Art Review: DRAG, Hayward Gallery ‘A Glimpse into a Glorious and Political World’

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First of all, DRAG at the Hayward Gallery offers up a fascinating insight into identity, self-expression and body politics, bringing together a collection of work from artists, both alive and dead, both British and from overseas, who used drag and drag references in their work to consider and challenge gendered expectations and behaviour.

But second, I must warn you that this is only a dip into this fascinating subject. This free display consists of one room only and is, like I said, more of an insight than an examination – we are dipping toes into a vast water here. I say this not because I didn’t enjoy the show – I did, very much – but because the demand to visit this small exhibition was already evident from the queue of 200+ keen visitors, at the show’s opening, snaking its way around the Southbank, all just dying to get in for a glimpse.

Maybe with all this expectation, visitors may be disappointed. I say again, this display is small, but I would also say this is worth a visit, especially if you team it up with a visit to Shape Shifters, which opens in the main galleries in September.

There are familiar names in DRAG – there’s a couple of Robert Mapplethorpe photos, a phallic Renate Bertlmann doll and, almost inevitably, some images from Cindy Sherman – but it was work from less familiar names and emerging artists whose works I found myself most drawn to.

Victoria Sin’s evidently constructed image of a Mansfield-esque blonde beauty is the eye-catching promo image for this show and her video piece is one of its highlights. Here, the artist reclines in the instantly familiar position of sexual availability made famous by Manet’s Olympia.

But as our eyes examine the familiar tropes of artificial breasts, scanty diamante lingerie and facial features exaggerated and distorted by heavy make-up, the artist’s voice slowly deconstructs the idealistic image, emphasising the physical pain holding the position can bring, and how even a glimpse of the ‘real women’ underneath the façade would crack the thin veneer of perfection in the eyes of the beholder for a lifetime.

Considering drag is so commonly associated with male performers, it was good to see the curators include work from so many women as well. Footage from a Suzy Lake drag performance was also running on loop and her role-playing through drag, satirising gendered notions of femininity was an interesting take.

In truth though, a small show such as this can’t possibly bring out all the extraordinary work, political exploration and representation that drag artists and contemporary artists have tirelessly worked to create and deconstruct over the decades. And it’s also interesting to me how galleries are now giving their institutional seal of approval to an art form that has been maligned and appropriated for generations.

Hopefully this exhibition will encourage more to seek out and attend drag shows in person – start with Instagram; Victoria Sin has a great account at @sinforvictory for example. And, hopefully, the evident demand and enthusiasm for such a show will mean that there is an increased chance we could see a major exhibition on the theme. Until then, enjoy DRAG at the Hayward. It’s a great starting point.

HENI Project Space, Hayward Gallery, London to 14 October 20-18
Admission free

Image credits:
1. Victoria Sin, Cthulhu Through the Looking Glass, 2017. Film still. Courtesy: the artist
2. Samuel Fosso, Self-Portrait, 2008. Photograph. Private Jean Marc Patras, Paris.
3. Michel Journiac, 24 Heures dans la vie d’une femme / Phantasmes. La Maternite, 1974. Color photograph, text 60.8x53cm (framed). Courtesy Christophe Gaillard, Paris.

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