Preproduction image made by director Sally Potter to help secure funding for the film Orlando, spring 1988. Courtesy the artist

Preproduction image made by director Sally Potter to help secure funding for the film Orlando, spring 1988. Courtesy the artist

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‘Orlando’ art exhibition showcases ongoing fascination with Woolf’s gender-change novel

One of the most famous scenes in Sally Potter’s 1992 film, “Orlando,” contains many of the themes that have kept the story relevant for generations of artists.

Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, “Orlando” stars Tilda Swinton in the title role, an English aristocrat who lives for centuries and transforms from male to female. In the scene, Orlando runs through a hedge maze on her majestic English estate. Turning a corner, she suddenly goes from wearing the powdered wig and elaborate hoop skirt of the Georgian era to the mournful, dark dress typical of the Victorians. Although decades have passed, Orlando has not aged. Upon emerging from the maze, a man falls off his horse, landing next to Orlando on the ground. Orlando instantly proposes marriage, a union that would help disentangle the web of legal issues surrounding the inheritance of Orlando’s family estate — her change from male to female has left Orlando technically unable to inherit the home she’s lived in for hundreds of years.

“It’s a bit of a science fiction novel and I think it resonates with people on that level,” says Susan Miller, the executive director of the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. “The notion of time travel and how it shapes a life or how it might shape a life if you had the perspective of time is very contemporary.”

The exhibition “Orlando,” curated by Swinton, is now on display at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through May 2. It features photo works by international artists — Potter, Zackary Drucker, Mickalene Thomas, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Collier Schorr and others — inspired by the story’s themes of gender fluidity, exploration of time and transformation as well as additional work from the McEvoy Family Collection.

The show began in 2019 when Swinton guest-edited an issue of Aperture magazine themed around the novel and curated the first incarnation of the exhibition at the Aperture Foundation’s New York gallery. Both the film and character of “Orlando” have remained highly identified with Swinton throughout her career.

In a 2019 conversation at the New York Public Library with film scholar B. Ruby Rich, Swinton spoke about the novel’s ongoing topicality in contemporary culture, especially in how it addresses the character’s transformation.

“I think the sort of legend of ‘Orlando,’ the book and the film, is it’s only about the bending of genders,” Swinton told Rich. “The more recent readings of the book have (made) me realize that it’s not about gender at all. … It’s about limitlessness and it’s about revolution.”

“Orlando” has fascinated audiences since Woolf published the novel in 1928. The author’s exploration of gender roles and power dynamics remains one of the most discussed aspects of the work, making it a longtime favorite of feminist and queer scholars. Recently, the novel’s tackling of the subjects of English colonialism and hereditary wealth have emerged as other key themes, as well as the limitlessness of the character’s immortality.

“There’s so many inroads in the story,” says Miller, days before the show’s opening. “I think it’s a time for people to use the inspiration of Virginia Woolf’s voice to speak on their own terms right now, to talk about gender, to talk about the self and potential transformation.”

Untitled #2 (Orlando Series), 2019, by Mickalene Thomas. Photo: Mickalene Thomas

Almost 92 years after the novel’s publication, “Orlando” feels more present in the culture than ever.

An “Orlando” opera by Olga Neuwirth — the first female composer to present the opera at the company in its 150-year history — premiered at Vienna State Opera in December, with participants including well-known cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond playing Orlando’s child and costumes by Comme des Garcons fashion designer Rei Kawakubo.

In February, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced that its spring costume exhibition, “About Time,” was inspired by the novel’s use of chronology, with curator Andrew Bolton specifically mentioning the hedge maze scene in Potter’s film as an influence. On Wednesday, March 11, Potter’s film will also make its debut on the Criterion Channel and its streaming service.

Woolf’s original novel, “Orlando: A Biography,” begins in Elizabethan England where the young nobleman Orlando encounters Queen Elizabeth I. His life spans centuries, with no explanation ever given for the character’s immortality. Orlando travels to Constantinople as ambassador for King Charles II and while there, falls into a deep sleep and awakens a woman. After turmoil over her new gender’s restrictions on hereditary privilege, Orlando eventually marries and writes a memoir.

Woolf was inspired to write the book by her romantic relationship with Vita Sackville-West, an aristocrat and author who was unable to inherit her own family estate because of her gender. The relationship was chronicled in the 2019 film “Vita and Virginia.”

Among the first images in the show are photographs Potter took of Swinton in preparation for the film. They show the actor in both male and female period costumes in the house and gardens of Knole, the family estate Sackville-West was unable to inherit. Those photos are the work most closely tied to the exhibition’s cinematic origin.

“Rosalyne” 2019 by Zackary Drucker. Photo: Zackary Drucker

While the exhibition explores a multitude of themes related to the story, for many in the queer community, “Orlando’s” study of gender transformation has long made it a hallmark of LGBT literature. Although the character of Orlando changes genders, Orlando is not transgender in the contemporary sense — not only is there no explanation for the change in Orlando’s body, there is no desire on the character’s part to change.

Drucker of Los Angeles explores the novel’s themes of gender and time as part of her photo series “Rosalyne,” which show trans elder and activist Rosalyne Blumenstein in a variety of poses that evoke some of the classical imagery of the novel as well as the blending of time periods. A photo of a nude Blumenstein mimicking the pose of a nearby Venus de Milo also manages to recall the aesthetic of Potter’s film.

“Rosalyne is a legend in the trans community,” says Drucker, who lives in Los Angeles. “The photos came about because I felt she was the perfect living Orlando, she was traveling through time and crossing genders.”

For Drucker, Potter’s film was an early reference point and one of the first depictions of transgender identity she remembers seeing. “There was always a special place in my internal universe for ‘Orlando,’ ” she says.

New York-based Mickalene Thomas’ work consists of four photographic portraits installed against an ornate Elizabethan-style wallpaper. The photos show models Zachary Tye Richardson and Racquel Chevremont in period regalia similar to Swinton’s in the film. While evoking the classical portraiture of English nobility, the use of models of color is an obvious departure from tradition and adds an additional contemporary discussion point.

Miller calls the work “classic Michalene” and says Thomas “works in an installation context often. That’s why the wallpaper is there.”

Preproduction image made by director Sally Potter to help secure funding for the film “Orlando” in 1988. Photo: Sally Potter

Additions from the McEvoy Family Collection include other international artists: Lorna Simpson’s “He He, She She, He She, He She, She He,” a Polaroid series of male and female shoes; Talia Chetrit’s “Plastic Nude” photo print where a model, naked under plastic overalls, sits exposed; and a poster of Mick Jagger in the film “Performance,” showing the rock star in heightened feminine and masculine variations.

The foundation is also presenting a series of related programs, including performances by Drucker, Hershman Leeson and a closing event with Brontez Purnell, with the intention that “people can experience all kinds of interpretations of the idea of ‘Orlando,’” says Miller.

Neither Miller nor Drucker anticipate interest in the novel to wane given the contemporary relevance of its themes. As Swinton said in 2019, “Orlando is a spirit and is perpetual.”

“Orlando”: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Through May 2. Free. McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, 1150 25th St. Building B, S.F. 415-580-7605.