I first read Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando when I was in my twenties. Sinking into text for hours at a time was a normal way for a bookish sociophobe to pass the time back then, before the internet, streaming or cellphones provided constant distraction, and I remember not putting it down until I was done, completely enchanted by the story.
I speed-read it again in the early 1990s when I saw Sally Potter’s film; I remembered so much more than the movie could include. That, alas, is the nature of such adaptations. This is not to belittle the power of Potter’s work, which is magical, offering many images that have stayed with me ever since. But the sprawl of a book that covers more than 300 years, even if it only concerns the life of one remarkable character, is hard to compress into an hour and a half.
Early on, in both book and film, we are offered a panorama of Orlando’s family estate, centering on a stately, sprawling building described at one point by Woolf as having a thousand chimneys. If we were to peep into only a few of the windows of this house, we would get only a fragmentary view of what it contained. Potter, in her film, chose several of the most striking of such glimpses into Woolf’s narrative.
Similarly, the exhibition titled Orlando (organized by Aperture magazine and presented here in its West Coast debut at the McEvoy Foundation) reflects specific aspects of Woolf’s book. There is little in this show, for example, that addresses the hero/heroine’s experience of being regarded as inferior once the transformation in gender has taken place. In one scene, the great poets of the 19th century tell Orlando that women are, by their very nature, incapable of forming thoughts or ideas. (Then again, poets generally misbehave in the book.)
As the exhibition press release says, the show “offers a panoply of colors and tastes that seek to liberate traditional portraiture from the constructs of prescriptive gender or social norms.” It is interesting to see what element of the book-as-portrait resonated for each artist invited to participate by curator Tilda Swinton, the talented and charismatic star of Potter’s film. She also served as guest editor for the issue of Aperture (summer 2019) that focuses on the exhibition.
Swinton has said that Woolf’s book is “about inevitable, perpetual change being the only thing that we can rely on, and… about identity being positively negligible.” Woolf herself averred that her protagonist’s change in gender was simply that and nothing more. “Orlando had become a woman—there is no denying it. But in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity.” (I can’t say for sure, but this might be the first instance of the use of their as a singular pronoun.) With this in mind, it’s noteworthy that the majority of the artists in this show chose to focus, either figuratively or literally, on themes of gender identity and fluidity.
The story of fashion model Casil McArthur’s transition from female to male is told in Collier Schorr’s series of images, mounted on large rectangular boards that lean against the wall like minimalist planks. Zackary Drucker’s pictures are an homage to her spiritual foremother/role model, the trans icon Rosalyne Blumenstein, shown both clothed in gorgeous outfits and nude. The most spectacular works in the show, though, are Mickalene Thomas’ four portraits of her partner and muse, Racquel Chevremont, and performer Zachary Tye Richardson, in compositions inspired by iconic works by Gauguin and Manet. Thomas’ painting-sized photographs are displayed on a colorful wallpaper backdrop that enhances the opulent effect of the pictures’ elaborate sets and over-the-top costumes and hair while simultaneously subtly undermining it. Both figures are truly androgynous in the way that Woolf describes Orlando to be: projecting self-assurance and self-consciousness in equal measure.
The emphasis on portraiture in direct relationship to painting traditions shows up in other works as well. There are echoes of Caravaggio’s garlanded, seductive boy-Bacchus in several of Walter Pfeiffer’s photographs of boys on the verge of manhood. Then there is Nan Goldin’s lyrical pairing of Renaissance women with her own subjects in a work selected from the McEvoy Foundation’s collection and Yasumasa Morimura’s exquisite image of himself in a black lace slip titled Self Portrait (Actress) /after Elizabeth Taylor 4 (1996). Serendipitously, Morimura seems to be channeling Taylor in her role in the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Thus contextualized, Jamal Nxedlana’s mesmerizing photographs of FAKA, a South African performance duo whose outfits and makeup defy any gender categorization, begin to invoke a contemporized version of Sargent’s 19th-century society portraits. Combining masculine and feminine in enchantingly original ways, Nxedlana’s subjects, Fela Gucci (Thato Ramaisa) and Desire Marea (Buyani Duma), seem a bit like superheroes or the aristocratic progenitors of a new and better race.
Most memorable—and disturbing– are Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s haunting “window” pictures. They were inspired by the opening paragraph of the book, in which Orlando is described as casually “slicing at the head of a Moor hung from the rafters,” one of “many heads of many colours” struck from the shoulders of enemies by the 16-year-old boy’s ancestors and shipped home as souvenirs. In a few words, this bit of stage-setting (ignored or quickly forgotten by many readers) encompasses the centuries of race-based domination engaged in by the uber-masculine, might-is-right British Empire– and, by extension, its offspring, the American colonies. Indirectly and poetically, Sepuya’s pictures—showing himself, in conjunction with haunting images of “Moors”—seem to demonstrate the difficulty of responding to the enormity of this history: of recognizing the past in the present, and figuring out your relationship to both.
Also in the show is the only surviving example of a picture book Potter made by hand in an edition of 100 to attract backers for her film. To create its images, she had Swinton pose in the rooms of a 14th-century manor house in various period costumes. Some of these pictures are on view as well: not stills, since the film hadn’t yet been made, but portraits of the person that Potter yearned to invent. Attractive and aristocratic, Swinton personifies the dual role that she would later inhabit. For Swinton, though– unlike Casil McArthur or Rosalyne Blumenstein– this was a job, not a life choice. Still, there is no denying that the film and the book that inspired it have been a lodestar to many.
Is the fantasy that Woolf conjured up now a reality: of individuals shifting from one gender to another without friction, continuing unquestioned as the same person? Maybe so. Some believe that imagining a world in which phones can call anywhere from any location (as in Star Trek) led to the reality of cell phones. Perhaps this exhibition is the next step in the process of imagining what could — and what should — be our reality.
“Orlando” @ McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through May 2, 2020.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as a professor at California College of the Arts.