Friday, June 26, 2009

"The Signifiers"

COMFORTING AS IT IS to think of gay history as a series of ever expanding victories away from a culture that was once so unforgiving and hateful, we continue to confuse tolerance with equality. We are in danger of falling into the smug delusion that every advance is a permanent one, yet our history is something more fluid. As the co-curator and chief archivist with the International Gay History Archive throughout the 80s – then the largest collection in private hands of archival materials and ephemera in North America – I was impacted directly in my understanding of the broader context of our political, social, and cultural lives. This provided me with a wealth of raw information that fed directly into my art practice. This collection, with materials dating from the late-Victorian era, is now part of the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection of the New York Public Library. Using this collection as the basis for their 1994 exhibition, “Becoming Visible”, the NYPL demonstrated how our present relative safety and well being has been matched or exceeded in other places and at other times. The sophistication of London in the 1890s, or Berlin, Paris, and Harlem in the 1920s seemed permanent only to be destroyed by events beyond our control. The distancing of time and geography has made it easy to overlook that current political discourse often echoes a chilling past. In an on-going series of digitally altered photographs, THE SIGNIFIERS (2002 - ) appropriates a group of snapshots from the time before rainbow flags, when the coded language of 1950s physique photography slipped below the censorious radar of North American conservatives and offered clues to a forbidden life. When viewed from our urban aerie of self-satisfaction and relative freedoms, it is easy to forget how dangerous it once was to be flamingly queer. Yet at their best, these sweetly erotic mail-order delicacies were mini-masterpieces of film-noir shadows and pan-historical reference. While they were not quite art and not quite pornography, they distinguished themselves from their equally testosterone-fuelled (but decidedly more Neanderthal) low-rent hetero counterparts with a euphemistic vocabulary of props and studio backdrops. This was what signified these photographs as being “gay” – the background was communicating a coded language that only the initiated could crack. While the original snaps sentimentally pine for a love affair with a past that never existed, in my updated versions the glistening demi-gods have been digitally removed placing the remaining shadowy backdrops of these once nostalgic bits of homoerotic fluff squarely in the present. While this project explores the notions of loss and memory, disappearance and cultural invisibility – whether from disease or repression or neglect, specific interpretations are left open-ended. In their own insinuatingly melancholy way, they are quietly horrifying. BRUCE EVES

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