Saturday, February 27, 2010

we don't want to have this conversation

Huda Lufti's current exhibition making a man out of him at the Townhouse Gallery is inclusive, didactic and formally interesting, but it maintains a static point of view: merely representing the conflict between male and female gender roles. It does not take into account the amount of variation and different levels of analysis available in the field of gender studies. We have chosen to have a conversation on some of these aspects beginning with objects from the exhibition itself and branching outward.

M: Lutfi's interest in toys stems from their strong role in how, as humans, we condition gender identity since childhood. By examining Barbies versus Batman action figures, one can gain insight on the formation of our perception of what is masculine and feminine. In mustache and lipstick and stripping off the garments, Lutfi accurately demonstrates that we have simply been conditioned for so long to perceive certain qualities as a function of gender. By placing Batman and Catwoman action figures side by side with the rest of the pieces in the show, we see the fake roles that are given to males and females. Compared to her pieces that try to showcase our similarities, the actions figures demonstrate a societal reliance on these roles.

E: To further explore the idea of cultural conditioning, in mustache and lipstick: the heads are all the same, androgynous, white-washed, neither distinguishable as male nor female, wearing sunglasses with male cutouts in the lenses. One has red painted lips and another has been given a mustache: two small, yet completely stereotypical, characteristics of female and male. If we remove these two qualifying characteristics, Lufti seems to be saying underneath our construction of gender, underneath what has been socialized by society and by cultural practices, we are all the same. Our similarities are often overlooked, and in this sense Lutfi's observation is useful. But if we are indeed all similar, where does it leave us? Where do we go from here?

The discussion of socialized gender roles is well-articulated in the following: Baby X, A Child's Story without Gender.

M: So much of our culture is divided based on gender. It is true that gender is one of the basic ways we identify ourselves as humans: I am a boy or a girl since the day I am born and express myself as one because I have been taught to do so... But can we argue that everything beyond the reproductive functions is constructed rather than inherent and can be simply given up through a meditative experience? Although I believe that self examination and meditation can be successful, how is one expected to do so using the myriad of influences we are constantly confronted with?

E: The different conceptions that we face are evident in Lutfi's exhibition, but there does not seem to be an argument behind each of these representations. I think that the baseline discussion regarding gender and sexuality is that it is completely constructed. You look at the language we use (the idea of masculine and feminine nouns for example) and see that everything has been categorized. Of course there is the neuter case... In German for example "child" is neuter, das Kind. It's is as if the language itself admits that a child will become more than an "X" once it has been in society long enough... It seems as though so much of gender has to do with its commercialization.

M: Playing further on this notion of commmercialization of identity, we see Lutfi continuing her practice of re-presenting collected objects from around the city in new contexts in her work. As the audience we recognize them and we also recognize the new meanings assigned to them. For example, in stripping off the garments, the expensive Gaultier perfume bottles are presented as symbols of pure human existence. It positions meaning as not instrinsic to objects and beings. In this installation we see the bottles, once a symbol of capitalism, commodification, and luxury, as a substitute for our essential humanity liberated from socio-cultural conditioning.

E: The black light is a glaring way to shine new meaning onto our cultural perceptions of one another. These perfume bottles seem to lose some of the definition in their body, as they radiate under the strange form of light. It's almost as if they are becoming less male.

M: Yes, but we are still limited to comparing these perceived changes to our culturally-ingrained perception of the male. We are recognizing the different ideas introduced via the installation piece in relation to what we already know. So is the so-called liberation process actually a liberation?

E: The intention to re-position these found objects is a good one; it employs the freeform conversation space of the gallery. But the exhibition does not leave room for questions, and the "transformations" are narrow. It is hard to see past the commercialization and heavily ingrained cultural associations these objects project. The viewer does, in worst case, not learn anything new at all from the exhibit.

M: I do recognize the symbolism put through the pieces, but does it really entice us to reflect on the archaic gender issue any further?

E: Gender studies, like most deconstructive discourse, begs a new way of looking at the world. This exhibit does not offer us a new way of looking, leaving the audience searching, needing to look past ourselves and our current state of commercialization, if we truly do want to see anything new.

M: But leaving it entirely up to the audience means that some might put in the effort, while most will simply bypass it as a simplistic take on the issue of gender representation.

making a man out of him runs through 17 March 2010.
all images courtesy of the artist and Townhouse Gallery.

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