Like a drag show itself, I didn't know what to expect when I walked into the 'DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics' exhibition at the Southbank Centre.The title of the exhibition fascinated me. 'Drag' and 'Self-Portraits'. According to the exhibitions own website, "'drag' is the generic term for a tradition of performances that involve dressing up and creating alter-egos in order to parody cultural, social or political systems and tropes". If drag is the creation of a character, how can that be used to make a self-portrait, a depiction of ones true nature?
I expected to see depictions of the truths of queer history. The poverty, the pains and the abandonment, all produced through a manipulation of the body. What i did not expect as I walked through the entrance doors, was to be standing face to face with a bejewelled dildo wearing an Elizabethan Dress. Renate Bertlmann's Innocenz VI is exactly that. A red and black, Elizabethan dress that is corseted at the waist. Out of the ruffled collar extends a black dildo where the neck should be, its circumcised head lined with red jewels. It stands powerfully and proudly in the centre of the room, looking directly at those entering the space.
Along the right wall is three TV screens each depicting the various stages of one getting into drag. A piece that echoed the Turin Shroud but could also be a face wipe Trixie Mattel used to de-drag, showed the print of a Drag queen's make-up transferred onto fabric. In the same way that Christ's glorious transformation from death to life supposedly left an imprint upon the burial cloths, so to does Victoria Sin's transformation from a woman back to a man leave an imprint.
The exhibition was full of late twentieth century artists and their different takes on gender and the body. From Robert Mapplethorpe to Cindy Sherman. A piece by Ulay presented an ironic turn as the art presented on the wall was a whitened out face ready for the artistry to be drawn upon it. Hunter Reynolds' Shhh showed the artist dressed in the style of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, his chest hair peering out behind the black dress and pearl necklace. His lip and eye make up created the illusion of femininity however, the tape used to pull back his face was purposefully showing while he sported his natural hair. The artist was hyper feminised and yet was clearly still a man. The stand out piece was a picture by Rose English of a Drag queen laying on her back and taken from the top of the head. Past the wig and forehead, long tentacles of eyelashes extended out of the face, long and spidery. The piece was both creepy and beautiful and impossible not to stare at.
What was beautiful about the exhibition was the almost grotesque realism. One collection of photos showed a man shaving off his beard as a woman then sticks it to her face. By the end one was left with a beardless man and next to him a Drag king. The piece questions the accepted concepts of gender. Does the appearance of the beard make the man or the ability to grow the beard? Questions like this pervaded the entire room. One of the screens depicted a drag queen using everyday objects to drag themselves. What does it say that femininity can be created through the use of cheap items that can be found in any supermarket? This wasn't the same drag one sees presented in the media. This wasn't Rupaul's Drag Race in all its glamour and high-fashion, comedy and death drops. This was the nitty gritty. Those who used their bodies to challenge the understood gender norms. Those who paved the way for the queens on TV and touring the world.
This grotesque beauty was true to the lives and experiences of those in the queer community at the end of the twentieth century. The poverty, the hate, the reality of the AIDS crisis and the horror those individuals faced. The lives were heartbreaking, the illnesses and disease they faced were gruesome but their art, their fight and their courage were all beautiful. Their drag was not just a creation of a character, it was the expression of their histories. The room given to the exhibition was small and dingy. A room that almost seemed like an after thought (kind of like the people depicted within it) but, the art hung in that room was groundbreaking and enchanting, proud and beautiful.
The Exhibition runs from the 22nd August to 14th October. Particular Saturdays feature guided tours by Drag queens Shane ShayShay Konno and Timberlina.