Art Review: Kiss My Genders, Hayward Gallery ‘A Revelatory and Exhilarating Exhibition’

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Previously, on the rare occasions where we have had group shows on sexuality, it’s been an exhibition of heritage names such as Mapplethorpe, Hockney, Bacon and a bit of the Bloomsbury set thrown in. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it’s interesting where curators get stuck. Like a scratch on vinyl.

The Hayward has challenged that staid thinking and dragged us into the 21st century with this revelatory and exhilarating show that brings together over 100 artworks by 35 contemporary artists from all over the world to celebrate and examine gender identity and gender fluidity.

The displays start with a familiar face – Victoria Sin’s superbly executed video on the construction of beauty as an artifice and how the male gaze is shaped to respond to this remains dynamite. A couple of months ago, the video was on a small screen in the neighbouring HENI space; here, it is projected six feet high onto billowing white sheets.

Photography is a popular medium in this show and much of it is excellent. Ajamu embraces the ‘pleasure is political’ in his images that embrace black queer agency (my favourite being Heels, where an octopus is wrapping itself tightly around a foot); Pierre Molinier is always welcome with his pioneering erotic photomontages that, though only ever created in the 60s and 70s as private work, have gone on to influence many who came after.

I also had a lot of love for Juliana Huxtable’s images where she styles herself as a series of mythical beings. That might not seem to land at first but it quickly becomes clear that this is a woman shaping herself away from documentary style takes, which of course are far more commonplace. As she says, “I tink its really important as a black trans woman I have the right not to be documentary, t not have to be literal.”

There’s also the welcome opportunity to see Peter Hujar’s iconic photograph of transgender icon Candy Darling on her deathbed. I actually can’t remember the last time I saw this beautiful photograph in a gallery – and it fits in well here.

That’s a tiny photo and, in contrast, the biggest piece on display is, unquestionably, the appropriately titled The Big One by Nayland Blake. This whopping 15-foot rabbit outfit covers the floor in the large gallery upstairs – an outfit impossible for anyone to wear. It’s amusing and it’s curious – Nayand frequently uses and references rabbits in their work both to reference stereotypes of homosexual promiscuity and that of his own mixed-race heritage i.e. Br’er Rabbit.

There’s an undeniable playfulness to Kiss My Genders – it’s celebratory, teasing in its provocativeness and unapologetic. Indeed, as artist Martine Gutierrez says, “We’re living in an era where my existence is political whether I want it to be or not. It’s hard and emotionally taxing – humour is my saviour.” And as a transgender mixed-race woman, her Indigenous Women series sees Martine play with male gaze, her identity and stereotypes wonderfully.

But the images also make very sharp political points – and do so with aplomb. And this is true across the board in the exhibition.

Hunter Reynolds’s black ballgown slowly rotates on its platform in the centre of one of the galleries. Its form is elegant, its couture is inescapable – the bodice, the nipped in waist, the flared skirt – yet the dress is covered with the names of 25,000 individuals who are known to have died of AIDS-related illnesses. Hunter first presented this dress in 1993 at the ICA in Boston so this piece is inextricably linked to the AIDS epidemic in the States in the 1980s.

Closer to home, Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’s film of two locations in Blackpool’s queer scene – a drag cabaret club and a men-only sex bar – is probably my favourite artwork here. It juxtaposes two very different communities yet both are part of a scene that is under threat.

Austerity has cut deep. Public spaces are shrinking. But, more than this, LGBTQ spaces are closing at a far greater rate. There is that deeply ingrained sense of that prejudice in this film, that the wider public judge these spaces in different ways but always adversely. The politics of gentrification and ongoing discrimination are obvious and a sobering reminder that just being openly LGBTQ remains a political act.

Hayward Gallery, London, to 8 September 2019.

Admission £14 (concessions available)

All installation images by me.

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