“People stared at the makeup on his face
Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace
The boy in the bright blue jeans jumped up on the stage
Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and disgrace”
–David Bowie “Lady Stardust”
In his song “Lady Stardust” from his seminal album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie vividly describes an androgynous gender-bending singer, half-entertaining and half-terrifying a crowd with his decadent aesthetic and songs. Potentially written in honor of T. Rex’s frontman Marc Bolan, “Lady Stardust” also references Bowie’s own playful, visionary and even, utopian transgressions of traditional gender binaries, particularly when dressed as the glam rock savior Ziggy Stardust.
Even though penned by Bowie more than four decades ago, way before our contemporary era of trans visibility and trans tabloid celebrity as evidenced by Caitlyn Jenner, “Lady Stardust” continues to maintain its relevancy with its assertion of the strength harnessed by gender fluidity and self-fashioned identities. As Bowie says, “Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name.” The same illegibility of gender and identity inherent in “Lady Stardust” is masterfully explored in Smack Mellon’s current exhibition Signal.
While I have just referred and will continue referring to the exhibition as Signal, the English word is not completely correct. Signal is a translation of a binary code constructed by artist Chelsea Thompto. With the unique imagery of the linear binary code as the exhibition’s title, Signal unmistakably announces its radical redefinition of legibility not just between the gender binaries but also, with the art space’s communication itself. Speaking beyond accepted codes to reject assumptions, Signal immediately strips viewers of their preconceived notions and facile readings.
Curated by Alexis Heller, Signal features a refreshingly diverse group of artists who work in a variety of disciplines in order to subvert the restrictive, repressive and quite often, oppressive gender binaries. Representing artists’ and their subjects’ own self-defined aesthetics and self-representations, Signal heralds an expansive understanding of gender–one that is perhaps closer to gender queer than even trans.
Mirroring the dual beauty and decay depicted by Bowie in “Lady Stardust,” the first artwork seen upon entering the vast cavernous space of Smack Mellon introduces viewers to the exhibition’s focus on transcending narratives of strict gender definitions. A strikingly detailed photograph, Young Joon Kwak’s Excreted Venus muddies up the longtime art historical figure and the goddess of female beauty. Emerging from mud or possibly, shit, Excreted Venus shatters Venus as female perfection while likewise, transforming into a self-made, self-created ideal of beauty. Sure, Excreted Venus might be wearing heels, but largely, the photograph erases easily recognizable gender markers.
Near the Excreted Venus, Cobi Moules shows two oil on canvases, featuring numerous self-portraits in expansive natural landscapes. Populating these nature scenes with his trans body–a body not typically represented in landscape paintings, Moules’ series Bois Just Wanna Have Fun becomes a utopian and even, transcendentalist statement.
Moules’ Untitled (Lake McDonald) resembles a gender-fucked version of Thomas Eggerer’s Waterworld, a monumental painting recently shown at Petzel Gallery. Rather than hypermasculine cisgender men filling a beach scene to create a gay male fantasy as in Waterworld, Moules’ Untitled (Lake McDonald) acts as a representation of freedom and potentiality.
From Carlos Motta’s moving videos from Gender Talents, capturing trans and intersex activists from around the world, to Jess T. Dugan’s stunning photographs that mine the variations of masculinity to Rona Yefman’s multidisciplinary capturing of her sibling Gil’s transition and Gil Yefman’s nearby fuzzy abjection Tumtum, a knit sculpture covered in dripping dicks, breasts, eyes and other body parts, the works in Signal not only feature endless gender possibilities but also, powerfully explore queer relationality. Like Gil and Rona’s familial relationship and clear friendship as seen in the photograph Owls, the art collected in Signal stands apart for its focus on communication–the communication of desire, love, friendship, family and even between histories of gender variance.
Perhaps my favorite works in the show engage with the genealogy of gender queering, as well as its primary figures, in order to both look back at the often erased narratives of non-binary gender presentation, as well as understand how these histories could positively influence the present and future of queer lives. In Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s video She’s Gone Rogue–a hallucinatory trip into a trans Alice in Wonderland tale, Drucker in multiple cinematic iterations falls through the rabbithole into a world of transfeminine idols. From Holly Woodlawn to Vaginal Davis and Flawless Sabrina, the appearance of these underground, radical and revolutionary figures not only honors Drucker’s queer foremothers, but also asserts their integral importance to queer culture today.
With two bodies of work exhibited in Signal including a stack of bricks evoking Marsha P. Johnson’s Stonewall brick toss, Nicki Green explores and subverts dominant narratives of primarily gay history with the integration of trans and other gender queer voices. In Green’s series of quilted hankies, Green embroiders mystical and phallic symbols onto lavender colored hankies, referencing the hanky code. Particularly associated with men who would read magazines such as Physique Pictorial, which would include a code reference guide, variously colored hankies worn in the left or right pocket signaled the individual’s sexual preference. Lavender meant “likes drag” on the left and on the right, “is drag.”
By utilizing the legacy of these lavender hankies, Green finds under-recognized queer histories within the mainly cisgender hanky code. Not only questioning the normative cisgender history of the hanky code, Green’s lavender hankies also act as essential critiques of the straight-acting, masculine-on-masculine world of hook-up apps like Grindr or Tinder that can be an oppressive, offensive and sometimes, dangerous place for trans or gender nonconforming individuals.
In relation to danger, possibly the most memorable work in Signal and one that certainly embodies the exhibition’s pursuit of closer reading is Chelsea Thompto’s Trans Effigy. Scrawled on the wall in charcoal in front of wooden sculptures that appear like offerings or smudged sage, Trans Effigy employs the same binary code as the exhibition’s title in order to reference the names of trans lives that were murdered in 2015. A lengthy list, deciphering these codes–aided by a slightly helpful but still demanding key nearby–is undeniably an overwhelming and excruciating process, reflecting the silences and suppressed dialogue about the violence frequently threatening trans lives.
Not only representing the trans lives lost, Thompto’s Trans Effigy also encourages conversation even among strangers in the gallery. As if a public space for mourning like a memorial where dialogue becomes essential to healing, Trans Effigy inspires disparate viewers to talk, meet and discuss the code, as well as its meaning.
Like Trans Effigy’s shrouded communication, the works in Signal present a call for understanding between people aside from and beyond the normative codes of gender. As the press release states, “In the absence of gender markers, how can we understand each other and make ourselves known?” Shown by the many artists in Signal, it is through self-fashioning and self-determined identities that these selves can be known, creating our own forms and methods of communication and queer communities. Signal reminds us as sung by David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust finale “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” “Oh no love! You’re not alone!”