Following yesterday’s first post of the shows we missed reviewing in 2016 due to being forced to work on other projects for cash before the windfall of the Arts Writers Grant, I’m returning to a show from much earlier this year–Mx Justin Vivian Bond’s My Model/My Self at Participant Inc.
“Explain what? A role model?” exclaims John Waters in his book Role Models, a pseudo-self-portrait through the lens of his biggest–and sometimes, most unexpected–heroes. Of course, as you know faithful Filthy Dreams readers, we are, like John, committed to our role models. Some might say we’re obsessed! For John, a role model is possibly, “someone who has led a life even more explosive than mine, a person whose exaggerated fame or notoriety has made him or her somehow smarter and more glamorous than I could ever be? A personality frozen in an unruly, blown-out-of-proportion position in society who earns my unmitigated respect for his or her other turbulent ferocious will to survive frightening success or failure?” (6-7).
Of course, all teenagers paper their bedrooms with magazine covers of their favorite stars, but role model worship is somehow more necessary for queer individuals who are often alienated from dominant social institutions whether history, family or mainstream culture. For many marginalized subjects, role models become sources of possibility, imagination, creativity, courage, self-fashioning and sometimes, transgression.
The significance of this unabashed role model worship was on view at Mx Justin Vivian Bond’s exhibition My Model/My Self at Participant Inc. earlier this year. Traveling from VITRINE in London, the exhibition, launched at Participant in honor of Bond’s year-long celebratory stint at Joe’s Pub, traces Bond’s connection and childhood obsession with model Karen Graham. And talk about covering bedrooms with the imagery of heroes, here representations of Graham and Bond literally paper the walls.
Who is Karen Graham, you ask? Well, I wondered the same thing. Graham was the iconic face of Estée Lauder from 1972-1985. Apparently, she was so connected to the brand that many believed she was actually Lauder herself. A quick glance at her Wikipedia page also reveals a strange tidbit that Graham moved to Rosendale, New York in order to pursue her true passion: fly fishing. As you do.
Delving into her Graham monomania, Bond penned an essay in the collection Icon, published by Feminist Press, which I’ll quote at length in this piece because I love it. “In high school I tore every advertisement I could find with her image on it out of magazines,” writes Bond. “I tore them out of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town & Country. In the storage closet of the art classroom in my high school there were stacks and stacks of magazines. I went through every page of every one of them. I went to the local library and checked out magazines and ripped through them, trying to find this one particular model. By the time I graduated from high school I had a thick stack of Estée Lauder ads and mailers for Estée Lauder creams and scents from The Bon Ton, our local “high end” department store.”
Looking back to this part of V’s childhood, My Model/My Self explores how this frantic fanaticism for Graham was absolutely formative in the development of Bond’s queer identity. It’s no secret–even the title of the exhibition hints at the unlikely connections between the model and Bond’s selfhood.
But, My Model/My Self does more than merely showcase Bond’s adoration for the seminal model. V also shows the desire to take on Graham’s aesthetic. In a series of delicate watercolor drawings, Bond pairs images of Graham with self-portraits in the same pose, outfit and makeup. With these watercolors, Bond highlights the desire to not only identify with your role model, but literally embody them. Who hasn’t wanted to become their role model–even for a moment?
My particular favorite of these mirrored image works is the video Two Minutes Is A Long Time, a short split-screened video showing Bond mimicking a screentest of Graham made by fashion photographer Nick Knight. Expertly recreating Graham’s primping and vamping for the camera, the video is as touching as it is amusing. Simply put, it’s an exquisite representation of hero worship.
Now for a young trans child like Bond, Graham feels like an unlikely role model at first. But on deeper reflection, who would be the trans role model for Bond to turn to in v’s suburban upbringing? It’s not like Marsha P. Johnson was a household name in small town Maryland. So queer kids have to turn to these imperfect, yet resonant and sometimes, marginal figures.
In Icon, Bond explains how v saw possibility in Graham’s self-presentation. “She was blank and sphinx-like, only more modern because she was wearing lots of makeup. I decided that with enough makeup on you could convince anybody of anything. So I stared at her for hours on end and convinced myself that one day I would be seen as the person I knew myself to be…She, the vision of blank perfection in the Estee Lauder ads, assured me I would become the person I am today,” writes Bond.
Graham’s blankness allowed Bond to essentially project v’s fantasies onto her. As a figure of self-fashioned identity within the strictures of suburban childhood, Graham represented the promise of a life lived on your own terms. “Having grown up,” details Bond, “under the unflinching gaze of the gender police at home and in the streets, all I wanted was to escape—to be able to express myself as I was or as I wished to be.”
In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love analyzes the queer impetus to bond with past cultural and historical figures through Carolyn Dinshaw’s book Getting Medieval. Dinshaw, throughout Getting Medieval, articulates the “strange fellowships” and “partial connections” found in queer connections across time and history. Love writes, “The longing for community across time is a crucial feature of queer historical experience, one produced by the historical isolation of individual queers as well as by the damaged quality of the historical archive” (37).
Granted, Bond’s attachment with Graham is not exactly like Love and Dinshaw’s notions of digging up queer historical figures to relate to. But, Love’s assertion of the queer bonds, intimacy and even, community forged through role model worship undoubtedly and powerfully resonate here. However, Bond’s connection with Graham seems to fit more in Jose Munoz’s notion of disidentification. As Munoz defines in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, “To disidentify is to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that it is not culturally coded to “connect” with the disidentifying subject” (12).
Of course, Bond has the blond bombshell look down, but v is anything but blank. Bond, in My Model/My Self, proves how these role models can also represent a fantastical space of refuge for queer individuals, particularly children. I mean, Munoz does refer to disidentification as a “survival strategy” (18).
In Participant Inc., Bond constructed a corner nook–or a safe space–covered in a gauzy curtain with a chandelier that was papered with photographs and ephemera related to Graham. V also included a copy of v’s imagined book My Model/ My Self: The Transchild’s Search for Identity, modeled after the pop psych book My Mother/My Self: The Daughter’s Search for Identity. The installation has an almost womblike quality, with some touches of kitschy excess. Every hidey space needs a chandelier, right?
With this installation, Bond refers to the spaces of fantasy constructed–even mentally–by the admiration of role model figures. For Bond, Graham provided an outlet through which V could see possibilities of identity and even, an escape. As Bond describes in her essay in Icon, “My mother used to ask me all the time, ‘Why that woman?’ ‘What is it about her?’ ‘Why do you always have to look at that woman’s face?’ And all I could come up with was, ‘Because she looks SERENE!’ That’s all I wanted in my life, a little piece of mind, serenity, detachment—to escape into an image I could create of myself and for myself. I wanted to live in that state of grace.”
Even now, reflecting on My Model/My Self, I can’t help but wonder what Graham might think of the show. But, John Waters says you shouldn’t always meet your role models and maybe, he’s right.