Drag up your life
CULTURE: GLENN MAINWARING
We sent Q&C’s very own military fitness expert Glenn to the opening night of a new exhibition which celebrates the history of drag, and the result was a revelation. He didn’t come back frocked up, but did discover a new appreciation for the enduring art form.
If you’re expecting dazzling sequined dresses and pictures of the type of glamorous drag queens made famous in RuPaul’s Drag Race then maybe this exhibition isn’t for you. Nevertheless, the wonderful characters brought to life in this exhibition should be thanked for bringing about the evolution of drag and making it the fascinating and popular sub-culture it is today.
This exhibition explores and indeed celebrates the idea of being neither one gender or the other but rather something more ambiguous. It also positions drag from a contemporary perspective in light of current debates on gender identity and selfie culture.
This free exhibition features the work of more than 30 artists who have used drag to explore or question identity, gender, class and politics, from the 1960s to the present day. Seeing the exhibits will make you appreciate the bravery of those early pioneers of drag where men and women experimented with make-up and clothes and pushed the boundaries of what’s acceptable in what was then a less-permissive society.
Alongside key figures such as Pierre Molinier, Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman, the exhibition also includes self-portraits by a younger generation of contemporary artists who have recently embraced drag as an art form, including Adam Christensen and Victoria Sin.
The exhibition was more than just interesting, it was an education, particularly to those, like myself, who thought drag was simply about men dressing up as women in gay bars, lip-syncing and mocking people. While there is that fun element to drag, the exhibition proves that it is very much a serious and captivating art form, and historically always has been.
To the uninitiated, drag is ‘the generic term for a tradition of performances that involves dressing up and creating alter-egos in order to parody cultural, social or political systems and tropes.’ The word itself, ‘drag’, first appeared in print in 1870, and it’s possible that it has its roots in 19th-century theatrical slang – a reference to the long skirts worn by male performers.
Drag has a long history within the performing arts and spans a wide range of traditions and cultures. It first became popular in the first part of the 20th century, when a small number of artists – among them Marcel Duchamp and Claude Cahun – made use of drag.
The practice then became popular in the film industry and in cabaret from the mid-century onwards. The art form became much more widely used from the 1960s, where it coincided with the rise of performance art more broadly, and with visual art’s engagement with feminism and the civil and gay rights movements.
What this show highlights is that drag is rarely a simple act of emulation. As the artists in this exhibition demonstrate, it is able to draw attention to the way that gender is constructed, choreographed or performed in our everyday lives – what Rogers Brubaker, Professor of Sociology at the University of California calls ‘the routine and chronic performance of gender’.
Focused on photography but presenting a variety of other media, the exhibition is accompanied by a programme of tours led by drag performers. From the look of the queue curling outside around the corner, the subject is clearly still appealing to the masses and continues to enthral and delight. The evening ended with a powerful performance by artist Adam Christensen who played his piano and accordion and sang intensely to a moved and mesmerised crowd.
DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics takes place in HENI Project Space, Hayward Gallery from 22 August to 14 October.