Underground, Overground

Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights (People’s History Museum, 25 February-3 September 2017)

I had a bit of a mooch around this, although I think that I spent an hour in here. It is an interesting example of history from below, curated by members of the Manchester LGBT+ community, which I suspect meant that things were selected that might otherwise have been missed. It also meant that there were overlaps between sections and probably gaps. There was probably more stuff from post 1968 than pre-1968, but it was good to see a copy of the Wolfenden Report. There were posters, badeges, photos, fanzines, newsletters, tickets and so on.

It was hard to navigate, although perhaps it made sense to have a section on protest and another on Queers of Color, even if Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners weren’t in the former section. There was a front page of a tabloid covering Sue Lawley’s experience of a protest on the Six O’Clock News but a photo of four of the five lesbians who abseiled into the House of Lords. The context for this, Clause 28, is explained elsewhere with a copy of Jennie Lives with Eric and Martin, the book that triggered Tory homophobia.

I suspect the last thing that you are likely to see is a timeline, from 1533 or thereabouts, to the present day, noting significant moments in LGBT+ history and law. The temptation is to go round again, slotting everything into its rightful place, restoring the master narrative. Perhaps this needs to be avoided? Perhaps you can’t separate issues of ethnicity and suffragism out from each other, although the exhibition does. I think I would have placed this first, or on the way in.

For the third time this year, I saw some Claude Cahun photographs — in two parts of the exhibition — although this was clearer than the Sidney Copper Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery in suggesting Marcel Moore took them. Like the other two exhibitions, they insisted on naming them by birth name or deadnaming them. Did this need thinking through? Is it different from an artist going by a name other than their birth one?

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Meanwhile, upstairs in the main gallery you can see the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners banner. There’s also a group of photos covering the 1970s and 1980s music scene in Manchester, which overlapped with the queer communities. I overheard a group of young men discussing Queer as Folk and being nostalgic about its depiction of Manchester “even though I wasn’t there”.

I suddenly felt very old.

Obtuse Angels

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part Two: Perestroika
(National Theatre, live and live relay, directed by Marriane Elliott)

Inevitably this will include spoilers for Part One: Millennium Approaches — which I was lucky enough to see live and then as a live relay. Equally, it is impossible to talk about this play without discussing the end. I will single out that part of my discussion as I reach it.
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Approaching Millennium

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part One: Millennium Approaches
(National Theatre, live relay, directed by Marriane Elliott)

When I was unclear that I would get to see Angels in America live, I bought a ticket for a live relay of Part One. Part Two I was uncertain about, given it clashes with the Clarke Award — for that matter I was going to have to give up the Thursday night of the Kent Beer Festival to see Part One. But even when I did get to see Part One and Two, I decided to rewatch.

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Acute Angels

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part One: Millennium Approaches
(National Theatre, directed by Marriane Elliott)

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Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Shortly into this seven and a half hour play — twenty minutes? half an hour? — I mused on Walter Benjamin, a thinker I do not know as much about as I should and his musings on the Paul Klee picture and history.

(When I was researching a chapter on John Wyndham, “Random Quest” and the film Quest for Love, I needed to know about Goethe and Elective Affinities and Paul de Man had written an essay on Benjamin’s essay on someone else’s reading of the novel, but that was too far down the rabbit hole.)

Might this unpack a way of unthinking about Tony Kushner extraordinary play? Ah, he says, having googled, Kushner already knows about the angel of history.

It is a document of a different time — always already an history play. It is set in the plague years, the early years of the HIV crisis, when AZT trials were making headway and it might just have been possible to think of living with AIDS rather than a death sentence. Reagan had been reelected (so had Thatcher) and it was necessary to overcome deep, visceral prejudice in order to gain funding and to educate.

In another part of the forest there was The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s (autobiographical) account of the gay communities coming together to organise itself and campaign over HIV awareness (and also As Is). Angels in America chooses a more fantastical route, like Unicorn Mountain, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals”, Tim and Pete and ”Was…”, leading up to the climactic (and bordering on ridiculous) arrival of an angel at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. In addition to the fantasy, Kushner is evidently aiming for a state of the nation play, via George Bernard Shaw or Arthur Miller.

I can’t imagine what it was like to see the original production, a year or so before the staging of the second half, “Perestroika”. A two hour wait was tough enough. And I have to say, it has aged better than I would have expected. Perhaps President Trump takes us back to a time of Reagan and the sense of a world on the brink of an abyss. I’m not convinced gay marriage was on the agenda in 1986, but clearly same-sex couples were living together even if they would have had few legal rights. A couple of names passed me by — big at the time but lost to history. And as I will note in the next paragraphs, Trump is a partial consequence of one of the characters of the play.

In a sense, the first play is about two couples and that character. WASPy Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), ex-drag queen, reveals to his Jewish boyfriend Louis Ironson (James McArdle) that he has AIDS; Louis can’t handle this and thinks about leaving Prior. He is discovered crying in a bathroom by Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey), who has been lying to his wife Harper Pitt (Denise Gough) about his true sexuality. Joe, meanwhile, has been offered a promotion by his boss, Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane).

Cohn was chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the McCarthy-Army hearings, he had prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason and had been responsible with McCarthy for getting many gay people fired from government employment. In the 1970s, he was the Trump family lawyer, a formidable and aggressive litigator, who defended by going in the attack (sound familiar?). This character — along with the angel — is what has stayed with me most from the HBO adaptation is Al Pacino chewing the scenery. Lane is dialled back, thankfully, with a bit more of a nuanced performance (but it could hardly be less). He is sweary sweary and the audience find this funny. He is the devil offering Joe a pact, playing semantics, offering to be a father to the Mormon, in an almost invisible seduction. He is Not Gay — gays are losers, gays have no power, he has power, he simply has sex with men. He does not have AIDS — he has liver cancer.

The theme of fathers and sons runs through the first play; perhaps just sons as none of the characters are fathers. And there is also a mother and son, as we meet Joe’s mother towards the end, setting up part two. There is the patriarchy at work, man handing on advice, knowledge, power and wealth to the next generation, except it may all end here, in the coming apocalypse.

We also have the sense of betrayal — lovers of lovers, husbands of wives, Cohn surely of Joe. So many characters want to get out and leave — complaining that they have been out in an impossible situation, not of their making. This sense of inevitability, of predestination, of the elect and the damned connects with an ongoing discussion of guilt. Louis, in particular, has long monologues (even as part of dialogue) about Judaism and guilt, as well as the after life. The scene is set for this by the opening monologue — a funeral oration by a rabbi (played by Susan Brown, who later plays a male doctor and the Mormon mother), which also points to immigration, migration and progress, a theme which develops through the second play.

To take the play at its word as a “Gay fantasia on national themes”, it seems to be a very middle class set of characters — with doctors and lawyers. There is a single African American actor, Nathan Stewart-Jones, who plays an hallucinated travel agent and then Belize, a nurse. In the second play he is given a lot more ideological weight, but not so much here. The female roles are a little thin — with Gough’s Harper playing a hysterical, Valium popping wife who has been driven there by Joe, first leaving her alone as he works and then leaving her alone as he “goes for long walks”. (The gay demi-monde is a little cringe worthy in its representation.) As part of her hallucinations, she sees Prior, and engages in conversations with him, and this seems to be real if impossible. In the third act she appears to go Antarctica, in search of friends, a moment which perhaps plays with Robert Walton in Frankenstein.

Much of the staging involves three revolves (sorry — an awful sentence) that keep shifting locations. The staging is meant to be abstract, not realistic, but sometimes this device gets in the way. And when it all slides back, revealing the whole stage for a snow storm, the release from claustrophobia is striking.

And then, the angel.

The first manifestation, if I recall correctly, is a single feather, and then there is a burst of flames. This risked being comic rather than revelatory. But the apparition is worth waiting for — Amanda Lawrence as a kind of Annie Lennox with half a dozen assistants, actually rather sinister not utopian in tone. It seems a very deus ex machina ending, a brave perhaps fool hardy moment.

And of course, as you recall from his roles other than Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield can act — coy, camp, heart broken, tough, resigned, angry, and scared out of his wits at what May of course be a night hallucination, or may indeed be an angel in New York.

(I rewatched the play as a live relay.)

I, Claude

Claude Cahun: Beneath This Mask (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017)
Latent: A Hidden History (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017)

Claude Cahun was born in 1894 to a French literary family and apparent became interested in art and self portraiture from an early age. After experiencing anti Semitism at school in Nantes, Cahun went to a school in Surrey and then to University at the Sorbonne. Cahun was soon moving in artistic circles, including with André Breton and Sylvia Beach, and set up home with her partner, Marcel Moore. In 1937, they moved to Jersey and were there when the Nazis invaded, becoming part of the resistance. They were eventually arrested, and sentenced to death, but survived somehow. Time in jail weakened Cahun’s health and the artist died in 1954. Moore was to live on until 1972 and is buried in the same grave.

The earliest photos on show here, such as Skin Head (1916), are over a century old, but look incredibly modern, perhaps because they anticipated the androgyny of fashion photography of the last forty or so years. There’s a picture from about 1920, with Cahun again as skin head, screaming, hands over ears, á la Munch. The assexuality is shown again in a picture in which Cahun wears a “I am in training – don’t kiss me” shirt along with lipstick hearts on the cheeks and holding a set of barbell weights labelled TOTOR ET POPOL — this seems to be a reference to an early Hergé comic, The Adventures of Totor, Chief Scout of the Cockshafers. A strongman in make up. A model masquerading as a man.

Masquerade recurs — two 1929 pictures have Cahun “As Elle in Barbe Bleue”, in a long dress with x’s and flowers down the front. Here Cahun is playing the (unnamed) wife from Bluebeard, who enters the bloody chamber. Elsewhere we see Cahun as Harlequin, reflected in a mirror (I think with a negative image).

Double exposures allow a dissected body — Cahun’s head in a bell jar, Cahun’s body in a tallboy, reversed in a kind of clothed 69 with Cahun, Cahun’s isolated hands, a hand in the form of a tree, arms emerging from stone… There are a couple of photographs from 1947 with Cahun smoking in a suit, stood on a slab marked PRIVATE (what?) and flanked by gravestones, holding a skull and standing next to a cat. Memento mori. Memento meowi.

As far as I can make out, these are all self portraits, although there’s no give-away cable in almost all of the pictures. Did they have timers? Or did Malherbe operate the camera? Does that stop them being self-portraits? Photographers often have assistants — as do other artists.

What I also wasn’t clear about was whether the exhibition was misgendering Cahun. There were various artists in the 1920s who dressed in male attire and changed their names. Marlow Moss springs to mind — but I’m not clear whether Moss was living as a man or as gender neutral. In the main information panel for the exhibition, we are given some biographical information about how Cahun changed their name and are told “With this new identity Cahun was able to … reject what she saw as the narrow confines of gender.”

Yes, she did.

Ahem.

Perhaps it would be anachronistic to speak of misgendering, in the same way that homosexual becomes a problematic term before 1870 or gay does before… well, it depends. It is possible that somewhere Cahun writes about their preferred pronouns. Did they have a transgender identity? A gender neutral one? A masculine one? Cahun and Moore chose gender neutral names rather than male ones.

In today’s terms, the exhibition deadnames Cahun and Moore. Again, we hover on the fringe of anachronism. And there are many cases of artists who take on a name that is different from the one they are born into and exhibitions will draw attention to that. Is that deadnaming? I’m not sure. And I wonder if the symposium attached to the exhibition, which unfortunately I missed, raised these issues?

Meanwhile, in the front sideroom and lobby are photographs appropriated — is that the term? — by Sam Vale for his show Latent.

(I should declare an interest — he is a colleague.)

Canterbury Christ Church University is home to the South East Archive of Seaside Photography, which brings together various archives including the walkies taken by Sunbeam. Vale has looked through these and found photographs of men isolated together, subjecting them to what you might call a queer gaze.

I might also refer to it as the paranoid gaze, although perhaps “paranoid” isn’t quite the right word. Before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, sexual acts between men were illegal, that is to legislation going back to 1886 (and before that, fourteenth century anti-sodomy legislation). After 1967, it was descriminalised in certain circumstances in England and Wales. The side effect of this is limited documentation of gay life styles and the need to read between the lines. We read homosexuality into imagery — which may or may not be there.

Take Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Fredric Wertham’s reading of the relationship between Batman and Robin. We *know* Philip and Brandon are in a relationship but they never confess to it, they never kiss, we never see them fuck. Sometimes this becomes a location of hidden figures where we have no role models. Sometimes this becomes a witch hunt.

I can remember a picture in the archive that’s been shown a couple of times: two men lying on the beach, of different ages but both adults. Brothers? The age gap felt wrong. Father and son? Uncle and nephew? I just felt that they were lying too close together. Just as Philip and Brandon stand too close together.

So, with the possibility of misreading, the possibility of a creative misreading, a paranoid gaze — or simply the kind of gaydar used to recognise other gay men, Vale offers us moments of men, maybe gay men, hiding in plain sight. Or perhaps not even hiding. The liminal space of the seaside has an ethics all its own.

What happens in Margate, stays in Margate.

The enlargements of the pictures to isolate such details gives a feeling of surveillance and spying, adding to the paranoia. Two men standing on a balcony. Clothed man, naked man. The isolation of a hairy chest and a nipple. A right hand on a naked shoulder. A photo of a photographer taking another man’s photograph. Two men walking past each other — in memory both were looking back. Parties known to each other? Or checking out the talent?

I know Sam has been looking for other venues to show the work at — I hope he has some success.

(An example)