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GET TO WORK – Tracy Quan, Georgia Taia and Paris Taia, a.l.o.t.o (a league of their own) 2017, three-channel digital video, sound, 3:16 minutes, 3:20 minutes, 3:15 minutes.

Sometimes it really does feel like we’re talking about gender more than we ever have before. Within my social and professional bubble, even the most casual conversation seems to tilt towards gender critique; that is to say, it’s hard to encounter anything without encountering gender.

So why curate an exhibition around gender if gender is almost omnipresent in 2017, as both a mode of social organisation and a lens with which we understand our lives, our worlds and ourselves? I wanted to bring gender into this quarter of Antidote because I wanted to create an exhibition that re- mystifies gender. Many of us find ourselves talking about gender as if it’s a completely known, somewhat universal and even static phenomenon. But this group exhibition shows just how unknowable, messy, entangled, complicated, individual, malleable, fluid and opaque gender is, even while it maintains its status as a social marker legible to all of us.

In looking for works that felt important to me, I unconsciously drifted towards works of (sometimes abstract or exploded) self-portraiture. Perhaps this is because gender, as a politically fraught social concept, can only be truly understood through the individual. When we talk in universalisms or in broad terms, we can isolate gender. But when it’s experienced as an individual and performed at the level of personal identity, gender resists our attempts to demarcate it from the whole. How can I ever be see things or do things as a woman, when I will always be a very specific woman, in my socially- signified body?

There is no workable definition of femininity or masculinity because femininity and masculinity don’t exist. There are only very complicated expressions of complicated femininities and masculinities, ever changing and constantly being reimagined and renegotiated. And perhaps there’s no better way to contemplate this idea, than to read the personal expressions of complicated identities that we’ve placed side by side in the gallery for Engender. These stories chosen are not just beautiful pieces of art. These are profound works that manifest experiences of brotherhood, sexuality, power, vulnerability and race in unique but paradoxically universal ways.

Echo Morgan’s exquisite body painting and endurance performance questions the exoticisation of her slender frame and ‘passive’ body. Tony Albert’s portrait is bound up in masculine aesthetics that could strike the audience as ‘aggressive’, though the tense vulnerability of the portrait demands that the viewer interrogate their own bias in receiving the image. Mesiti’s exultant work re-frames and re-performs a frenzied and mesmerising dance performed by young virginal women for men in Berber culture. A ritual that could be perceived as misogynistic is enchanting and enthralling; the film registers as a self-reflexive performance of femininity, which alludes to, more broadly, a more profound human ability to subversively perform what has, historically, been painful.  Get to Work’s video work highlights the fetishistic, sexualised and highly political mode of seeing and being seen that coalesces around perform of gender, race and identity. Their futuristic reimagining of themselves not only confronts our current frames of reference for identity formation but generates new possibilities for looking at and living in bodies, much like Archie Barry and Max Milne’s utopian photograph of bodily possibility. Angela Yu and Liam Benson work in similar trajectories but with a focus on bringing the body into contact with the natural world that manifests outside of and with the body; their work with flowers provides a salient counterpoint to the obviously gendered human body, by implicitly asking the audience to consider the gendered use, aesthetics and politics of that which grows around our gendered anxieties.

I thought about writing more about these works, on teasing out the affinities and frictions between them in order to craft a text that would adequately sit alongside these artistic imaginings of gender. But it seems more fitting, in a show full of self-portraiture and self-determination, to allow these individual artists and collectives to have their words placed next to one another, to support and challenge one another. What follows are excerpted (and slightly edited, for the sake of clarity) words from the artists, about their works.

Enjoy this gendered chorus.

Tony Albert, Brothers, 2012

This new body of work was inspired by events that took place in Sydney’s Kings Cross in April 2012, while Albert was artist-in-residence in the neighbouring inner-city suburb of Woolloomooloo. A car full of teenage boys had been joyriding and suddenly lost control of the car, injuring a female pedestrian. In an effort to defuse the situation, local police shot and wounded two of the boys, one fourteen years old and the other seventeen. That the police not only drew weapons but also shot and wounded the boys, one has to ask: Were they targeted because of the colour of their skin? In all likelihood, the reality is that—as young Aboriginal men—they were. Sydney journalist Inga Ting has done extensive research into the incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians, and the statistics are startling, revealing an incredible over-representation of Indigenous Australians within the prison system. Indigenous Australians are now 14.3 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians, and about one in four prisoners is Indigenous, even though Indigenous Australians make up just 2.5 percent of the general population.

In response to the Kings Cross events, racial tensions flared across the community and rallies were subsequently organized. At one of these protests, Albert saw a group of young Aboriginal men, friends of the boys who had been shot, arrive shirtless with red targets painted on their bare chests. Struck by their vulnerability and strength, Albert envisioned a series of portraits in their honour. (Words from Sally Brand’s short essay ‘Our Brothers’).

Nakh Removed, Angelica Mesiti, 2015

The exultant Nakh Removed 2015, examines and reimagines a Berber ritual – the rite of the nakh, or hair dance – where the repeated rocking of the head and body are reputed to elevate the dancer into a trance state. Young women would traditionally conduct these hypnotic rhythms during the wedding festival season that follows the first harvest, but here, they take place in the contemporary space of the studio. Here, the dance has been (re)appropriated by five Parisian women of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian origin.

Angela Yu, Prudish Boulder, 2016

Voyeurism and female sexuality have always gone hand in hand, whether it’s seen in the works of Gauguin or in pornography. Prudish Boulder inserts itself into this historical relationship, by commenting on voyeurism and its relationship to female sexuality through questioning the core essence of voyeurism and the enticing nature of viewing an unsolicited female nude. In the work, I challenge the notion of voyeurism by subjecting myself to the environment, by immersing myself in an everyday environment and transforming the space into something ‘hyper-feminine’ – with a dream like filter, opaque water and native flowers the space is soft, aesthetically pleasing and instantly engaging. I create an eerie power dynamic between audience and artist by pairing the space with a birds eye view framing of the bath and the nude female body, where the female body is instantly objectified and the power dynamic between the audience and the artist is established: there is a viewer and then there is the viewed. The title Prudish Boulder comes from the coincidence that one of the flowers I used in piece was a native flower called ‘thryptomene saxicola’. I’ve always been intrigued by the roots (no pun intended…) and translations of flower names and ‘thyptomene from the greek means coy, prudish’ and saxicola in Latin means rock or boulder. Given the concept of the piece I thought it was tongue in cheek and strong to simply objectify the female subject as a prudish boulder.

Echo Morgan, Be the Inside of the Vase, 2012

The performance Be the Inside of the Vase was divided into two parts. The first story began with my father’s attempt to commit suicide. The performance revealed my uneasy childhood and difficult relationship with my father. I was still and silent whilst my voice revealed the narrative using a pre- recorded audiotape. In the second performance the story moved towards my relationship with my other. Through my rather brutal personal history, I addressed sexually political statements such as “women should be like vase: smooth, decorative and empty inside” and “don’t be a vase, pretty but empty inside. Be the inside, be the quality!” from my mother. And then from myself, “this is my voice, my story, my childhood, please break my vase”.

Liam Benson, The Executioner & Opal Queen, 2015 & 2012

The Executioner has a focus of acknowledging the impact of inherited privilege gained through violence. The subtext of subverting gender is also woven into these images. The Executioner has floral embroidery over the hood (some of my best embroidery work I reckon), which is drawn from European classic patterns and designs. The Executioner also links in to the work I am doing now with embroidered flowers. I want to continue to subvert the symbols and tropes (including flowers) we use in relation to our identity by opening them up to a broader context and allow fluidity and interpretation. The Opal Queen is about my mother and Australia’s evolving relationship with it’s British heritage. This work embraces the loss, legacy and potential surrounding the passing of generations and emergence of the new.

Get to Work, a.l.o.t.o (a league of their own), 2017

In a series of faux trading cards, Get to Work elevate themselves into athletic champions by creating a league of their own. This futuristic projection of racial representation manifests in the form of collectable figures to be observed, admired and even fetishised. The treasured icons borrow from idolatrous tendencies toward sporting athletes, celebrities and sci-fi heroes and create their own world in which to freely exist in.

Archie Barry & Max Milne, still from Face Feels, 2016

Team God Twerk is the name of an ongoing creative collaboration between performance artist Archie Barry and photographer Max Milne. Together Barry and Milne adopt the language of advertising and fashion photography to create glossy images of bodies and faces that deny succinct gendered readings. In this way, the artists take up a politic of queering the mainstream. This image from the 2016 series Face Feels features Barry’s figure hanging mid-motion, puppet-like in an ambiguous pose. Barry’s facial features are drowned out by electric blue glitter, forming a reflective camouflage that denies viewers access to their emotive expression and identity. With one hand coated in blue glitter and the other their natural skin tone, Barry’s presence is suggestive of an intermediary or transitional state in which the laws of physics and the cultural laws of gender are suspended.