Beyond the Binary
Curator, Moving Image
Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of a person’s identity, gender deeply influences every part of one’s life. In a society where this crucial aspect of self has been so narrowly defined and rigidly enforced, individuals who sit outside its norms face innumerable challenges. Contemporary culture has come to view gender as a binary concept with two rigidly fixed options: male or female, both grounded in a person’s physical anatomy. But even if gender is to be restricted to basic biology, a binary concept still fails to capture the rich variation that exists.
M+ Screenings: Genderfluid offers a glimpse into the diverse ways that contemporary moving-image artists and filmmakers have expressed their own gender-fluid identities, worked with gender-variant subjects, or both. Encompassing eleven works from nine different countries, these films and videos flaunt, overturn, reinscribe, and revolt against traditional binary thinking. Each moving-image work interweaves biology, expression, and identity to present gender in dynamic new ways.
Beginning the programme with a simple but profound expression of humanness is Amy Amos Gebhardt’s There Are No Others, a series of twelve moving-image nude portraits that extol the innate beauty and transcendence of the human form right across the gender spectrum. This slow-motion video, shot at one thousand frames per second, decelerates a typical viewing experience to encourage empathetic, non-gendered identification. As the work’s title reminds us, there are no ‘others’, we are one humankind.
This notion of universal human connectedness is taken to extremes in the life and art of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, whose ‘pandrogyne’ project is an attempt to fuse two individual male and female identities to create an indivisible third identity. Hazel Hill McCarthy III’s vivid documentary Bight of the Twin captures P-Orridge’s initiation into the twin fetish—an ancient voodoo tradition that contains striking parallels to h/er own controversial art practice.
The limits of biology are likewise tested in Lu Yang’s Uterus Man, albeit in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi animation. Yang’s hyperactive, gender-bending superhero is a contradictory configuration of male and female anatomy, which is also the source of his power. Produced collaboratively using a semi open-source format, the Uterus Man project is constantly changing and evolving, and is in this way a reflexive enactment of gender-fluidity itself.
A collaborative spirit also seeps through Club Ate’s Ex Nilalang, which traverses Filipino folklore, literature, art, film and popular culture to imagine a distinctively queer Asian-Pacific diaspora. ‘Nilalang’ is a Tagalog word with the dual meaning of ‘creature’ and ‘create’, and Ex Nilalang’s disparate family of mythical creatures—cross-fertilised by the intersecting forces of gender, race, class, sexuality and spirituality—rise from the ashes of colonial oppression to forge new hybrid and fluid subjectivities.
Intersectional politics and cultural myths are also interrogated in the work of Ming Wong who uses drag to expose the gender, class and racial stereotypes that quietly permeate world cinema. In Angst Essen/Eat Fear, Wong’s re-enactment calls attention to the eroticization of racial difference that lies at the heart of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s famous 1974 film. By playing all of the male and female roles, Wong subverts the original film’s spectral modes of gendered identification and lays bare the sexual and racial power relations embedded within.
Duilian, the title of Wu Tsang’s film, refers to both Chinese couplet poetry and wushu sword fighting. Both cultural forms are about duelling, which is also a fitting metaphor for the non-binary characterisations of Qui Jin and Wu Zhiying. In fact, fluidity is an ever-present trope in Duilian, where the water of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour symbolises the malleable nature of history, language and storytelling across cultures and time.
The most widely recognised film in Genderfluid is Sally Potter’s Orlando, Tilda Swinton’s breakout film that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Another fictional biography of a time-hopping, gender-fluid poet, Orlando uses cinematic techniques such as direct address to playfully forge cross-generational queer dialogues with contemporary viewers, in a Western, white, bourgeois context.
Deviating from the celebratory narratives of resistance and transformation offered elsewhere in the programme, Cassils’s Inextinguishable Fire gestures towards the trauma and violence that transgendered bodies suffer, and the societal indifference this typically invokes. A veiled reminder that performing one’s gender ‘improperly’ can have devastating personal and social consequences, Cassils’s work also considers the production, dissemination, and consumption of violent images in media culture.
Alterity and persecution are themes also explored in Barbara Hammer’s double biography of Surrealist outliers Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. While gender-fluidity is experiencing a watershed moment in contemporary visual culture, there are important but overlooked historical precedents of gender disavowal, gender policing and punishment, which Lover Other broaches.
Just as Hammer’s film represents the interiority of her gender-fluid subjects, Virginia de Medeiros’s Sérgio e Simone #2 exposes the distress and inner suffering that commonly plagues queer identities in homophobic cultures. Documenting the double life of a transvestite prostitute and evangelical preacher, Medeiros’s work presents a splintered perspective on contemporary spirituality, rising conservatism, and gender transgression in Brazil.
The final film in the Genderfluid programme, Love Man, Love Woman, also considers the role of religion in negotiating gender, albeit from a more empathetic and affirmative standpoint. Nguyen Trinh Thi’s effervescent documentary reveals the sense of freedom and protection that the indigenous Dao Mau religion offers its gay and gender-diverse followers in Vietnam. Like all of the works in the programme, Love Man, Love Woman celebrates the resourcefulness, courage, integrity and imagination that characterises queer communities the world over.