Art Out: Aperture Foundation's "Orlando," Curated by Tilda Swinton
By Anita Sheih
Ever since Tilda Swinton played the part of Orlando in Sally Potter’s film adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, she has been fascinated by identity development and transformation. In Orlando, the titular male character wakes up one day as a female, readily accepts the change, and the adventures continue. Revolutionary both in 1928 when the book was published, and in 1992 when the film was released, these ideas of gender fluidity and flexible identity have continued to influence Swinton in her work, her life, and her first photographic curation project, which is on view at the Aperture Gallery until July 11.
Now, almost three decades after she starred as Orlando, Swinton comments on the nature of the creative mind as an entity beyond labels and divisions, free to explore the spectrums of nationality, class, and gender. Through the work of 11 artists, Swinton creates a photographic narrative of identity, beginning with photographs of herself as Orlando. Director Sally Potter created these images of Swinton in costume to prove the producibility of Orlando as a film to executives. In a leap of faith, Potter and Swinton flew to England to shoot on the fourteenth-century estate where Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover and the inspiration behind the original story, spent her childhood.
Other highlights of the show include Zackary Drucker’s portraits of transgender author and speaker, Rosalyne Blumenstein. As a transgender female multimedia artist, Drucker regards Blumenstein as a trailblazing foremother and muse to her work. In one portrait, Blumenstein stands nude, gazing out a bright window in an iconic pose echoed by the marble statue of Botticelli’s Venus behind her, accentuating her unapologetic femininity.
Another photo series by Collier Schorr follows the model Casil McArthur, who transitioned from female to male in a three-year process documented by Schorr’s powerful portraits. Working in both monochrome and color, Schorr captures moments of extreme tension, deep thought, and everyday existence in a captivating sequence of images that allow the viewer a window into McArthur’s journey.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, another photographer who works with windows, was inspired by the opening scenes of the novel Orlando, in which the protagonist plays with the shrunken-head trophy of a past colonial conquest. In a series of photographs that uses light, shadow, windows, reflections, and Orientalist imagery, Sepuya invites the viewer to carefully consider the tensions of race and the issue of perspective through the inclusion of his camera and himself in the photos.
Also drawing on Woolf’s story, Mickalene Thomas created elaborate portraits inspired by the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Orlando. Photographing her partner Racquel Chevremont and performance artist Zachary Tye Richardson, Thomas plays with the visual conventions of gender and sexuality in her massive images mounted on the only patterned wall within the gallery. With ornate wallpaper emphasizing the complex staging and rich costuming of the models, Thomas’s portraits demand that the viewer takes time and looks deeper at these traditional signifiers of gender and class as simply spectacular pageantry.
The thought-provoking works of all 11 contributors do not operate solely in isolation; they come together in a diverse dialogue of identity and fluidity, curated and presented by Tilda Swinton. As she explains in an interview with The New York Times, the “bottom line” of the show is that “[e]veryone is Orlando.” And as she writes for Aperture magazine, it has simply been her “profound privilege to lay the table for this feast” of blurred boundaries, exaggerated and rejected social constructs, and thorough artistic explorations of human identity and consciousness.