Snaps from a Queer Angle | Susanne Huber | Wednesday, 05.08.2020

Nurture the Seed

In 1973, the US-American artist Duane Michals completed an inconspicuous series of photographs, its title stating the simple assertion that Things Are Queer. The beholder is confronted with nine small black and white photographs, arranged in a grid-like pattern. What ‘things’ are being addressed here remains obscure, however, as well as how their supposed queerness might be enacted.
Duane Michals, “Untitled”, from Things Are Queer, 1972, 9 gelatin-silver prints, each 10.2 x 13.7 cm, Collection Fotomuseum Winterthur
What is actually queer – as in peculiar – is revealed only in succession from one frame to the next, from top to bottom and from left to right. A very mundane scene, a not so tidy bathroom, marks the entrance into an Alice in Wonderland-like rabbit hole that we plunge into every time we proceed. What seems like an ordinary bathroom at first becomes an odd home of what looks like a giant, only to be exposed as a man standing inside a miniature bathroom model in a crowded storefront before the scene is revealed to be a photograph within a book, where a slightly smudgy thumb indicates the new scale of actual human size. Proceeding forward this book is shown to be held by some stranger in a suit, walking down a dark alley towards the light at the end of a tunnel. One image later this scene is literally framed as a picture on the wall itself, a wall that in the remaining two images turns out to be the wall of the bathroom where the story once started. With the seemingly simple means of scale and distance Michals fundamentally challenges our perception; the formal movement of zooming out unsettles the evidentiary claim of the image. What we see is not what it appears to be, or rather, it is something else as well. The queer ‘things’ then, to return to the initial query, refer to any ordinary arrangement that is perceived to be otherwise than expected, that is: other than ‘normal’.
Duane Michals, “Untitled”, from Things Are Queer, 1972, 9 gelatin-silver prints, each 10.2 x 13.7 cm, Collection Fotomuseum Winterthur
Michal’s piece has since become a clandestine queer icon. Although it apparently does not display much of what the token ‘queer’ has come to signify since its eventual application to individuals declared homosexual or otherwise sexually deviant, it seems to hold a certain bond to readings from this perspective. In fact, it was the artist and art historian Jonathan Weinberg who, more than twenty years later in 1996, elaborated on the work’s potential to pose an allegory for a new way of thinking about processes of normalisation. Sex, sexuality and gender being among the most powerful norms – race and class to be added – allowed Weinberg to draw these connections. In his essay for Art Journal he therefore came to the conclusion “that things themselves are not queer, rather what is queer is the certainty by which we label things normal and abnormal, decent and obscene, gay and straight.” 1Jonathan Weinberg, “Things are Queer”, in Art Journal, Vol. 55, No. 4 [= We're Here: Gay and Lesbian Presence in Art and Art History] (Winter 1996), 11–14, 11. Weinberg’s text is even more significant as it was his co-editor’s statement for a special issue of the art magazine themed “We’re Here: Gay and Lesbian Presence in Art and Art History”. An anachronism, or kind of struggle, still resonates in the title. The at that time relatively new branch of queer theory, radical ways of linking feminist theory and gay studies developed by scholars such as Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick and others, was insinuated by a fragment of the activist collective Queer Nations’s slogan “We’re queer, we’re here, get used to it!” that opens the title of the issue – only to reinforce the markers of sexual identity it set out to overcome.
“Queer Nation, Group of Activists”, from Gay Political Caucus Newsletter, February 1991, Houston LGBT History.Org
Kosofsky-Sedgwick argued for the inadequacy of any stable notion of identity in which “‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ present themselves (however delusively) as objective, empirical categories governed by empirical rules of evidence”. Queer in her opinion was supposed to “refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made, (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” Instead queer theory spins “outward along dimensions that can’t be subsumed under gender and sexuality at all: the ways that race, ethnicity, postcolonial nationality crisscross with these and other identity-constituting, identity-fracturing discourses.” 2Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, “Queer and Now”, in: ibid., Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 1–20, 8–9. In 1973, all this was still a distant dream.
Ulrike Müller, Herstory Inventory, installation view at the Brooklyn Museum, June 29–September 9, 2012. Courtesy of Barbara Schroeder
In 2007 Austria-born and New York-based artist Ulrike Müller mined the online searchable database of the Brooklyn Museum for queer historical references on the occasion of Herstory Inventory: 100 Feminist Drawings by 100 Artists, a collaborative project organized by the artist. While through the context of Herstory Inventory Müller was able to activate the rich resources of Brooklyn’s Lesbian Herstory Archive, she reported that her quest in the primarily city-funded museum was a difficult endeavor. 3Ulrike Müller and Corrine Fitzpatrick, “Putting the Invent in Inventory: Ulrike Müller in Conversation with Corrine Fitzpatrick”, in: Art Journal, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Summer 2013), 64–69, 68. Searching the database for the more obvious terms was barely successful. Only when using more subtle search criteria that entailed coded symbols such as ‘rainbow’ or ‘labrys’ (double axe), to give an example, potential traces surfaced. Those findings then may or may not stem from a queer attitude, but nevertheless hold a contingency for queer integration. Müller’s work highlights that the scarcity of queer remains is not only one of the collections (evidence of minority groups and positions is certainly less acquired and preserved), but of the organizing and indexing of cultural legacies. Hegemonic westernized canonization and collecting practices continue as a systemic problem within institutional structures. As Ann Cvetkovich and others have so compellingly pointed out, the western archive has been and still is a structure of “silencing, neglect and stigmatization” and queer counter archives “are also informed by the haunting archival absences that accompany the documentation of histories of violence such as slavery and genocide.” 4Ann Cvetkovich, “Queer Art of the Counter Archive”, in: Locks, Mia and David Frantz (eds.), Cruising the Archive. Queer Art and Culture in Los Angeles, 1945–1980 (Los Angeles: ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, 2011), 32–35, 32. Some absences may also be consciously sought for: In attempting to not only resist categorization but also to protect their lives, some queer subjects and communities have been deliberately concealed and withheld from popular dissemination.
Claude Cahun, Que me veux-tu?, 1929, gelatin-silver Print, 23 x 18 cm, The Met Collection, Credit: Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Was the work of artists such as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore connected to queer issues by scholars in art history or the history of photography beyond the presumably romantic relationship between the two? Probably not until recently. Admittedly, still being considered a slur then, ‘queer’ did not seem like an appropriate category for art historical analysis. But does their work still carry a strong sense of non-normative subjectivities, sexual and otherwise? Certainly.
However, there is this modest artwork in the collection of Fotomuseum Winterthur that will immediately turn up when someone types in ‘queer’ into the search box. Michal’s series does not only grant a place for queer existence, such as equally prominent artists like David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin or Mark Morrisroe emphatically do for those who know. Things Are Queer opens up the subject as an epistemological concept, as a way to perceive and think that doesn’t confine but mobilize – against an authority of knowledge and truth, an illusion of objectivity and the powerful tools of privilege and deprecation.