Project Space: Michelle Handelman
by Michelle Handelman
Michelle Handelman’s work on view at Arthouse, Dorian, a cinematic perfume, recently ignited a debate on queer imagery in contemporary visual art and institutional self-censorship. For this issue’s Artist’s Space, …might be good invited Handelman to share her thoughts on the controversy and the March 24th panel at Arthouse, “Inflammatory Images and the Politics of Sex,” that was organized in response to it.
Being asked to cover a panel that’s happening because of an action against my own artwork feels a bit like writing my own obituary, both triumphant and defeatist. After all, was this panel necessitated by the actions of the institution or by the provocative content of my own work?
My video installation Dorian, a cinematic perfume opened to the public at Arthouse on Feb 2nd. Two weeks after the opening, I received a call telling me that a board member objected to my piece running while the teen programs were operating, and that my piece was now shut down during those program times until another solution could be found. It was never clear to me just exactly what they found offensive for teens, or why teens were allowed to view it during gallery hours outside the teen program. However, it was very clear that this was not a curatorial decision, but rather a board decision, and that I, the artist, was not invited to the conversation. Quite simply, a decision was made, and I was informed of it. In the weeks that followed I had the opportunity to speak with several board members who were not in agreement with this action, and one of the things I had hoped to get out of this panel was simply some clarity on the situation. Who exactly did object? Why? And why wasn’t I consulted?
But the real story is never revealed in the public discourse. Language is coded; panelists are coached; and proof of this comes in its wake, as several audience members who spoke out at the panel came up to me afterwards to privately voice the “real story.” The real story gets pieced together during private phone calls, casual hallway encounters and dinner conversations while the panel functioned as a decoy, a kind of institutional camouflage. If it sounds a little psy-ops, it is. While the panel is an attempt at transparency, in the end it reveals very little about what actually happened.
Co-organized by Elizabeth Dunbar, Curator and Associate Director of Arthouse, and Noah Simblist, Associate Professor of Art at Southern Methodist University and Curatorial Fellow at UT’s Visual Art Center, the panelists included Noah, myself, Andy Campbell, PhD candidate in the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin and lecturer at TSU in San Marcos, Texas; Rose Reyes, Director of Austin Music Office; Ann Reynolds, Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History and the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at UT Austin; and kt shorb, director, performer, writer and founder of the Generic Ensemble Company.
“I think that this notion of discourse and the overwhelming hunger and interest from the public to earnestly engage with difficult subject matter was huge,” stated Simblist after the panel. But Campbell added, “I felt that the panel ended up being akin to the theremin that Armen Ra plays in your video—we approached but didn't touch ‘it,’ nevertheless a sound was made.”
What was this "it" from which we were protecting “this phantom teen, who comes with a phantom parent,” as Campbell so succinctly phrased? The "it" was sexual content, and in this case, specifically queer sexual content. The mere fact that this panel took place clearly illustrates that sex is still very pathologized in our society, that no one knows how to talk about sex and that American culture teaches children to fear their own bodies and sexual responses. This is what needed to be talked about, but sadly never was.
During the panel, Dunbar was in the most precarious position of all, as she was there not only as the curator who chose and supported the work, but also as an administrator of Arthouse suporting administrative decisions that were made in response to her curatorial choices. She opened the talk by posing the question, “What do you consider inflammatory images?” Reynolds immediately questioned the whole premise of the panel by responding, “This language of ‘inflammatory images’ is a masculine construction that prevents us from actually talking about the specifics of content." shorb opened the conversation even more by adding, "It's about resistance and tension … By simply making the marginal visible, one comes up against resistance and attack."
As I watched the panelists and audience members slowly peel back the layers that kept us from the truth, it was clear to me that few in this room felt satisfied with the conversation. When Dunbar explained that Arthouse had no objections to the fact that Dorian depicted gay culture, but that they only objected to the sex, Campbell shouted from the far end of the table, "But it is gay sex!"
Again, the invisibility was visible. The refusal to name what “it” was.
Simblist brought up how it’s inevitable that when an institution grows, its status as an “alternative” contemporary art space is lost and that it must serve a much wider demographic of funders. He questioned if this is the moment that Arthouse finds itself in. After the panel he said, “The goal for me was to make a private conversation that invoked a public actually public … The most that could have been gained was an honest debate between those from the community, including members, board, staff and beyond. Unfortunately, those who objected most strongly to Handelman’s content did not come or participate in debate”.
One audience member asked why the piece was shut down if there were no complaints. When Dunbar responded, "We have learned from this. In retrospect Arthouse would have done things differently,” artist, board member and UT Professor Teresa Hubbard immediately raised her hand and asked, “What has Arthouse learned?”
There was talk about Arthouse doing more public outreach and public education, but oddly nothing was ever mentioned about involving the artist in these discussions and strategies. There was no talk about the general notion of artists’ rights, regardless of any kind of content or censorship issues which seemed to completely contradict the point of inviting me to the panel in the first place.
An analogy is often made that an artists’ artworks are like their children. When you find out one of your children has been shut down, silenced, it feels like a deep violation of human rights. shorb voiced what was in my opinion, the most important point of the entire evening, invoking the many queer teens who have committed suicide in recent years: “It is deeper than just a fear of difference. People are afraid of the sameness they'll find … There's a fear of the self who is mirrored in someone who is such a freak."
For me this not only represented the entire reason we were sitting there, but also summed up what is systemically wrong with American society. I can only hope my work plays some part in changing this.
Michelle Handelman is a New York based artist who makes confrontational works that explore the sublime in its various forms of excess and nothingness. Using constructions of video, photography, live performance and text, she challenges the viewer to confront their own identity while drawing from her own personal experience. She is an Associate Professor in the Film/Video Department at The Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston.