She’s Got Hands and She’s Not Afraid to Use Them

Lesbian Biology 101(circa 1950): case studies: Szu Burgess
March 31 – April 29, 2000

a response to the exhitibition by Robert Shaw

WHAT I READ
Remember when first you read Sarah Schulman’s novel, People in Trouble? The one set in the East Village? About a love triangle between a straight artist couple and the woman’s lesbian lover? Where the woman in the middle is a performance artist whose performance defeats a greedy landlord, and there’s an interracial gay male couple, one of whom dies of AIDS, and there’s a scene where the lesbian meets the straight guy and they form a strained relationship, and the lesbian couple becomes involved in organizations defending people with AIDS and an AIDS activist hatches a scheme to steal credit cards to feed the poor? Doesn’t ring a bell?

How about that time you and a friend were in New York and saw Jonathan Larson’s play, Rent? You know, the one set in the East Village? About a love triangle between a straight artist couple and the woman’s lesbian lover? Where the woman in the middle is a performance artist whose performance defeats a greedy landlord, and there’s an interracial gay male couple, one of whom dies of AIDS, and there’s a scene where the lesbian meets the straight guy and they form a strained relationship, and the lesbian couple becomes involved in organizations defending people with AIDS and an AIDS activist hatches a scheme to program an ATM to…well, you get the picture.

Schulman’s novel is generally viewed as a convincing and resonant commentary on poverty, sexual orientation and homelessness. Gay people, people of colour and people with AIDS form the texture of her diverse and vibrant community, and Schulman’s intelligent and sympathetic understanding of the politics revolving around and amongst the disenfranchised makes for a compelling read.

Larson’s play, of course, has received excellent reviews and to date grossed more than a billion dollars. Schulman’s book on the other hand, well, let’s just say that lesbian authors usually keep their day jobs. And because Larson neglected to mention that her novel may have provided some ‘source material’ , she missed out on the Rent cash cow (of course, that unexpected aneurysm and being dead meant he did too). Not to worry.

Schulman has since written Stage Struck, in which she describes all the tawdry details of how a book got exploited for a play that straight people could feel really adventurous checking out. The play, she contends, is popular with mainstream audiences because so much of it is false – the two guys sharing a New York apartment (one of whom has AIDS) are straight, heterosexuals are at the heroic centre of the AIDS crisis, the experiences of gay people and people with AIDS are exactly the same as those found in the dominant white culture, a culture with apparently the same cultural references as people of colour. Yeah, that sounds pretty real.

Rent, she contends, is comforting to mainstream audiences because they can mingle with the disenfranchised without having to question their own privileged social position. Because after all, aren’t we all the same?

WHAT I SAW
Lesbian photographer Szu Burgess’ installation of ‘Lesbian Biology 101 (circa 1950): case studies’ at Ace Art addressed issues of heterosexual privilege with her usual intelligence and humour, but this show was particularly special.

The pieces themselves consist of seven large murals, each an assemblage of abutted inkjet prints and appropriated text, and Burgess’ obvious delight in exploring the de/constructive possibilities of computer-generated images has retained her integrity and strengths as a photographer while resulting in a satisfying and cohesive show. The murals themselves are large, ranging from five to twelve feet wide, and proved a dominating presence in the gallery.

Burgess’ colour and black & white images share the female nude as their muse, and collectively explore the strength, beauty and resilience of lesbian identity and sexuality. Transgressive images are included, incorporating iconography more commonly found amongst the leather/sm crowd, and cleverly reverse the conceit of bondage to one of liberation. Her subjects lounge and stretch for the camera, their calm demeanor a delightful affront to the presumptive notion of lesbian shame. Single images have been split into multiple frames, a white border enclosing each photograph, further fracturing the image. As a construct it works well, in part because the close observation it demands makes the images work best. It also functions as a commentary on lesbian representation; the power of these images is not diminished by a viewer’s skewed perception, regardless of their sexual orientation or preconceptions.

Rich tones of gold, black and brown suffuse the colour photographs and, in keeping with the theme of lesbian biology, illuminate specific areas of the body: an upturned head looks elsewhere while dappled light caresses the neck, breasts and torsos that dominate the foreground, hands brush groins, muscled shoulders and backs are profferred to the viewer. This is what a lesbian’s body looks like, they suggest, take a good look.

Of course, Burgess has always had a soft spot for propaganda, and used this show to pair her photographs with explanations about the ’causes’ of lesbianism, many culled from 1950’s psychology journals, an interesting juxtaposition that proved both provocative and amusing. As the text in one mural explains, “homosexuals may have different proportion between the upper and lower lengths of the body sections, as compared to heterosexuals”. An accompanying diagram illustrates this theory with the solemn reserve of the scientific journal from which it was acquired. That this disproved theory now sounds ridiculous is not the point; loud disco music, astrological influences, atavism, recruitment, hormonal imbalances and consorting with the wrong-gender peer group have all since taken their turn as the ’cause’ of homosexuality. Even this year, I understand, lesbians can be identified by the shape of their hands.

Photographer Szu Burgess and author Sarah Schulman each offer convincing evidence that despite mainstream society’s obsession with where the heck they came from, lesbians are doing quite well, thank you very much. Of course, if straight people could just stop staring at lesbians’ hands for a moment, they might undertake a more interesting and complex task – tackling their own homophobia and looking a little deeper into class structure, privilege, racism and their own vested interest in ensuring that the disenfranchised stay that way. But that’s not very sexy, is it?

Robert Shaw is a lesbian trapped in a gay man’s body.