Hayward Gallery Senior Curator Vincent Honoré discusses some approaches to drag in advance of the forthcoming HENI Project Space exhibition DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics (22 August – 14 October).
Drag is the generic term for a tradition of performances that involve dressing up and creating alter-egos in order to parody cultural, social or political systems and tropes.
Although the practice became popular in the film industry and in cabaret from the 1950s, it has a long history within the performing arts and spans a wide range of traditions and cultures. First appearing in print in 1870, it’s possible that it has its roots in 19th-century theatrical slang – a reference to the long skirts worn by male performers, perhaps.
In the first part of the 20th century, a small number of artists – among them Marcel Duchamp and Claude Cahun – made use of drag. The 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.
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’.
In the manner that it is approached by many of the artists in this exhibition, drag allows for a perpetual transition, a permanent recreation, a constant state of transformation. As American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler argued in her seminal 1990 text Gender Trouble, ‘there is no original or primary gender a drag imitates … gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original.’
A number of artists in this exhibition explore the idea of being neither one gender nor the other, but rather something more ambiguous, or in-between. Luciano Castelli’s self-portraits, for example, were motivated by the idea that ‘we are all made up of male and female aspects’, while Eleanor Antin’s work emerged from a belief that ‘the usual aids to self-definition – sex, age, talent, time, and space’ were ‘tyrannical limitations’ on her ‘freedom of choice’.
As well as parodying and unsettling the very idea of gender, drag is also able to reveal and undermine other systems of oppression. In this exhibition, Ming Wong uses drag to critique the depiction of cultural and racial stereotypes, while Jo Spence and Paul Kindersley touch on class and consumerism, respectively.
This exhibition – which features the work of younger, emerging artists as well as key figures such as Pierre Molinier and Cindy Sherman – embraces a wide variety of approaches to drag. Refusing a chronological or linear exploration of the form, it offers instead a multitude of conflicting voices.