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‘Orlando’ Celebrates Virginia Woolf’s Novel About Identity and Gender

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

At last week’s invitation-only opening of the “Orlando” art exhibit in San Francisco, people were murmuring about Tilda Swinton, wondering if the star actress would attend and speak about the show she originally curated for a New York run. Swinton starred in the 1992 movie of the same name, portraying a gender-switching member of British royalty, and the “Orlando” art exhibit also centers on gender switching — this time using photographs from different artists whom Swinton chose in conjunction with Aperture, the New York gallery and publishing concern that specializes in photography and published a special “Orlando” issue last year. 

“I hope she shows up,” said one art-goer of Swinton, speaking amid the crowd of people who came to see “Orlando” at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. In the end, Swinton was a physical no-show, said to be overseas — either working on another film or at her home in the United Kingdom. But Swinton was essentially present at the San Francisco opening in her choices of photos, and in the essay she wrote that greeted visitors to the exhibit, in which Swinton says she now sees Virginia Woolf’s original Orlando — which inspired the 1992 movie — as being much more than a novel about gender. “I have come to see Orlando,” Swinton says, “as a story about the life and development of a human striving to become liberated entirely from the constructs of prescriptive (tired old binary) gender or social norms of any kind.” 

So class and heredity are subtexts for Swinton, and even ideas around nationality. But it’s gender fluidity that’s the foremost theme in “Orlando,” and the exhibit’s San Francisco run is a chance to see a series of large-format photos featuring Casil McArthur, a young male model who was formerly a woman. Collier Schorr’s photos show McArthur vulnerably in transition — first as a bare-breasted short-haired figure, then as someone with similar short hair but without mammary glands. Schorr photographs McArthur looking at her new male body in the mirror, with deep scars indicating the surgery that excised his breasts. Taken between 2015 and 2018, all seven images have McArthur looking away from the camera, if ever so slightly. The photos’ framing, along with McArthur’s pensive looks, suggest how seamless the transition was — that McArthur, like Swinton in Orlando, has physically transitioned but is otherwise practically the same. “Same person. No difference at all. Just a different sex,” Swinton’s character says in the movie, which she notes in the essay at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. 

That essay is taken from Swinton’s longer piece in Aperture’s 2019 “Orlando” issue, which ends with a large photo that has seemingly nothing to do with gender: Paul Strand’s 1954 image of remote Scottish islands called the Outer Hebrides. No people are apparent in Strand’s striking black-and-white photo — just sand, grassland, mountains, and a flurry of clouds. Born in London, Swinton lives in Scotland — and has often addressed a mild controversy of whether she considers herself British or Scottish, telling a media outlet in 2018 that “I don’t quite believe the word British. I feel like it’s sort of a strictly for export term. I don’t really know what it means. I think it has something to do with a sort of political attitude.”

Swinton’s public reckoning with her nationality is one reason it’s easy for the actress to link “Orlando” to subjects far beyond gender. And this focus on nationality is seen in the McEvoy exhibit with Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s images of “Moors” — or Africans, who are featured in Woolf’s Orlando as vanquished people of past British colonization efforts. In one “Orlando” photo, Sepuya has fastened Orientalist images of Africans to a window pane, which lets the sun filter through and reduce the images’ clarity. The photo is an almost direct response to the opening line in Woolf’s Orlando, which celebrates gender fluidity but also Britain’s colonial legacy of violence: “He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” Sepuya, who often does projects around queerness and race, has said Orlandois “one of the most influential writings for me on the nature of portraiture.” 

Woolf’s original book included actual portraits — photos that artist Carmen Winant uses to front bigger photos of Winant at a younger age, when she was cutting herself in the shower. Like Casil McArthur, Winant reveals her bare flesh and the cuts that indicate a deep vulnerability and a transition to something else. Winant is using Woolf’s work to come to terms with her own issues. There’s an explicit connection here, unlike with other artists in “Orlando,” who leave visitors guessing — just like Swinton did with movie-goers in Sally Potter’s movie rendition of Woolf’s celebrated novel.


Through May 2 at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, 1150 25th St. Free; 415-580-7605,