Queering the Image
Queer is a word with many meanings. In the words of sexuality educator Charlie Glickman, “It can be used as an adjective, an insult, a noun, an identity, a sexual orientation, and as a gender identity.” But queer is also a verb. To queer something means to re-interpret a cultural artifact (which could be art, but could also be literally anything) in a way that often focuses on reversing the heterosexual or heteronormative** way that we are all conditioned to interpret things. But more generally, to queer something is to look at its foundations and to question them. It’s looking at something in a new way that makes us question our expectations and assumptions. To queer something is to push the boundaries of our belief.
Any object (or person) can be queered, because nothing and no one in this world is precisely what we believe it to be. Furthermore, nothing is innately heterosexual. Every time an audience views a piece of art, it is queered. A piece of art has no truth or meaning; it is the audience who assigns the meaning. We don’t consume art. We reinterpret it, and in doing so, recreate it. We assume an active role. This process of recreation is also the process of queering. It’s something that we all do subconsciously, but recently I decided to make my own process more intentional. I believe that it’s important to explore new ways of thinking about our surroundings and relationships, and to expand our vision of the world. So I consciously decided to queer a piece of art.
I chose a photograph: Jeff Wall’s Picture For Women. I first saw this piece last year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It was featured in an exhibit titled, This Will Have Been: Art, Love, & Politics in the 1980s. It captivated me, and although I did not realize it at the time, I was queering this image. When we look at art, we queer it in some tangible way. It’s a valuable process that we should all try to acknowledge and encourage.
I picked this particular photograph is because it’s actually a queering of another image. Jeff Wall has called this work a “remake” of Manet’s The Bar. He says: “I wanted to comment on [The Bar], to analyze it in a new picture, to try to draw out of its inner structure, that famous positioning of figures, male and female, in an everyday working situation which was also a situation of spectacularity…”. Wall re-interpreted the gender presentation of Manet’s painting, and in doing so, transformed the foundation of The Bar. Manet’s work inspired him to create a piece of his own; a separate take on the original. Wall recreated Manet’s painting in the new, more political context of second wave feminism in the 1980s. Picture for Women came into being with a queer intent.
When I first saw Picture for Women at the Walker, the woman immediately caught my eye. She controlled my gaze; I couldn’t look anywhere else in the room. It felt as though she was staring at me, and her stare was almost invasive. The woman’s gaze makes you, the viewer, into an object. Wall plays with the relationship of subject/object, of who is doing the looking and who is being looked at. Heteronormativity dictates that women are objects to be looked at by men. In this photo, Wall creates a female gaze. And through my interpretation of Wall’s intent, I am queering Picture for Women.
The best part is that every single person who has seen Picture for Women has somehow queered it, simply by coming into contact with it. Art is interactive, and each role is incredibly important. We as an audience have the potential to actually contribute to the art that we see. We can queer it, re-imagine it, renew it. And hopefully, we can re-inspire ourselves in the process.
** Heteronormative is a term often thrown around but rarely defined. It is the belief that people naturally fall into distinct and complementary genders (i.e. man and woman) and gender roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the norm, or the only natural sexual orientation. Often, heteronormativity leads to homophobia.
by Rachel Costello
@r_costello_ on Twitter