Unbuilding Gender

Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, 1974.
Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, 1974. Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner. © The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark/Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York
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The form of embodiment that, in the 20th and 21th centuries, we have come to call transgender is not simply a gender switching, a wrong body replaced by a right body, a shift in morphology. Trans* embodiment, rather, is the visual confirmation that all bodies are uncomfortable and wrong-ish, situated as they are within confining grammars of sense and security. 1 The wrong body — an appellation mostly used in the 1980s for people who have felt themselves to be out of place or out of time — now comes not to claim rightness but to dismantle the system that metes out rightness and wrongness according to the dictates of various social orders. Trans* bodies, in other words, function not simply to provide an image of the non-normative against which normative bodies can be discerned, but rather as bodies that are fragmentary and internally contradictory; bodies that remap gender and its relations to race, place, class, and sexuality; bodies that are in pain; bodies that sound different from how they look; bodies that represent palimpsestic identities or a play of surfaces; bodies that must be split open and reorganized, opened up to chance and random signification. And because it is not a matter of replacing wrong with right, we require different visual, aural, and haptic codes and systems that can figure the experience of being in such bodies. After all, the trans* variant body is not so easy to represent, and the visual frames that establish such representation tend either to reveal sites of contradiction upon the gender-variant body (through nakedness perhaps, which risks sensationalizing) or to mediate other kinds of exposure, violent, intrusive, or otherwise.

In recent years, many theorists of transgender embodiment, as well as various artists and activists, have steered clear of the identitarian traps presented by political strategies that center on recognition or respectability, and have begun to think in greatly expanded ways about the experience of “wrong” embodiment. Within a beautifully shifting (kaleidoscopic even) series of discursive and aesthetic maneuvers, scholars and artists and activists have turned away from a purely figurative regime for representing transgender bodies — a system, in other words, committed to offering recognizable and pleasing forms of trans embodiment. They — we — have turned away from figuration or indexical or mimetic representation and towards the abstract, the symptomatic, even the architectural. What might the abstract and architectural offer in terms of transgender representation? […]

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