A café in St Helier on the Isle of Jersey, sometime between 1940 and 1944, during the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Writer, photographer and actor, Claude Cahun and her lover and step-sister, the artist, Marcel Moore, both middle aged, retired from public life, enter a café, quietly and quickly, slipping passionate and imaginative notes they have written into German soldiers’ coat pockets or on tables. These notes, signed in German “der Soldat ohne Namen” (the soldier with no name), are seeking to foment rebellion.
A small act of resistance.
Paris, November 2019. The writer, philosopher, curator and trans‑activist Paul B. Preciado speaks in front of 3,500 psychoanalysts at the École de la Cause Freudienne’s annual conference. In the eyes of this profession Preciado is a mentally ill person suffering from gender dysphoria. Preciado argues “for a new epistemology capable of allowing for a multiplicity of living bodies, without reducing the body to its sole heterosexual reproductive capacity, and without legitimising hetero‑patriarchal and colonial violence.”
A small act of resistance.
Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide, 16 October 2020. Amos Gebhardt’s most recent large‑scale video installation opens as part of the Samstag’s Spring season. In the face of ecological dysfunction, in the face of a systematic adherence to cultural and social normativity, we see images of magical transcendence through self-determination as self-creation. We see survival, caring and nurturing across the animal and human worlds. We see that all this is possible through a sense of mutual belonging; a commitment to the good of the collective as opposed to the advancement of the individual.
A small act of resistance.
The radical ambition and intentionality of Amos Gebhardt’s film work places them in what ecophilosopher, activist, and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy has termed “The Great Turning,” coined to describe a new approach to how we might be in the world at this time of ecological and social crisis, arguably the most important and pressing route of enquiry right now. Gebhardt’s thoughtful and engaged investigation into the anthropocentrism that underpins many human societal systems—in which the animal and natural worlds are seen as something separate and hierarchically below ours—describes a rejection or refusal to acknowledge, either through fear, greed or lack of understanding, the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things.
This “human exceptionalism,” Gebhardt sees as a “kind of pathology” encoded into Judeo‑Christian scripture and tradition—Adam in the first two books of Genesis, before the creation of Eve, names the animals and is given dominion over them, “over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1: 28). Gebhardt has done this often through presenting the body in ways that have sought to highlight or invert the attributes that traditionally distinguish humans from animals.
One such inversion appears in an earlier video installation work, Lovers (2018), first presented at the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art: Divided Worlds, Gebhardt considers the horse, an animal that we have most literally corralled to serve our own needs. Modern equine reproduction is often an artificial insemination process but in contrast, Gebhardt has captured a ritualised courtship between the horses, “giving vivid dimensions to the physical language of the body as an archive of story, to suggest a dramatic arc in horse terms,” and one in which the presence of humans is an irrelevance.
Conversely, Evanescence (2018), also presented in the Adelaide Biennial, pictures a group of humans in the landscape, just as we might view animals, naked and in formation. Bodies are shown to arrive in the world, dancing at times in harmony and at times at dramatic discord with the primal rhythms and imperatives of the earth. Here, in this time of The Great Unravelling, our connection to the cycles of the earth is fragile, as Robert McFarlane explains it in Underland: A Deep Time Journey (2019), with “not only our toes but also our heels on the brink” of extinction.
Gebhardt continues the work of those who have sought to put forward alternate ways of being that resist the dominant culture and the lure of assimilation—according to classifications of race, sex, age, gender, occupation, and as many other dominant categories of exclusion. Their works are fundamentally and everywhere informed by their positionality as non‑binary, bringing a critical engagement to the ways that identity and agency are impacted by colonialism, patriarchy and other heteronormative power structures.
With a background in filmmaking, Gebhardt has learnt to distil the formal properties of the medium and hold on to that porous materiality of visual and sonic space, adapted from the cinematographic long take. If, as Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players,” then agency is here expanded to present many and multiple perspectives by conscious and unconscious actors, including nonhuman players.
Gebhardt equates this expanded point of view with a place of queerness, a queering of the process. Queerness is a disruptor against habitual ways of thinking. In a discussion of their work with fellow photographer Drew Pettifer, Gebhardt states “it’s looking at filmic techniques and asking, ‘how can I disrupt what is habitual here? How can I move this language in a way that creates more open‑ended possibilities?’” As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick most famously articulated in “What is queer?”, queer refers to “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning.”
Gebhardt brings together this overarching breadth of possibilities in Small acts of resistance, unfolding across three screens that together form a winged triptych like an altarpiece. Here, as an alternative theocracy, scenes of animal and human life unfold in a series of interconnecting, recurring and shifting moments of great beauty, teeming immensity and highly orchestrated group and solo portraits. Nature is the big disruptor, defining a state of entropy beyond our control. Here the sites of human occupation, roads and infrastructure on Christmas Island are overrun by the relentless march of red crabs. An animal carcass rots and is returned to earth. A railway cutting is subsumed back into the landscape as a waterfall descends, an Ozymandian reminder of anthropocentric hubris, that what we have created will soon enough be gone.
The camera moves along the ground, keeping pace with this small segment of the estimated 40–50 million Christmas Island red crabs as they make their annual pilgrimage from their burrows on the forest floor to the sea to spawn. This biological imperative, prompting the male crabs to set off at the first rainfall of the wet season, joined by the females along the way, is a wonder to behold, as is their innate wisdom to rush or tarry so as to arrive at their destination before dawn on a receding high-tide during the last quarter of the moon, or delaying their migration if the rain comes too late to get there in time. Knowledge I am reminded that humans have held also, an awareness of a deep and propitious connection to the rhythms and cycles of the earth.
The clickety-clack of the sideways-striding crustaceans overrunning a tropical island is soon replaced by the more familiar screech of colonies and clouds, of bats that enact a regular evening migration in Australia’s south-east. These flying foxes that are filmed occupying the sweeping branches of eucalypts along the Yarra in the heart of Melbourne defy the prejudice of disease and vampirism as portraits of shy mammals wrapped up with their young in tight and tender embrace.
With increasing pressure on threatened species, silence descends as we are made aware of the absence of life in the aftermath of bushfire. Here a wildlife carer tenderly scoops up a joey, her home a haven for injured native animals. We see kangaroos on the front lawns of suburban streets, where they stand still and sentinel-like to escape detection. As this all-seeing eye, we move through built environments up into the moonlit sky and the infinite space of a sublime visual intensity and splendour beyond. As I observed the audience on opening night in the crowded gallery of the Samstag Museum it was palpable how the room slowly quietened as the mesmerising power of the work took hold.
The body, freed from social constraints and gravity-bound limits, as an elevated, somatic experience, is central to this work. Revisiting another earlier work, There Are No Others (2016), in which Gebhardt presents gender non‑conforming bodies soaring through the sky to highlight the “possibilities of gender … in a state of flux, shifting and fluid” we find members of the House of Slé, the artist collective based in Western Sydney. Moving in concert with water and cosmos, they defy gravity and conventional ideas of the right way up.
In another scene of transformation, and elevation, we see Ngiyampaa, Yuin, Bandjalang and Gumbangirr violinist Eric Avery singing in Ngiyampaa, his father’s language, as he walks on Country, a vast tract of land marked by colonial dispossession where the Ngiyampaa, Mutti Mutti and Barkindji nations meet. Having sung his identity into being, Avery is shown floating above the earth in an image that recalls for me the levitation of the maidservant, Emilia, in Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema (Theorem), a miraculous event reflecting Pasolini’s belief that the bourgeois had lost their connection and ability to act according to their true natures, and that monotheistic religions in the modern world had set up the “idea of the divine as radically different from nature, as profoundly unnatural.”’
Here, spirituality and connection to the divine through the body, is heralded across so many scenes and instances of individual and collective empowerment. In another example, Raina Peterson, second generation Fijian Indian, trained in classical Indian dance, stands their ground on a lawn in the suburban sprawl of Melbourne; dances their story into being, a story of hybrid cultural histories evoked in objects from childhood that appear and fade into one another in the verso.
These acts of courage, in presenting themselves to the gaze of others, also challenges, as Gebhardt has said, the canon of nude portraiture in Western art history. Trusting in Gebhardt’s intentions to honour them in the work, viewers are presented with identities and bodies that have been largely written out of dominant culture—the aging body, the overweight body, the trans body, the coloured body.
“Censor the body,” as Hélѐne Cixous wrote in her 1975 essay “The laugh of the Medusa,” “and you censor the breath and speech at the same time.” Something that those who forge their own personal relationship to the divine, negotiating their way around institutional teachings, have always understood: the mystic Teresa of Ávila writhing in orgasmic pleasure, pierced by the arrow of god’s love, as in Bernini’s rapturous sculpture in the Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome.
It is important to Gebhardt that the queer family that makes up the group portrait at the heart of Small acts of resistance, is a real family—an extended interracial family of eleven members, formed through a chosen commitment, and one held together through complex familial relations. “With their stories at the heart” Gebhardt’s repositions the concept of “mothering” by radically transforming heteronormative gender-assigned roles: This baby, parented by two fathers, one being a trans birthing father, is so cherished at the centre of love that the family quite literally glows, enveloped in a warm halo.
As elsewhere, the image is created through the combined identities, histories and passions of its protagonists. Gebhardt has built the tableau around this contemporary family, working with each member to reflect their individual stories and inter-relationships. Resisting the heteronormative, cisgendered way of being in the world is a declarative act of powerful intention, an “empathy generator that says I was there in that room … and this is my shame and this is my life and this is my humor and I will put it into my protagonist and I will … side with her.” For this staged self-representation, Gebhardt incorporates particular ways of using the camera, getting up close, allowing for ambiguity and multiple meanings. The scene is saturated with references to the Christian queer canon of Pierre et Gilles, Almodóvar and others. The work speaks movingly of the power of community and kinship, and is animated through these real-life players, standing their ground, intentionally celebratory; a new queer pantheon of deities in this extended moment of imaginative transformation.
We find the family in a lush, densely foliated setting, blending the Garden of Eden—before the expulsion, before the shame and guilt and the knowledge of Evil—with a Nativity Scene evoking another time when a baby, the Saviour of the world, came into being through no act of heterosexual coupling. This is a scene of possibility and promise, upon the return of God to earth to repair the damage done by that first fall from grace. The possibility of a new time, beyond the binary, here redeemed and brought together through the birth of a child. The family in Small acts of resistance is held together by a “matrix of love,” Gebhardt says when interviewed and then laughs at their extravagance. And yet I can feel the truth of it. One of the members of the family is Angela, auntie to the baby, tarot reader and palmist. Angela pulls for us the Eight of Wands: a card signalling commitment to relationships, of creativity and energy, a rallying cry to action.
25 July 1944, St Brelades Bay, Isle of Jersey, La Rocquaise, the house of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: They are not surprised when the Gestapo come to arrest and imprison them, only that it hadn’t happened earlier. They narrowly escape deportation to a concentration camp or execution. Cahun dies in 1954 on the island and Moore ensures the following description is on their tombstone: “And I saw new Heavens and a new Earth.”
Paris, November 2019: Paul Preciado’s speech causes uproar amongst the psychoanalyst audience. He is heckled to the point that he is unable to finish speaking and is booed off the stage.
Resistance is always necessary, resistance against what Cahun termed sanctimonious conformism and complacency. Gebhardt’s Small acts of resistance opens us up to the possibility of reimagining our relationship to the world and each other in ways that engage us emotionally and through the senses. At more than thirty minutes in length, it is a work that slows us down, takes us back into a place of reflection. In this overwhelming time of crisis, a time when those who embrace dominant societal norms are using any means at their disposal to hold on to power, the question of how to achieve agency and change is a difficult, seemingly unsolvable one. Like others before them, like Cahun and Preciado, Gebhardt is committed to the power of persuasion as their weapon of choice, and of putting forward alternate realities. It is a worldview that rejects individual advancement and fear of the other, one that instead privileges an awareness of interconnectedness and the joy or communal good that can come from healing and nurturing––a call for a radical reimagining of our world.
All these small acts of resistance accumulate, offering us a place of hope.
- ^ Claire Follain, “Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe – Résistantes,” Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, New York: Aperture Foundation in association with Jersey Heritage Trust, 2006, p. 85.
- ^ undefined
- ^ Drew Pettifer, “Amos Gebhardt”, Artist Profile, issue 52, p. 58.
- ^ Amos Gebhardt, Night Horse, Sydney Contemporary 12–15 September 2019, Tolarno Galleries room sheet.
- ^ Pettifer, p. 56.
- ^ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “What is queer?”, Tendencies, Duke University Press, 1993, p. 8.
- ^ “Red crab migration,” Christmas Island National Park
- ^ Marc de Kesel, “A sleepless dream: religion and religious critique in Pasolini’s Teorema,” ThéoRѐmes: Pasolini: Religion Rebelle, 10, 2017.
- ^ Amos Gebhardt speaking at the ACMI Conversation, Beyond the Binary, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, 21 November 2017.
- ^ Hélѐne Cixous, ‘The laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, vol. 1, no. 4, Summer 1976, p. 877.
- ^ “Pull focus with Amos Gebhardt,” interview with Joanna Kitto, Art Collector.
- ^ Jill Soloway, “The Female Gaze, masterclass at Toronto Film Festival, 2016.
- ^ Interview, Joanna Kitto.
Anne O’Hehir is Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia.
Amos Gebhardt is featured in a solo exhibition: Spooky action (at a distance) at The Substation, Melbourne, as part of PHOTO2021, 11 February to 6 March 2021.