May/June 2006

more feature articles:

THE OTHER SIDE OF EVENTS:
THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF VESNA PAVLOVIC

DIEGO SINGH:
SELF-PORTRAIT AS AN/OTHER

TEXT / GEAN MORENO

An ominous sky announces a season‚s worth of rain. It looms over a forlorn winter landscape of still waters that resembles a post-apocalyptic swamp. Hyper-stylized and melancholy, a unicorn skull hovers mysteriouslyųthink Georgia O‚Keeffe channeled through a charmed mix of Mati Klarwein and Odilon Redon. I Was Born in the Desert, 2005, has been elegantly rendered in graphite. Like all of Diego Singh‚s drawings of the last couple of years, it is precious and creepy, delicate and morbid, detailed and oversized. It subtly weds fantasy landscapes with drag‚s penchant to over-decorate and over-dramatize.

The man is gone. Anna., 2006, beads, graphite, pastel, and ink on paper, 44 x 76 inches (courtesy of the artist and Fredric Snitzer Gallery)

Faux crystals and make-believe gems often turn up on Singh‚s drawings. If these works never plumb the depths of gaudiness that drag often calls home, there is nonetheless a playing-with-mommy-dearest‚s-jewels-while-she‚s-away feel to them. The suburban housewife‚s jewelry boxųglittery but fake, and always overdoneųmay well be drag‚s basic toolbox. But Singh‚s drawings steer us to an alternative modelųthe implacable hardcore mistress‚ black attire, stilettos, and s/m trysts. This gets us closer to their stern cross-dressing logic.

I'm flying, I‚m flying my friend and I‚m lighter than I've ever been, 2006, graphite, beads on paper, 40 x 60 inches (courtesy of the artist and Fredric Snitzer Gallery)

Singh often speaks of these drawings as kinky self-portraits. Reveling in the irony of the association, he has compared his relationship to these portraits with annoying musicians who crank up their own CDs. This notion of the delegated self-portrait, of portraiture through carefully selected objects, of portraiture as a renegade state under the regime of likeness, is one of the most radical ideas that drag unleashes. Just as s/he undoes gender, the transvestite reorganizes the constitutive elements of self-portraiture by becoming another. Here, self-portraiture works through associative layers. If technological reproductionųwhich seems pertinent in any discussion of the mediated selfųhas taught us anything, it is that every successive generation of copy, every new layer, is a distancing from verisimilitude even as it continues to be ineluctably linked to the original material.

In his famous essay „Simulation,š Cuban neo-baroque novelist Severo Sarduy writes of the drag queen: „Rather than affect the essence of the model and its precise, respectful reconstruction, the phenomena that we are dealing withųespecially in the case of human sexual transvestismųseem determined to produce its effect1 Is the self as effect all that is left, now that technology leads rampant incursions into everyday life and inevitably displaces the body, and now that the one-way infobahns of communicative capitalism foreclose on the political? Are we starting to realize that our notion of the self has expired, and that it is now merely mimicking a strong model of the individual that is no longer valid? Like a constant interference signal within the conceptual space of modernist discourse, the transvestite‚s gaze may have actually pointed to the future of identity production.

installation view of Sisters (Trouble Taking Place) at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, 2004-2005, bronze, salt, alabaster, dimensions variable (courtesy of the artist and Fredric Snitzer Gallery)

Taking this idea of transvestite self-portraiture seriously, it‚s no great leap in interpretative logic to read the unicorns that appear, both alive and dead, throughout Singh‚s drawings and installations as stand-ins. Trouble Taking, Trouble Taking Place, 2004, an otherworldly installation that was featured in the Palm Beach ICA‚s final exhibition, employs four hundred kilograms of salt and numerous quartz rocks in order to render the perfectly crystalline pasture for Singh‚s cast-bronze unicorns. The artist speaks of these unicorns as nature‚s aberrations or anomalies. As such, they allow him to explore the idea of queerness and the possibility of hybridityųor rather, post-hybridityųan identity that relies on superimposition without synthesis, of piling disparate elements that don‚t seek to mingle into a coherent whole or singularity.

If the unicorn has been recurring in Singh‚s works for some years now, a different proxy is surfacing in the new series of pastel drawings on sewn black papers in his studio: the octopus. Singh has been appropriated this tentacled delegate from his new obsessionųUkraine-born Polish director Andrzej Zulawski‚s gender-bending madcap film Possession, 1981, and, more specifically, its young star and near suicide Isabelle Adjani. (Distraught over the film, which she considered psychic pornography, she slashed her wrists). The story begins with the hysterical unraveling of Adjani‚s and Sam Neill‚s marriage. Eventually, Adjani goes on to give birth to an octopus in a subway car in a gruesome scene. The octopus, in turn, becomes her perfect and insatiable sexual partner. Bestiality, Berlin, barriers, breakdowns, Oedipal subtexts, and doublings weave a complex thematic tapestry that makes the film much too tweaked for the unimaginative „horrorš designation that is often pinned to it.

IMAGE 4: He came riding fast as a phoenix out of five flames, 2005, graphite on paper, 96 x 48 inches (courtesy of the artist and Fredric Snitzer Gallery)

The octopus can be both phallic and female. This is why this creature interests Singh; it can penetrate and be penetrated. This takes us right back to the drag queen, to the way s/he undoes both „manš and „woman.š Although the octopus plays a male role in the film, one of Singh‚s favorite anecdotes involves an uncouth critic who told him that he could definitely „stick his dick in that vagina.š Of course, he wasn‚t looking at a vagina, but at an octopus rendered in a very stylized fashion. Singh is constantly after the meaning of the slash mark in the drag queen‚s s/he. This slash is interesting insofar as it seemingly manages to mark a new territory for identityųsome hybrid third genderųwhile it actually does the very opposite: it undoes both the „sheš and the „he.š It taxes the grammar of designative gender, the normative linguistic undercurrent of identity construction. It takes up residency in the space of undecidability and indeterminacy.

Singh‚s over-dramatization is related to Sarduy‚s overtly baroque languageųboth are driven by a desire to de-naturalize, to reveal that all we take as given has, in fact, been socially and culturally constructed. They both seek to reveal the historical contingency of our operative conceptsųlike self or genderųin order to make them, once again, spaces for interrogation and play.

NOTES

1. Severo Sarduy, „Simulation,š in Written on a Body, trans. Carol Maier, New York: Lumen Books, 1989, 97.

Gean Moreno is a Contributing Editor of ART PAPERS. His studio visit with Lorenzo De Los Angeles was published in our July/August 2005 issue. He also delved into the paranormal dimension of Adam Putnam‚s work in our March/April 2006 issue.

 

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