From the Archives
Although International Transgender Day of Visibility was over a week ago (March 31), the need to show support for the transgender community only increases in urgency with the recent passing of anti-LGBTQ laws in North Carolina and Mississippi. Today at Daily Serving we’re thinking about the importance of amplifying trans narratives, including visual stories of personal experiences. As Shauna Jean Doherty shares in this Shotgun Review of Wynne Neilly’s work, sometimes art can resiliently “offer clarity where ignorance predominates.” This article was originally published on August 17, 2014.
Through a collection of archival documents, personal photos, and voice recordings in the exhibition Female to “Male” at the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto-based artist Wynne Neilly presents a self-portrait of his personal journey transitioning from two relative subject positions, “female” and “male.” Quotations around the word “male” in the title ruminate on the mutability of the term, its constructed nature, and the spectrum on which all gender lies. Queer theorist Judith Butler would contend that “male” is an approximation of a gender identity that, as established, can never be fully realized. While gender is indeed provisional, the physical, emotional, and economic impacts of transitioning are not.
Weekly Instant Photographs, 1–45 (2013–2014) depict Neilly injecting himself with 50–100mg of testosterone, and document his physical transformation over a period of months. Displayed in a horizontal line, the photographs feature an expressionless Neilly standing in front of the same gray-white backdrop in his apartment. During the exhibition’s opening, swarms of viewers hovered over these snapshots, voyeuristically attempting to observe traces of the hormone’s effects. Though concerns of spectacle and personal preservation may be misplaced in an exhibition replete with such intimate ephemera, it is indeed difficult not to be moved by the installation’s revealingly diaristic inflections.
Also in the exhibition are two companion pieces, Vocal Changes, August 16, 2013–July 5, 2014 (2013–2014) and Facial Hair (2014): an audio recording of Neilly’s vocal changes paired with a cropped headshot displaying a subtle emergence of facial hair, and Transition Documents and Artifacts (2012–2014), a collection of works on paper chronicling the logistical and emotional outcomes of transitioning. Ranging in tone, these outcomes include a bank statement revealing the cost associated with the procedure ($5,200), receipts from the pharmacy, and a note from Neilly’s mom: “…if you have any qualms about this…” The word “any” is underlined three times. Simultaneously intimate and clinical, these installations invite the audience to piece together a narrative of a relatively unfamiliar procedure, while also revealing the minutia that often go unnoticed.
Neilly’s exhibition comes at a moment when transgender rights are a central conversation in both politics and art. While transgender people continue to be targets of discrimination in the workplace in many states and are unable to serve in the military, Neilly’s collection of work attempts to offer clarity where ignorance predominates. The transgender experience has long been a part of academic conversations, spearheaded in part by Butler’s theory of gender performativity, and Female to “Male” contributes to this conversation byillustrating the irresolvable tension that remains between the academization of gender and the lived experience of gender on an unfixed spectrum. But at the same time, Female to “Male” alsorisks appearing as a neat collection of archival objects that visually simplify an extremely complicated and individual experience.
 Judith Butler. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, et al. (New York: Routledge, 1993), 307–320.
Shauna Jean Doherty is a freelance art critic and curator based in Toronto. Her academic research investigates glitch aesthetics and new-media art-preservation practices.
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