A fragmented still from a film is reflected in dark liquid seeping on the gallery floor. The reflected image is upside down, but it shows a person with their eyes shut and mouth open.

Lou Lou Sainsbury:
Earth is a Deadname

Lou Lou Sainsbury, 'descending notes’ (2022), written and performed with Ada M. Patterson and Raffia Li. Courtesy of Humber Street Gallery and the artist © Jules Lister.

Lou Lou Sainsbury invites us to consider the alchemical void outside of the constructs of time, space and form in Earth is a Deadname at Humber Street Gallery. Passing through the dense black curtain into the gallery space, the sticky firmament of honey, wax and gel envelops you. Throughout the exhibition, collections of detritus are treated with fanatical veneration, as if an alien were seeking to recite some ancient magic.

The quicksilver scrawl of ‘Fragments of Songbook’ is the first thing to catch my eye. The slippery proclamations snaking their way around the space act as an ululation. The gallery walls become a drum membrane pulled taught, with the liquid mercury words as musical notation. The room resonates with an unseen power, shifting and reverberating. These superpositions harmonise with each of the individual works to create a balanced whole. Sainsbury recognises the power of words in her own practice, using them to transmute the space into one where pleasure and praise are prioritised.

A corner of the gallery space lit in blue where two walls meet the ceiling. Attached to the walls are letters of 3D moulded silver text, which reads: 'deep in my heart'.
Lou Lou Sainsbury, ‘Fragments of Songbook’, (2022). Courtesy of Humber Street Gallery and the artist © Jules Lister.

After the mercury comes the sulphurous yellow of the lighting which casts a pleasing filtered glow upon ‘Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?’ Part high church altarpiece, part pub window, what stands before me is a veil, a screen transporting me to the other side. I walk around to see the alternate view through the abstract, geometric forms within the glass, but to do so feels like an abhorration. Rather than a reflection of the self-same view, Sainsbury’s use of materials draws me into a kaleidoscopic world of possibility and intrigue, an ever shifting and maudlin tableau. The screen of stained glass with accretions of honey, cigarette buts and potpourri shines with the light of my grandmother’s front room. The blending of circular and square forms within the glass is disjointed, reminiscent of the body being forced to adapt. To pass in an otherwise unquiet space. The use of materials recalls the memento mori, a set of artistic symbols and motifs that remind viewers of the inevitability of death. Decaying fragments are granted the same level of respect and veneration as sainted sarcophagi. Here Sainsbury invokes the warring factions of science and religion, demonstrating that no matter your viewpoint, the end leads to the same ultimate outcome. We are all pursued by death and are prone to view it as a fractured, unsettling, but at times comforting barrier, one through which we all see the world.

Set against this monolith to the macabre sits the cabinet of curiosities, ‘To the pain in the womb o womb womb womb fleshy womb’, topped with sachets of estradiol gel, alien trinkets and shiny souvenirs. A message written on masking tape is adhered to the front panel above the doors: ‘To the pain in the womb’. Much like the words in ‘Fragments of Songbook’ the aim is to transform the object into a potent metaphor, conjuring both the bodied prison of the past and the frenzied, formless hope for the future. The traditional brown furniture is subverted by the will to reinvent the drab surface with gaudy ornamentation. Accompanying the cabinet, a kitschy silver cowboy boot lamp sits unplugged and lifeless, nestled like a forgotten toy. Here Sainsbury reminds us that nostalgia can be toxic. Our personal histories and harsh realities can be made better by the transing of these objects. Their original context and personal history have been subjected to the maelstrom of Sainsbury’s creative practice, they are now used as a waypoint for a timeless, ageless consideration. When experiencing trauma, that which is misremembered is rewritten, the painful reminders are disconnected causing us to feel a greater sense of loss for that which connects us to our recent past. 

A large folding screen with stained glass panels. The glass is made up of circular shapes in brown, yellow and green. Honey, dead leaves and cigarette ends are suspended in the glass. Liquid leaks out of the bottom onto the gallery floor.
Lou Lou Sainsbury, ‘Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?’ (2022). Courtesy of Humber Street Gallery and the artist © Jules Lister.

This playfulness with conventional forms and traditions is also shown in a portrait of Sainsbury. In the C-print by Kari Rosenfeld ‘[Nov 30, 2021 at 6:12:27 PM]: just a quick one. whats ya date of birth? im putting u as a witness for my trans form’, coils of estradiol gel rest upon Sainsbury’s arm. A potent symbol of identity and tenderness, this is a representation free from ego. The shyness and gentle nature of the print proclaims Sainsbury’s identity in a sincere and touching way. Bulbous forms are adhered to sheets of metal in ‘i keep you in my gut i keep you in my throat—are you hungry? i can feel you beating in me i can’, made in collaboration with Kari Rosenfeld. In the words of the artist, these forms ‘resist to pass’. Where her portrait creates an image of tenderness, here the artist gives us a dysphoric object. Each steel panel sprouts cupcakes, cankers and carbuncles laying bare the deepest of fears. Like Tantalus being forced to look upon food he could not eat and water he could not drink, Sainsbury evokes the feeling of longing and pain transition brings to those who do not feel the nourishment of their own body. These feelings are heightened by the rainbow frosting colour palette and personal messages which play with our ideals of disgust and desire. This is the body laid bare, the skin flayed and salt rubbed into the wounds. 

Connecting these disparate but harmonious elements is the collaborative film ‘descending notes’, written and performed with Ada M. Patterson and Raffia Li. The work is described as a love story between three ‘transing beings’, referencing the textures and materials used within the exhibition while incorporating the metaphysical ideal of the three into one. In alchemical teachings, mercury, sulphur and salt coalesce to form the primal force that holds the universe together. The three protagonists are much the same, seeking a more unified whole from each of their gloriously tessellating parts beyond the confines of time, space and prescribed meaning.

In Earth is a Deadname Sainsbury skilfully weaves a new creation myth for herself. Trans is rarely a fixed point, yet the prevailing heteronormative view of transition is that of a movement from one state of being to another; two points, irreconcilable and immutable. In this collection of works, Sainsbury questions this view and allows us to see transition for what it has always been, the divine right to explore the spaces beyond anatomy. She has drawn on motifs of alchemy and ancient rites of atonement throughout the exhibition, whilst simultaneously creating a new space to dwell and to exist free of judgement and shame. This space is not liminal but actively in flux, not between but within. It is this feeling of constant and ever-changing states that defines a more intersectional view of transition.

Earth is a Deadname, Lou Lou Sainsbury continues at Humber Street Gallery, Hull, until 26 March 2023.

Even Allen (aka That Looks Queer!) is a writer based in Sheffield. They are committed to uplifting the works of LGBT+ people and looking at art through the lens of queer theory.

This review is supported by Humber Street Gallery.

Switchboard LGBT+ offer listening services, information and support for LGBTQIA+ people, by phone (0300 330 0630) or online.

Gendered Intelligence are a national organisation founded to increase understanding of gender diversity and improve the lives of trans people. They have many resources and links including their support line available via phone, email and WhatsApp.

Published 07.03.2023 by Eloise Bennett in Reviews

1,242 words