A Maddening Kaleidoscope of Gender / Jongwoo Jeremy Kim

Mariah Garnett, Encounters I May Or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin [detail] , 2010. 16mm film installation; duration variable. Courtesy the artist and ltd los angeles

Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, New Museum, New York. Curated by Johanna Burton, Keith Haring, Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement, with Sara O’Keeffe, Assistant Curator, and Natalie Bell, Assistant Curator. September 27, 2017 to January 21, 2018.

According to Sable Elyse Smith, one of the artists in the New Museum of Art’s exhibition Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, our subjectivity is “contextual; contingent upon geography, system, relationship, memory, knowing . . . . And violence can be quotidian, like the landscape of prison shaping itself around my body . . . . We are woven into this kaleidoscopic memoir by our desires to consume pain, to blur fact and fiction, to escape.”1 Smith’s words apply to much of the art in the exhibition. She highlights the self’s porosity and polysemy, the body’s contingency and malleability, and the everyday matrix of social forces—both unexpectedly brutal and dangerously subtle—that repress and empower our sense of who we are and the rightness or wrongness of whom/what we want. Smith uses the phrase “landscape of prison” literally, but our society often feels like incarceration, as do our bodies and our notions of the self, all of which are really landscapes of hidden and not-so-hidden limitations. Pain and its flipside, pleasure, inform Trigger, where facts and non-facts are interwoven in images, objects, and sounds that transport the viewer elsewhere and into other times. Curator Johanna Burton writes that this exhibition “synthesizes channels that take up the instability of gender and the forms that gender might temporarily coalesce into—or refuse altogether. If there is a shared impulse among the practices included, it is toward this idea of the impossible as a space of potential, and a place of other futures.”2

Trigger includes over forty artists working individually and collaboratively. Their works are spread over three floors. The gender and racial identities of the artists represented in the exhibition are diverse, and their ages range from the late twenties to the late sixties. This show is the latest in the New Museum’s distinct history of mounting exhibitions treating LGBTQ visuality. The earliest was the 1982 exhibition Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art, which Christopher Reed designates “the first museum show to focus on the idea of sexual identity.”3

Like Extended Sensibilities, New Museum’s current exhibition has not been universally acclaimed. Since the opening in September, many critics have complained that it seems a mess. Trigger is undeniably chaotic; sounds from film installations are everywhere. Yet, to my mind, the jumble is exhilarating as it corresponds to our experience of gender and sexuality, and I was invigorated by the exhibition’s maddening, kaleidoscopic visuality. Room-to-room, floor-to-floor transitions are often abrupt and disorienting, but the show reminded me of bar-hopping in New York in the 1990s, drinking everything and dancing with everyone. I am now more likely to spend Friday nights reading The New Yorker, which quotes Fred Moten commenting on Trigger: “There’s a poetics of the mess . . . . [W]e came here to tear shit up, you know? Including ourselves.”4

Such claims are highly charged, as one might expect with regard to a show called Trigger. Yet New Museum claims the exhibition “really isn’t about the [trigger] warning.” It rather concerns “the ways in which we access the past unconsciously” and are “forced back to things,”5 a description that resonates with the historical usage of the term in relation to PTSD, but that etymological connotation seems unresolved in the exhibition’s context. A bit of historical insight would have been useful here. I am nevertheless convinced that the exhibition as a whole offers fertile delirium indicative of our time. I would argue that Trigger is a foundational exhibition of our current LGBTQ visuality that many will reference for years to come.

A number of works in Trigger make their knowing participation in contemporary discourses of gender and sexuality unusually clear, offering sign posts in this mash-up of many colors, shapes, and sounds. For some works, clarity comes in the way they manifest a historical consciousness of gender politics. These include Ellen Lesperance’s seemingly innocuous “designs for knitwear” juxtaposed with a vitrine of clippings displaying archival photographs of people and events significant to the history of activism around race and sex. Lesperance’s paintings adapt knitted patterns from the sweaters women wore to marches, protests, courts, and speeches in countries including Egypt, the United Kingdom, and the United States in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. She translates her research into the relationship between textiles and women’s history into new knitting patterns rendered in gouache and graphite on graph paper. The paper is stained with tea to make it look old, suggesting a temporal distance between her time of investigation, analysis, and painting and the time of past actions of civil rights and social justice movements—although some of the photographs are quite recent.

Left: Ellen Lesperance, Wanted for Interstate Flight: Angela Yvonne Davis, August 18, 1970 [detail], 2015. Gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper. Private collection; right: archival source photographs from the artist’s research.
Lesperance’s regenerated patterns are deployed in different parts of a garment map that has to correspond to a future wearer’s body shape. When she colors any module in the graph paper, she plays—wittingly or unwittingly—with the language of knitting: a dot in the graph-paper square means “purl on the right, public side, or knit on the wrong, non-public side.” But for non-knitters, her patterns present a strange picture of bodily abstraction the methods of which may be frustratingly obscure. The translation of the three-dimensional contour and volume of the body into a two-dimensional graph necessarily distorts the shapes of the human form: the shoulders and the neck appear like three continuing peaks in a topographical rendering. Because cylindrical forms are opened and spread out, the human physique seems laterally expanded and reconfigured, like when a globe of the world is projected onto a map, creating a sense of impossible space that is “public” as well as “non-public.” That Lesperance makes connections with the past and recent past with archivally rediscovered knitting patterns on sweaters that activists wore around the world is outlandish. Yet her paintings speak to the hand-me-down intimacy between what is lost and what is yet to come, preserving the genealogy and geography of women fighting for causes against heteronormativity and patriarchy.

The kind of historical consciousness seen in Lesperance’s methodical approach functions as one of the important anchors of the exhibition. Other key anchors are righteous rage and irreverence. Sable Elyse Smith’s Landscape III exemplifies the exhibition’s difficult anger. Her thought has a violent and disjunctive structure and it is ablaze in neon on a wall: “Like the hands of the correctional officer on my abdomen / searching for metal – rather – groping for the sake of / taking over—for possession. To show the value of touch. / i touch deep inside every woman i fuck. / Fist beginning to clinch and fold fucking screaming / punching sweating through to the other side / Asking liquid to do something more than drip.” If the speaker in Landscape III is an extension of the artist, the poem expresses a black woman’s first-person point of view. Our stereotypical mind would assume the correctional officer to be heterosexual male, and the speaker is a victim who remembers that man’s sexual aggression. Yet the remembrance takes place during the speaker’s real or imagined sexual encounter with another woman. During that erotic high, the potency of the speaker’s female masculinity rivals that of a correctional officer. But why does she replicate the man’s misogyny and violence? Here the poem becomes difficult. Could the correctional officer be a woman as well? Then, the speaker tells the officer she too can “fuck” and “possess”: she “touch[es] deep inside every woman” just as the officer does, for their female masculinities are the same. But woman-to-woman aggression is no less troubling. Viewers of Smith’s work are thus caught in a conundrum, unable to determine what would be the just response to the gender politics of Smith’s word-picture. Yet, regardless of the officer’s sex, Landscape III shows that jouissance is not the sole domain of male masculinity. Ignoble, ignominious dripping gives way to Smith’s aggressive word-ejaculation, reterritorialized as a female activity.

Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, 2017. Exhibition View: New Museum. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

Contrasting with the belligerent masculinity of “fisting,” “punching,” and “screaming,” Trigger also explores a masculinity of dejection and jadedness. Disenchantment is evident in Harry Dodge who reduces straight male ethos to infantilizing sexual fantasies and fears. Six drawings hang in vertical contiguity, much like little boys might stack things up to reach an impossible height. Perhaps mutating from anatomical drawings of fallopian tubes and the uterine cavity in textbooks, interconnected tubes ending in three openings fill the frame hung highest; its title reads Idea (2013). One tube opening says in caps, “I HAVE AN IDEA,” and another one responds: “I AM AN IDEA.” The remaining tube end is wordless. The whole pictorial situation feels pseudo-philosophical and thus moronic, like a result of boredom that a pubescent brain would produce. Below Idea is a drawing of a goblin or an ogre with a large exposed penis. The creature holds a shovel in what may be an outdoor space where tall grass grows. Entitled Where Do You Want the Other Hole (2013), this drawing seems vaguely erotic and funereal, inappropriately recalling “Is the Rectum the Grave?”, Leo Bersani’s 1987 essay treating the panicked response to AIDS and the pleasure of self-annihilation in an oppressive society.6 Hung immediately below, Collisions Explain Everything (2013) uses spray paint to form two black clouds resembling silicone-based vibrators. In the lower left corner, dwarfed by the black shapes, are two homunculi. Their misshapen hands are held out as in “Stop!” Do they represent hetero-normative masculinity that shrinks and degenerates as their betters (vibrators’ cyborg masculinity) appear in their sky? All in all, Dodge’s references and expressions are consistently absurd, vulgar, bro-centric, but surprisingly effective in visualizing world-weariness, underscoring the mind-numbing hopelessness many experience when confronting hetero-normative men’s over-sexualized and regressive culture.

Harry Dodge, Where Do You Want the Other Hole?, 2017. 45.5″ x 66″, gouache on watercolor paper. Image courtesy of harrydodge.com

For some, the weariness brought on by patriarchy can be remedied by sensual violence. Liz Collins and Lauryn Siegel’s Control Room (2017) comprises segments of all-women S & M practices edited to be fast-paced and erotically industrious. That visual momentum is emphasized by the trippy, minimalist music of Laurel Halo, full of heart-thumping beats. The work can be seen only through a tiny peephole on a fake door, suggesting the secret excitement of erotic adventure. Yet it also comments on the heterosexual misogyny many see in Marcel Duchamp’s famous peephole piece, Étant donnés, permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1966.

Through Collins and Siegel’s peephole, viewers can see a film showing women in unfolding scenes of erotic encounter. Scenes and rooms keep shifting, quickly interweaving different actions. Black boots with laces are tightened. Tattoos are shown. Some women wear masks. A crutch seems to be part of a narrative of erotic make-believe. Needles are pierced through female flesh in a shower, blood delicately oozing. Female muscles are bound. Net stockings are flashed. Sounds of flesh hitting flesh—slapping and punching—are heard. There might be sounds that resemble segments of moaning and grunting—or the viewer might have imagined them. A woman’s flesh is groped; it jiggles. Another woman drinks from a plastic cup. Much of this feels unexpectedly homey, as if it were a theater of mundane domesticity. The living room has a determinedly un-chic brown couch that looks really comfortable. The bedroom has a duvet with blue and green patterns that one would see in Bed, Bath, and Beyond. These are elements of quotidian familiarity for many. Yet, the juxtaposition of S & M and the quotidian disorients the viewer away from common notions of the normative.

I am a short man. But scooting down for 1 minute and 58 seconds to peep through the oddly placed peephole was unexpectedly difficult, forcing me to lean against the wall with both arms and attempt to displace my body’s weight on the architectural body of the museum. I found myself participating in a minor trial of endurance, relinquishing the control of my body in a way, giving up the conventional posture of museum-going and art-viewing. Physical pain allowed for optical and auditory pleasure, forming a contradiction in my bodily senses. My experience aligned, in this contradiction, with that of the women in these S & M scenes.

In Collins and Siegel’s art, viewers of various genders and sexualities can catch a glimpse of the sadomasochistic pleasures of women. In Mariah Garnett’s 16-mm film installation, Encounters I May or May Not Have Had with Peter Berlin (2010), viewers become an audience for a woman who imaginatively projects herself into a relationship with a gay porn star—or turns into the porn star. Berlin was a big-name porn star of the 1970s, known for his pageboy cut, strut, and prodigious sex appeal. This work offers an overwhelming sense of plenitude with hundreds of oval film clips multiplied by being projected onto and reflected off of a disco ball. The projectors share one long loop of a film unrolled into two giant droops traversing almost the entire room. The circles of light strewn along the four walls and parts of the floor show “Peter Berlin” (Garnett in his outfits) posing and dancing. The projected images are blurry, and colors seem bleached and perhaps yellowed like an archival film, as though it were shot when optimal resolution was grainy at best.

Mariah Garnett, Encounters I May Or May Not Have Had With Peter Berlin, 2010. 16mm film installation; duration variable. Courtesy the artist and ltd los angeles

The historical intervention here is different from the queer rhetoric of Deborah Bright, who inserted herself in famous scenes of Hollywood movies as a butch dyke interrupting and neutering male desire by asserting her female masculinity. Garnett’s remembrance takes place in her cinematographic body which functions as a memorial that exists in the flickering and fleeting disco ball reflections cast around the room. As though to indicate the productive misremembering, Garnett hand-painted her 16-mm filmstrip to add fugacious areas of lurid colors. The loudly whirring projectors arouse nostalgia as they represent “recent outmodedness.”7 The mechanical noise is live and concurrent to the viewing of the work, but it predates our era of digital projection. The sound Garnett’s projectors make thus invokes time that is lost and inauthentic today. Yet, such temporal discrepancy is productively exploited for Garnett’s rewriting of the history of dissident desire.

Trigger shows how artists of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries question the “material, sexualized structure of the subject,”8 as Rosi Braidotti put it, in an often manic confusion that is alternatingly self-critical and self-absorbed, affirmative and inconclusive. Although Braidotti advocates for “a more joyful and empowering concept of desire” and  “a political economy that foregrounds positivity, not gloom,”9 I am not sure if I or many of the artists in the exhibition can be ready as yet to share her “yearning.” Mounted at a time of increasing pressure on minoritized forms of pleasure and desire, Trigger needs to deploy all the aggression, gloom, cynicism, and sassiness that it can muster. And it does.


  1. Artist’s website, accessed November 4, 2017, http://sableelysesmith.com.
  2. Johanna Burton, “Irreconcilable Difference,” in Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, eds. Burton and Natalie Bell (New York: New Museum, 2017; exhibition catalog), 15.
  3. Christopher Reed also writes that Extended Sensibilities was “the first to integrate art by gay men with work by Harmony Hammond, Nancy Fried, and others who had exhibited under the rubric ‘lesbian’ during the 1970s.” See Reed, Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011), 198.
  4. Peter Schjeldahl, “The Art World as Safe Space,” New Yorker, October 9, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/09/the-art-world-as-safe-space.
  5. Burton, “Chain Reactions: Violence, Disruption, Provocation,” in Trigger, 279.
  6. Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” in October: The Second Decade, 1986-1996 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997), 303-328.
  7. See Hal Foster, Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), 157-165.
  8. Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2002), 33.
  9. Braidotti, Metamorphoses, 57.