Snaps from a Queer Angle | Susanne Huber | Wednesday, 09.09.2020

Framing Queer, Queering Frames

“There is no non-violent way to look at somebody” proclaimed the title of Wu Tsang’s solo exhibition, which ran at Berlin’s Gropius Bau earlier this year. If this act of looking is captured, as photography is notoriously capable of doing, we are confronted with a multitude of problems. Potential pitfalls loom in the functional design of the medium: An imbalance of power between subject and object of the gaze, the affirmative reinforcement of prevailing views as much as the potential exposure of vulnerable targets to violent looks and oppressive regimes. Any claim for representation is entangled in ascribed values of presence an absence and the equally slippery realms of visibility and erasure. Queer approaches to the photographic medium and its specific aesthetic, social, and political impacts confront these impositions. However, they cannot stop short at the image as such – they must also include the frame.
In the last post’s examination of Zoe Leonard’s The 1998 Bearded Lady Calendar, a way of queering the visual technologies of a hegemonic social order became apparent. The layering of a popular pin-up template with an unexpected performance of femininity disturbed the underlying conditions of both images: one part of a stock repertoire of cultural images, the other part of a cultural imaginary. Jennifer Miller was not the first woman with a beard that the artist took pictures of. Her 1991 piece Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman (Musée Orfila) shows a bell jar containing the bust of an anonymous woman, forever confined within a taxidermic setting. Five shots show the motive from below eye level and from different angles, the prints are rendered, however, to maintain equal dimensions of the head.
Zoe Leonard, Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman (Musée Orfila), 1991, 5 gelatin-silver prints, various size, Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art
There is no non-violent way to look at this human-turned-spectacle, Leonard knows this. The subject of Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman (Musée Orfila) is not only the individual fate of the long-deceased lady. The reflections of the utilitarian fluorescent lights on the glass dome place us much rather inside the scholarly premises, thus directing our attention to the very setting in which the lady appears. As referred to in the brackets of the title, this is the institutional environment of Musée Orfila in Paris,1The Musée Orfila was closed in 2005. home to a vast anatomical collection and one example of the centuries-long practice of gathering and exhibiting artifacts for a more or less open audience. This is the frame of reference that Leonard’s series draws upon, to be more specific: the frame of a cultural practice and the frame of the material asset of an institution. It is “the museum as a normalizing, meaning-making entity.” 2Jonathan Katz and Änne Söll, “Editorial: Queer Exhibitions/Queer Curating,” in On Curating No. 37 (May 2018): 2–3, 2.

Lorraine O’Grady, Art is … (Girl Pointing), 1983/2009, chromogenic color print, 20 × 16 in. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York © 2015 Lorraine O’Grady/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
The ‘frame’ staged one of the most prominent figures in feminist theory and critique since the late 1970s. The discourse relating to visual studies, art, and aesthetics, especially though in the field of photography, utilized the notion of the frame as a methodological device for dismantling the supposed objectivity of an image, in particular targeting documentary styles in photography. 3Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker, for instance, pursued an art historical perspective in 1987 with the publication of Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement. Lorraine O’Grady’s performance Art Is … (1983), for instance, took a quite literal approach to the subject, as it revealed it as integral part of the imaging process, while, in retrospect, photography’s Disciplinary Frame – as posited by John Tagg – was the invisible convention of objectivity that needed to be disclosed. 4John Tagg, The Disciplinary Frame. Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009). Rather than being a mirror of reality, the photography appeared as a means to construct the very reality of experience. More recently, Kerstin Brandes has pointed out how artists like Carla Williams and Lorna Simpson have expanded the tool since the late 1980s, demonstrating how ‘race’ ties in with the dominant framings prevalent in white male hegemonic societies. 5Kerstin Brandes, Fotografie und “Identität”: Visuelle Repräsentationspolitiken in künstlerischen Arbeiten der 1980er und 1990er Jahre (Berlin: transcript, 2009), 127–150. The frame was an analytical means for acknowledging the context of the image – that is, the specific ways in which it was produced and presented.
Leonard’s work provides an immediate reference to the frame, that is the manifold acts of framing. Every print displays a black outline, resulting from the edges of the negative that were captured during the process of exposure. This feature, which is usually removed from the final print in both fine art and amateur photography, here appears as a crucial aesthetic decision. The black frame marks a threshold to assert the manufactured origin of the photographic image, an account of reality that is necessarily fragmentary and can never be neutral. Yet, we saw how Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman goes beyond the photographic discourse in addressing the frame. Actually, two frames are on display in this series. The black frame only amplifies the material frame of the bell jar, which is part of the most invisible frame: the institutional frame of the museum as a powerful agent in constructing knowledge, and thus reality, in western societies.
To Leonard, the case of the Bearded Woman demonstrates how “as a culture we have never been able to deal with difference.” 6Zoe Leonard interviewed by Anna Blume, in: Kathrin Rhomberg (ed.), Zoe Leonard, 23.7.–14.9.1997, exhibition catalogue (Vienna: Secession, 1997), 7–23, 8. A desire to deal with this very difference and diversity in the exhibition context has caused a multitude of queer interventions since. These efforts have transcended the making of art to challenge the conditions of its display – in other words, the organizational structure of an institution as well as the way that art is programmed and curated for a public audience. The baseline is not overly welcoming to the concept of queer cultural practice, to say the least. Authority and connoisseurship, a claim for objectivity and professionalism, and judgments on quality are the tools to still predominantly white, male experts who define what gets to be presented and how.
Compared to the now extensive writing on queer art practices and theory, systematic reflections on exhibiting and curating from a queer perspective are scarce. 7It was not until 2017 that an international conference at Museum Folkwang in Essen posed the subject of “Queer Exhibitions/Queer Curating” to an international public, resulting in a special issue of the Swiss-based magazine On Curating (see n. 2). Maura Reilly’s Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating from 2018 should also be mentioned here as well as the ongoing work of Fiona McGovern. A reluctance to integrate queer politics into the exhibition space might derive from a concept of queer that applies mostly to queer artists, queer subject matter, and a queer audience, each supposedly marginal to the commonality that a public institution is supposed to target. However, that is a misconception, as curator Isabel Hufschmidt argues. 8 Isabel Hufschmidt, “The Queer Institutional, or How to Inspire Queer Curating,” in On Curating, No. 37 (May 2018): 29–32, 30. As soon as queer perspectives are taken into account within curatorial practices not only in terms of content but also within the methodical approach, a much larger purview appears.
A queer curatorial and museum practice is intended to develop a comprehensive and ever-evolving approach to institutions’ underlying conditions, the manifold social hierarchies and exclusions shaping the material terms of the exhibition space. Queer act and position matters.