#1: erotic investments
“What if I start the column with, ‘I think you can judge how experimental an exhibition is, based on how many people turn up who I’d fuck. I only saw one person I’d fuck at the A&D Annual 17’?” I yell over Madonna at the after party. “Who did you want to fuck?” my editor shouts back. There’s more urgency in his question than in any of the art we’ve just spent a few hours drinking near.
Maybe it’s not fair to write off an entire graduate exhibition for being less interesting than my libido. But if the art world ran on an economy of fairness it wouldn’t be what it is: an elitist and offensive industry I’ve spent four years faux-exiting and ranting about, but never actually leaving. Every time I think I’ve been circle-jerked fatally dry, I always seem to orbit out and back into an opening night, just so I can be near a lot of short hair, binders, tattoos, and whatever else I want to see at the time. I’m still working through the idea that I may have made the art world up as an excuse to get a certain kind of masculinity under mine. I’ve tried understanding it through writing but it didn’t quite work – underlining a sentence full of names, he said, “I like this part where you list all these people in the Sydney art scene that you’re into, but don’t you think you should ask them if they want to be named?” I asked why and he talked about ethics and disclosure. I listened to him and decided to write something else but I thought, where’s the vulnerability in being admired? I’m the one putting my name to these desires.
Back at the A&D Annual 17 after party, Ponnaya Devi sits on a stool. Her posture is a pose, punctuated and made meaningful by the way she’s read in a crowd of art-goers who think they’re watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Nat King Cole sings,
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
but is interrupted by text-to-speech software reading https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of _unlawfully_killed_transgender_people in an ‘Australian male accent’:
Amna, 35-year-old and Meeno, 26-year-old, both khwaja sara Pakistanis were allegedly beaten to death and tortured by Saudi police in Riyad 28 February. Clothing and jewellery was also confiscated by the police.
Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
unidentified, a trans person of about 25-years-old was found decapitated and tortured to death in Peshawer, Pakistan 21 October. They had been dead for at least a few days prior to being discovered. Their body was refused entry to a local freezer for fear of contamination and a government contractor has refused to bury the body.
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile
The fact that trans existence configures itself in and against a societal promise of violent death, particularly for brown and black bodies, is a reality that everyone drinking cheap wine in the Flinders Hotel is consciously living in. The sound bites surrounding Ponnaya Devi’s sitting aren’t shocking. But what language can’t articulate is the feeling of watching Devi sit alone, in front of a DJ, with a truth that no one hires a queer performance artist to acknowledge at an after party. In the middle of a hyper-white room of ‘yasssss’ cheers that sound like jeers, looks that seem like leers and desire that feels destructive, all of the alcohol in my blood is being burnt off with the sobriety of Devi’s intervention into a drunk audience’s demands on what drag performance does and what queer people of colour should be wanted for and how they should be loved.
But I know I’m still under the influence because my drunk mind drifts to someone who’s not here: a distant art world crush. I spend the few minutes I have left, before I resume my place at the party, trying to understand the world as it’s understood by my cunt. Why am I rooted to the spot when almost everyone else seems conspicuously unmoved? I know that ego gives the art world its infrastructure but I’m not arrogant enough to think that I have a lower centre of gravity or purer sense of morality than everyone else in the room. Empathy is a learnt skill; I know this because what I have of it came from the twin costs of time and grief. I always thought I cared about people but I never cared about queer people the way I did once they shifted in my mind to an us.
As sobering as seeing actual art at a party is, what really pulls me out of myself is thinking about what it means for me to have been thinking about another artist I’m mildly infatuated with, while being devastated by Devi’s performance. Surely there’s something not-ok in feeling the distance between your identity and a (pre-)lover’s subjectivity collapse under a crush? As I try and unknot my entangled empathies with Ponnaya Devi’s pain, I have to figure out how to have a crush without feeling an unaccounted for affinity to their existence or an unfair share in their struggle, born from my personal romantic attachment. But how do you have a crush – how you do feel affection as a teen dream brain freeze blood rush – ethically? How do you feel erotic investment unsoured by self-interest?
I try to answer these questions as I walk home but I’m stopped by some curbside gossip-come-institutional-critique. Hearing about new abuses of power by men wanking out of ivory towers comes as no surprise, and I leave as quickly as etiquette will allow because I’ve talked enough about cis-men. I want to talk about everything that wasn’t in The Unflinching Gaze and Robert Mapplethorpe. I want to talk about art that’s made by people that I want to be closer to, not further away from. But how can you be an art critic leading with your desires without being like BRAG’s retiring curator, who puts on a show orientated around the public stoking of his exclusionary, erotic fires? Even if you offer up your libido critically, and not just through the cop-out of autobiography, how do you do it without subjecting those you want to the reductive unfairness of lust? How do you write about art that’s made by someone already suffering the slow violence of being just another Othered and adored art world darling?
I go to bed wondering if I’ll ever be able to write about good art or if the rest of my career will be cock-blocked by my juvenile crush-life. I fall asleep thinking, there is violence in being admired. Am I the one displacing you from your own, unknowable subjecthood when I position you as the object of my desire?