In ‘Shapeshifters’, Artists Explore the Always-Fluid World of Identity
Martine Gutierrez, “Head2Toe” (2015). HD video, color, sound.
The sprawling group exhibition Shapeshifters, curated by Tim Goossens, showcases five artists whose work challenges social, sexual and gendered norms. It’s a refreshing show to see out in Venice at Shulamit Nazarian Gallery, which is located almost on the oceanfront. Each piece in the show creates new dialogue around gendered performative politics and notions of self-hood while simultaneously considering the ritualistic nature and necessity of such performances.
Shapeshifters is made up of younger emerging artists Martine Gutierrez, Young Joon Kwak, Felipe Meres and Tori Wrånes, and one “art historical” figure whose work somewhat anchors the newer dialogues that take place. That artist is Lynn Hershman Leeson (a white ciswoman) who explored androgyny and personas in the mid-60s and the early 80s. Long before surveillance and consumerism were mainstream topics, Hershman’s work focused on these, along with the fluid relationship between virtual reality and IRL. Three photographs from her Suicide Series, an early investigation into the relationship between organisms and machines, appear in this exhibition. In “Bride” (1965), we see a photograph of a veil inside a clear plastic cube, positioned like an object discarded but still on life support. Her other image, “Bowie/Hepburn” (1983), cleverly glues together half of each of their faces, suggesting a sort of playful androgyny.
Young Joon Kwak’s “Wig Heel Purse” (2016), a pink plexiglass box that could be an aquarium with glory holes lining the top, mimics high fashion display cases. The object inside is literally a wig, heel and a purse melded into one purse-like object that serves as both a weapon and an object of beauty, bringing out a conversation between femininity and violence, sexuality and pleasure. Similarly, her piece “Singing Mirror” (2016) sings when the viewer picks it up. It calls to mind the “Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all” line from Snow White. But here, Kwak subverts the mirror’s implied power-of-reflection and flips it. Indeed, the mirror holder has agency, thus re-establishing the subjectivity of the (any gendered) gaze rather than the mirror image. In this sense, the viewer’s beauty occupies its own form of agency, and the mirror merely sings for it.
A similar message is echoed in Martine Gutierrez’s pieces “Amalia, Kekchi” and “Maria, Cakchiquel” (both 2016), in which the artist positions women wearing Guatemalan everyday attire in high fashion poses. In doing so, she calls into question the high-society fashion postures usually reserved for expensive clothing, instead bringing in people of color and clothing that is not high-end. We are left wondering about the obvious classism of the fashion industry, and the power of the model’s gaze upon the viewer. Gutierrez deals with these issues more directly in her video “Head2Toe” (2015). For it, she put out a casting call via Craigslist in New York to ordinary people who wanted to act out their fantasies (not porn, but can be fetishistic) in a video that would become something located between fashion and music video. The video starred one woman moving her body all chameleon-like, winding and twisting. One guy asked her to pour water all over his face. She complied.
The other two artists in the show, Felipe Meres, and Tori Wrånes, avoid using the body in their work. Meres’ video “Fsision” (2015) shows slow moving organisms that can be asexual or sexual, and that do not die. The room glows brightly with the organism’s subtle, almost unnoticeable movement.
Norwegian artist Tori Wrånes made all of her pieces on site in the U.S. while she was visiting for the show. In “Sporky” (2016), she hangs a white tank top and gray sweatpants wearing shoes, in a running position, from a giant hanger, almost as it were a bodiless Christ. On the ceiling at the very top of the three-floor gallery, we see legs hanging from the knees down, covered in brown pants and Nike shoes. This piece is called “Runner’s High”, a clever, physical manifestation of the sense that people get after they feel a naturally high from an awesome run.
Shapeshifters is beautifully and smartly curated, creating space for each of the works, all of which you’ll want to spend quite a bit of time getting to know. Each piece holds space in its own way, either through calling into question (while also confessing) a love for fashion, or just wondering what it would be like to actually be able to self-reproduce and never die. With every mutation in this show, one gets closer to a new truth about the way we’re taught to define ourselves, our bodies, and beauty in this world, as limited as it may be.