The world holds up an imperfect mirror, distorting reflections, imposing only its own restricted field of vision. In its looking glass, the image in sharpest focus is – more often than not – middle class, white, heterosexual and male, someone it’s easy to picture sitting pretty on the sofa of a television studio. But its peripheries are murkier, more indistinct, at the furthest edges of visibility.
The artists gathered together in Contested Bodies, a vibrant and unruly corpus of works at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds representing the less frequently visible bandwidth of identity, burnish the margins of the glass to a truer reflection, make new mirrors to better capture an image they themselves might recognise. In doing so, they offer an abundance of riches, a lushness of hybridity, a realm to intoxicate, rather than stifle, the senses.
Encapsulating this giddying play of possibility, spinning out the ambiguities between what can be said and what can be gazed at, Sin Wai Kim’s Narrative Reflections On Looking, Part One: She Was More Than The Sum Of My Parts is an elegantly complex video piece in which Kim’s conversation with an apparent magazine doppelganger is one-sided in terms of words only. Communicating through the glitter and pout of drag, the non-binary artist makes of themselves a Warholian multiple, internalising the high-gloss glamour they’re presented with, seduced by it, but ultimately abandoning its surfaces for the pleasure of their own company.
By contrast with such heady stuff, the emotional starkness of Larry Achiampong’s arresting Glyth Series 1 #4 sobers the viewer, pulling them up short. In a snapshot that could have fallen out of any British photo album from the pre-digital decades, Achiampong has effaced his own likeness (and those of his family, in the frames behind him), replacing it and them with a black hole of absence, a featureless abstraction of the gollywog character that backwaters of white society continue to defend as harmless. Achiampong’s piece tears away the scab of thoughtlessness that seeks to wish away the wound, revealing as he does so the existential pain of everyday erasure. As protest, the work has all the shock of self-harm, the dislocating depth of Munch’s Scream set incongruously beside a wall-mounted gas fire.
While wildly different species of artistic response proliferate, there is inevitably evidence of convergent evolution. Such works address the viewer directly, with a self-possession that defies definition by an inward masculine gaze. For instance, Body En Thrall, Martine Gutierrez’ self-portrait with melon falsies bulking out her bikini top stares down objectification, disarming the reductionist language that sexualises anatomy with a pun that cuts it back down to size. There’s like potency at work in another monochrome photograph by Maryam Eisler. In her Matador and Minotaur, the female subject holds the skull of a defeated bull, its orifice planted strategically in a manner that suggests not only a vulval power but – in the command with which she readily handles its horns – a complementary phallic one.
Like the best of the works on display, Eisler’s piece complicates, tangles and enriches, resisting the conventional certainties of more limiting roles by presenting the alluring alternative of an extravagant freedom. At a time when the right’s insistence that its own monopoly on space at the mirror’s focal point is a consequence of affording visibility to those more accustomed to being shunted out of sight, when a prime minister who graduated in philosophy, politics and economics can describe his polarised position on gender identity as ‘common sense’, the urgency of the corrective vision of Contested Bodies can hardly be overstated.
In its endlessly inventive ways, it demands to be seen.
All photos by Justin Slee