The idea that gender is a performance, originally articulated by the theorist Judith Butler in 1990, has grown far beyond the original reaches of Butler’s writings. Butler did not mean that gender was a purposeful performance but rather an unconscious, socially prescribed one. However, that idea has evolved and been pushed forward by those who find resonance in the desire to literally perform gender, or to actively reject any gender performance at all. That reclaiming of agency has been lived in, celebrated, and become part of our cultural lexicon. At the same time, this notion of the fluidity and performative nature of gender remains anything but static or universally accepted.
Contested Bodies, which opened at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at the University of Leeds on 25 October 2023 and runs until 6 April 2024, dives into this messy, vibrant chaos to bring together the works of over forty artists whose work addresses the performativity of gender in different ways. The exhibition is jointly curated by Marcelle Joseph, collector and independent curator, and Laura Claveria, Exhibitions Curator at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery. Every work in the show comes from Joseph’s personal collection or her collecting partnership GIRLPOWER, making it an unusual curatorial project. Joseph’s personal taste and collecting vision are visible throughout, and her partnership with Claveria has guided the selection of works to build a strong and cohesive aesthetic vision.
The artists featured represent the whole gender spectrum, according to the curators, though they also claim that all those featured fall under the ‘contested body’ umbrella in some way. This paradoxically implies that all bodies are contested, regardless of gender identity or performance. In their foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Joseph and Claveria write that
‘Contested Bodies fractures and intersects discourses, from feminist and queer theories to postcolonial studies, criss-crosses the lines of identification and desire, and attempts to eliminate gender, sexual and racial hierarchies all together in order to recognise every person’s humanity.’
By rejecting a category of person as their classifying structure – such as ‘queer’ or ‘woman’ – the curators have embarked on a more radical project to truly reject the bounds of embodied hierarchies. They have also rejected creating a single central narrative for the exhibition.
These are grand aims, particularly for an exhibition with only forty-five works of art. It feels like an energising starting point, where each work points to new directions for artists, scholars, and viewers. The works cover a remarkable number of media, from photography and painting to ceramics, textile, video, and other forms of sculpture. As you enter the exhibition space, you are greeted by three sculptures: Anna Perach’s tufted wool ‘Transformer’ (2021), Richard Malone’s drapey ‘Leap’ (2022) and Jonathan Baldock’s ‘Mask II’ (2018). The texture of each of them – Perach’s rich fuzziness, Malone’s smooth, bouncy silkiness, and Baldock’s hard shininess – pulled me into my own body as a viewer. It’s a great beginning to ground viewers in the processes of embodiment central to the work of the artists in the show.
Ceramics are a big part of the exhibition. Sandra Lane, Lindsey Mendick and Paloma Proudfoot’s works all depict high-heeled shoes in glazed ceramics. Grouped together on a plinth, they evoke designer shoe store window displays and the trap of beauty expectations for women. Coco Crampton’s striking knitted garment ‘Night is Also Sun’ (2017) is adorned with ceramic spheres in place of breasts, and Neil Haas’s portrait of Jean Genet (2019) is done in watercolour and pencil on the reverse of a ceramic tile. This blurring of lines between media echoes the blurring of lines between identity categories. The works that engage with fashion and clothing also underline the literal nature of the performance of gender. These artists play with the socially prescribed requirements to cover our bodies in uncomfortable or ill-fitting garments in order to participate in gender norms.
Not only is the body a theme of this exhibition, but it is also a medium. The performativity of gender is wrapped up with the performance of art. In some cases this is literal, like in Jala Wahid’s sculpture ‘Burn Us Harder into Halparkeh’ (2019) that makes solid the negative space of the bottom half of a woman’s body, or Jakob Lena Knebl’s use of their body as a canvas for a Picasso-inspired painting (‘Pablo’, 2017). In others, the body is the subject: self-portraits fill the space. Sin Wai Kin’s video ‘Part One/She Was More Than the Sum of my Parts’ (2016) and Sam Keelan’s portrait of himself as a rhinestone cowboy (2021) both take control of the narratives of their self-portrayal. Bodies become tools, stages, and reclaimed spaces.
There is very little abstract work in this exhibition, which points to the distinctly biographical curatorial approach. In the narrative presented here, bodies are literally contested, the art depicting those fraught bodies. The wall texts and interpretation echo this, describing the life of each artist and how it led them to make this work of art. While I don’t discount the obvious importance of an artist’s life in interpreting their work, and also recognise that many of the artists featured in this show have deeply autobiographical practices, there are real limitations to such a biographical lens when seeking to transcend gender. The requirement for curators and scholars to uncover the lives of artists from oppressed groups before they can critically engage with the work is long standing and has prevented it from receiving the same level of serious analysis that work by cis men receives. Had this exhibition included more works that were less literal, the narrative presented about embodiment breaking the boundaries of gender and other identity categories would perhaps have been stronger and more radical.
Many of the artists here have become big names in the contemporary art world, but the works featured here were purchased by Joseph at the beginning of their careers. Joseph says she likes to support artists at the time they need it the most, when they are just starting out. Of course, this is also the time when their work is the cheapest, so it is a savvy investment decision. It gives the exhibition a zesty energy. Like the themes of the exhibition, these artworks are often beginnings: beginnings of careers, artistic practices and personal journeys.
The ideas that the show investigates and platforms are not unique – exhibitions exploring similar themes, which include many of the artists featured here, are currently open elsewhere in the UK right now, and others have been staged over the past few years. For example, A Spirit Inside at Lightbox in Woking is open at the moment and features many of the same artists, including Anna Perach and Sin Wai Kin. But while Contested Bodies follows rather than bucks curatorial trends, those trends are nothing to complain about. As the art world reckons with its binary, patriarchal legacies, exhibitions like this strike a chord with viewers who have not seen themselves represented before. And, as Joseph says, they also serve to support the careers of queer and gender-nonconforming artists at critical stages in their development. This is a fantastic show to mark a transitional moment for The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery. It is the first show Claveria has curated from start to finish since beginning her tenure as curator a year ago, and it brims with dynamism and engagement with the vibrant student culture of the University. The show promises more innovative, vital curatorial work to come.
Contested Bodies is on at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, 25 October 2023 – 6 April 2024.
Eliza Goodpasture is an art historian and writer based in York.
This review is supported by the University of Leeds.