back – the rainbow colours of the cloak’s interior sustain what he sees to be the work’s primary function as a “beacon of strength” and a “site of resistance.”[16] By bringing his two worlds together through this work’s symbolic currency, Waples-Crowe is working to insert queerness back into culture.

Peter Waples-Crowe, Ngarigo Queen – Cloak of Queer Visibility, 2018 possum pelts, waxed linen thread, leather dyes, pokerwork. Installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Cloak‐making adviser: Maree Clarke. Courtesy the artist and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Andrew Curtis. © Peter Waples‐Crowe/Copyright Agency, 2019
Peter Waples-Crowe, Ngarigo Queen – Cloak of Queer Visibility, 2018 possum pelts, waxed linen thread, leather dyes, pokerwork. Installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Cloak‐making adviser: Maree Clarke. Courtesy the artist and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Andrew Curtis. © Peter Waples‐Crowe/Copyright Agency, 2019

Such examples of the way that colour is approached within queer artistic practice can be seen to activate an “alternate hermeneutics” identifiable when a “particular thematics or way[s] of seeing and performing queerly cluster together, creating trajectories of explicit or implicit intertextual reference.”[17] While the efficacy of the pink triangle and the rainbow as modes of communication are irrefutable—not only where they gather around specific fields of interpretation, but in the ways they have accompanied dramatically shifting political and rhetorical practices of LGBTQIA+ solidarity globally – their manifest use is still always contingent on forms of localisation to produce effective gradations of meaning and value.

The acute inability of colour to make universalising or even locally transferable claims at truth is something that Alexandra Parsons describes in her essay on the use of blue in the practices of Derek Jarman and Maggie Nelson as “colour provid[ing] a distilled demonstration of our inability to share an exact understanding of the world with one another.”[18] But as Judith Butler reminds us in relation to language, of which colour is a key function, “to recycle or reuse [a word] is to reorientate one’s relation to a scene that holds its place, as memory, as container, however leaky.”[19]

 In this same vein, queer uses of colour can be thought about in a similar sense to how Ahmed traces a linguistics of queer reclamation: “That some of us can live our lives by assuming that word ‘queer,’ by even saying ‘yes’ to that word shows how a past use is not exhaustive of a word or a thing however exhausted a word or thing.”[20] Where Ahmed gets to the crux of what an often troubled disidentification with the word ‘queer’ looks like, colour too provides a powerful site for declarative repossession, or in the least to what Parson’s describes as colour becoming “a way to bypass image, or language, to prompt direct communion between artist and audience.”[21]

Footnotes

  1. ^ Griselda Pollock: The State of Art History, with Denmark in Mind, 2018, video presentation, AAANZ Conference: Aesthetics, Politics and Histories, December 2018, Echo360.
  2. ^ Sara Ahmed, Queer Use, feministkilljoys, 8 November 2018: https://feministkilljoys.com/2018/11/08/queer-use.
  3. ^ David Batchelor, Chromophobia, Reaktion Books, London, 2000.
  4. ^ Pink Triangle, Wikipedia Commons, retrieved 17 December 2018: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_triangle.
  5. ^ Brian Howard, SILENCE=DEATH, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), 2005: http://www.actupny.org/reports/silencedeath.html.
  6. ^ Carlos Motta, Shape of Freedom, 2013: https://carlosmotta.com/project/shape-of-freedom.
  7. ^ José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, University of Minnesota Press, USA, 1999.
  8. ^ Brad Haylock, “Cool Politics: Typographic Pluralism and Identity Politics in the Work of David McDiarmid,” in Sally Gray & Mark Gomes (eds), David McDiarmid: When This You See Remember Me, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2014, pp. 148–50.
  9. ^ Muñoz, ibid.
  10. ^ Frances Barrett, Touching, 2016: http://francesbarrett.com/projects/touching.
  11. ^ Mike Parr, Cathartic Action: Social Gestus No. 5, Scanlines: Media Art in Australia Since the 1960s: http://scanlines.net/object/cathartic-action-social-gestus-no-5.
  12. ^ Ahmed, queer-use
  13. ^ Sara Ahmed, The Uses of Use: https://www.saranahmed.com/the-uses-of-use.
  14. ^ Peter Waples-Crowe, telephone conversation with the author, 7 January 2019.
  15. ^ Andrew Stephens, “What sustains us?’ ACCA’s ambitious Indigenous exhibition finds joy amid sorrow”, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 2018
  16. ^ Stephens, ibid
  17. ^ Disidentifying Dave’s Gym, Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture, http://enculturation.net/files/QueerRhetoric/queerarchive/disid2.htm.
  18. ^ Alexandra Parsons, “A Meditation on Colour and the Body in Derek Jarman’s 
  19. ^ Judith Butler, 1997, Excitable Speech: On the Politics of the Performative, Routledge, London.
  20. ^ 20 Ahmed, queer-use.
  21. ^ Parsons, ibid. 

Abbra Kotlarczyk is an independent visual artist, writer, editor and curator based in Naarm, Melbourne. She recently collaborated with Madé Spencer-Castle to present Queer Economies—a multi-site curatorial project presented by Midsumma Festival in association with Bus Projects, Abbotsford Convent Foundation and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, with support from Perimeter Editions and the David McDiarmid Estate.

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