Can you imagine a hotter topic for an inflated gallery show than gender fluidity? Apparently human beings are are at it everywhere these days, in the bedroom and the schoolroom, wondering who they are, and who they might yet become once they have shucked off the daily, flat-footed plod of their customary identities… Could there be a glittering future ahead for a middle-aged, slump-bellied, beer-swilling white male of fixed abode and no particular talent in a gold bra and a corkscrewy medusa wig?
Ralph Rugoff, director of London’s Hayward Gallery and curator of this year’s Venice Biennale, has brought together one hundred works by thirty-five artists, living and dead, from across the globe in Kiss My Genders to show us how gender-bending, gender-merging and general head-scratching over gender matters, has brought into being for our delectation a huge rainbow of responses across the disciplines of photography, film, painting and sculpture.
How interesting to look at is it though? How much enjoyment can be derived from so much self-posturing? That is the downside of at least half of this show (see many of the works on the ground and first floors, for example), that the subjects of so many of these spasms of artistic self-regard often seem happy merely to have made the daring and outrageous gesture for its own sake. This is me! And am I not truly divine to behold! It all begins and ends there, in an often not-so-exciting act of self-mirroring.
This is not to deny that to assert gender-fluidity can be an important and dangerous gesture, of course, and especially when a society regards such things as some kind of evidence of endemic evil.
The show redeems itself on the top floor. The works become more interesting in their own right. Snap-happy artists stop drooling over their newly discovered gorgeousness. Subtler and more interesting questions start to be asked. Many of the works on this floor deserve close and serious scrutiny. Look at the sculptures by the gay Xhosa artist Nicholas Hlobo, for example, how he has created something so precariously interesting and thought-provoking out of the conjunction of ribboning and rubber.
Or the wonderful, wackily shaped painted constructions by Flo Brooks. Has cleaning fluid been genderised too? Or the mysterious narrative paintings by the Canadian artist Kent Monkman. Or Martine Guttierez’s image of herself as an Aztec Demon. What freights of meaning does this image bear?
A lesson to be learnt from this show then? Too much self-posturing can be an awfully dull thing to behold. Rein it in.
Kiss My Genders, Hayward Gallery, London, 12 June-8 September