Gender-bending art

September 17, 2009

Within the stark walls of the Hillyer Art Space, a hole-in-the-wall exhibition site in Dupont Circle, Susan Serafin seeks to explore the small but significant moments where we judge and are judged by others. Her new installation Multiplying the Body: Gender Performance Remembered and Reconstructed is on display until October 31. Gender identity and sexual characteristics are oftentimes the first things we see in a person. This interactive installation asks why people think in these limited categories, using gender ambiguity to disrupt the balance and the boundaries that society has created.
“When we glance at people, we think ‘was that a guy or a girl?’“ Serafin said, adding, “Why do we instinctively do this?”
The small front room’s bare walls and fluorescent lights do not provide any distraction or welcoming aesthetics. At first glance, the installation can seem underwhelming, but Serafin’s minimalist representations allow the viewer to experience firsthand the way that she sees and categorizes others.
On one side of the room  stands (and hangs) five malleable silicone body casts that appear, upon initial inspections, to all be female.  The figures appear identical except for differences in color. The view from up close tells a different story. One of the busts has sparse hairs emerging from its chest. Is this a man, a woman, or both?
Serafin explained that many people misunderstand the body casts’ genders. “On the body casts, the man I casted is 6’4” and 175 pounds and everybody goes ‘but he has breasts on the mold.’ And I said, but yes, men have breasts too,” she said. “They’re made up the same way we are as women, and we somehow forget they have those body parts.”

Five banners hang on the other side of the room, each displaying body parts. Hands, legs, and chests are represented in these photographs, but the gender of each individual is left somewhat ambiguous. All of the photographs are of women, but the viewer could easily  identify the subjects as men. It is hard to escape our obsession with gender, the categories people fall into, and the restrictions placed by these categories. Whether it’s a group of friend’s questioning a person’s sexual orientation, or even just the moment of confusion when you see a more ambiguously gendered person walking down the street, our thinking is trapped within the boundaries that society has constructed.
“If we could get beyond that we could give people permission to be who they are and not who they have to be,” Serafin said.
With her exhibit, Serafin challenges us to look at the world through a purposefully unbiased lens, making it possible to see much more than gender, sexuality, clothing, and physique.
“What if there was a place where there weren’t these boundaries?” Serafin asked. “Maybe we could be a little bit more true to who we are.”

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Randy Luten

Sarafin has nailed this one. Is this a lead into a movie deal for Robert Redford to sponsor? It doesn’t matter.

Sarafin, I dare not say her first name or it may give her gender away, but that’s for another art project. Anyway, great job Sarafin, your minimalist approach would make Rene Magritte smile and take a bite of the apple.