Empty nightclubs. Decaying flowers. Vaginas being sewn shut. This is Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender & Identity, the Walker Art Gallery’s latest exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which led to the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts.
Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’ ‘UK Gay Bar Directory’ (2016) is located outside of the gallery space, and loops video footage from over one hundred and seventy gay bars across the UK interspersed with fragments of audio: songs that fade in and out, and sounds from the natural world such as forest fires. All of the clubs are empty, and there is a conflicting sense of expectancy. Is the night about to begin? Or are have these spaces reached the end of their lives? Quinlan and Hastings’ work highlights a shift: the closure of many LGBT+ venues indicates that queer culture is transforming, and the increasing assimilation of the LGBT+ community within heteronormative spaces leaves us wondering if this direction is necessarily the best one we should be moving towards.
Taking its title from a poem by W H Auden, To Ask the Hard Question is Simple, (written in 1930), Anya Gallaccio’s ‘can love remember the question and the answer?’ (2003) stands both imposing and tender: mahogany panelled doors and glass frames home sixty fresh gerbera flowers, which, depending on when you visit the exhibition, can be bright and full of life, or colourless and dying, acting as a reminder that beauty does indeed fade. The decision to have the artwork facing the entrance doors seems intentional: when exploring the rest of the exhibition, Gallaccio’s art functions as a humbling precursor.
Interestingly, Gallaccio’s work isn’t the only artist in the exhibition drawing inspiration from poets of the past. David Hockney’s ‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’ (1961) shares its title with a poem from American writer Walt Whitman; his ‘Illustrations for fourteen poems from C. P. Cavafy’ (1966) series is inspired by Constantine P Cavafy, an Egyptian-Greek poet. It’s difficult to deny the prevalent cross-generational theme of marginalised artists finding solace in those who came before them, and Coming Out furthers this idea with its intentional absence of chronology. Instead, the artworks have been placed in conversation with each other: Annie Wright’s ‘Hiding the Wound: Homage to Mr Freud’ (1979) explores the female experience under male supremacy, and faces Stewart Home’s ‘Becoming (M)other’ (2004), where photographs of Home are combined with photographs of his mother to explore the performance of femininity.
Coming Out is an important exhibition in today’s social and political landscape: it, much like today’s idea of identity fluidity, is responsive, dynamic and open to interpretation. It raises questions about ourselves, the difficulties we’ve overcome and reminds us that change truly is possible
Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender & Identity is open at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool until 5 November 2017.
Callan Waldron-Hall is a Liverpool-based writer and is studying an MA in Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.