Gasworks | 26 January – 26 March 2017
“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” Since his passing earlier this year, this pithy assertion by Mark Fisher has become a mantra amongst cultural circles, more potent than ever in our current political climate; a war cry for the disenfranchised masses and the alienated subclasses. Visiting Jamie Crewe’s exhibition, The Female Executioner at Gasworks illuminates this urgent task in new light. The exhibition draws attention to the complexities and subtleties of oppression; the everyday battles for emancipation not just within social constructs and assumed conventions, but also deep within ourselves.
The Female Executioner draws inspiration from Monsieur Venus, published in Belgium in 1884. Written by Rachilde (the pen name of Marguerite Vallette-Eymery) – a bisexual, irreverent free-thinker, and known cross-dresser – the novel proposes the ultimate transgression from women’s supressed sexuality in nineteenth-century society. The novel describes a relationship between a masculine aristocratic woman, Raoule de Vénérande, who falls for the young, effeminate and impoverished florist, Jacques Silvert. Seething with salacious scandal, the story witnesses the inversion of their genders, as Raoule governs over Jacques, training and molding him into her mistress, fuelled by perverse displays of self-mastery and control, sexual possessiveness, and class authority. Despite the complex cruelties and power play throughout the novel, and the Victorian moralistic ending, the book nevertheless offers what Crewe sees as a cultural lineage of sorts for the modern-day transgender community. Unpacking the tenacious (though somewhat disturbing) narratives from the story, the works in the exhibition revisit and resituate its enduringly charged contentions tentatively yet with modest determination.
A video work, Adulteress (2017), follows the artistic and painstaking transformation of one of Crewe’s friends into the elegantly made-up, velvet clad Jacques. Ones attention oscillates between contemporary image of the attentive care between companions on screen to the subtitled snippets Raoule’s jealous rage from Rachilde’s original text. Drawn into the enveloping warmth and safety of Crewe’s friendship group at their home in Glasgow, the uncomfortable reality of a trans existence is thrown into stark distinction when the protagonist leaves to walk the streets alone – albeit with spirited confidence – whilst Rachilde’s narration promises a duel to the death. Walking into the city’s night, despite outward defiance, our protagonist now seems terrifyingly vulnerable, no longer surrounded by the protection of friends. The precarity of being oneself is suddenly all too palpable.
Watching over Jacques as he bathes, Raoule’s fetishizes: ‘contours akin to the marble of Paros with its amber transparencies, was worthy of a Venus Callipyge’. Taking ownership over his body, she voyeuristically moulds Jacques into a feminine statuette. As in Adulteress, the process of sculpting is inherent in Crewe’s work as a means of claiming back authorship over the body. Inert being (2017) is series of twenty-eight soy wax tablets imprinted with a bouquet of flowers, which were delivered daily to Jacques’s apartment. Whilst Rachilde’s characters are imbued in sadistic games of control, Crewe’s delicate reworking of the liaison, made from soy – consumed for its anti-androgenic properties, blocking testosterone production – instead evokes the industrious endeavour to sculpt and form oneself.
The second gallery, the walls and ceiling crudely washed with blue dye, frames a seemingly erratic arrangement of old boxes and discarded debris: Wax Figure (2017). The latex sheet draped across them, approximates a reclining body, a skin bereft of muscular or skeletal being, evoking Raoule’s macabre refashioning of Jacques’s lifeless corpse. And only now, after the novel has been unravelled, Crewe finally addresses the audience. A carefully hand-penned text, secreted on the back of a door. Confessional and agonisingly intimate, the text speaks directly to the reader with the candour of a diary entry. Thrown off by abstract thoughts in large red letters vying for attention, punctuating the self-conscious outpouring, Crewe candidly describes to new associates the risks of articulation, use of pronouns, the insecurity, doubt and emotion these provoke, and the experience of striving to belong in their own body: ‘identity smears off me’.
Crewe’s considered and sensitive response to this problematic novel is both sensuous and imbued in the complexities of gender and sexuality, while avoiding its eroticism. The outcome is deeply personal. The warmth and generosity that the work offers – even to an audience member such as myself, ignorant of the transgender experience – allows the work to transcend the Otherness that more often than not shrouds perceptions of transgenderism. Instead the works bare our innate individuality and its elusive fragility, speaking for the nuanced, blurred space of identity that is lost in categorization but that makes our individuality.