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Spotlight: Sinbad in the rented world

Any exhibition that purports to herald the arrival of a new school of aesthetics is asking for it. Inherently didactic, such shows invariably draw critics from all angles—armchair curators who know the “inside story” of said movement, jealous people within the movement who didn’t make the cut, denouncers of the very school itself or anyone who simply distrusts categories, schemes or taxonomies.

When the Art Gallery of York University staged “Sinbad in the Rented World,” an exhibition celebrating Toronto’s “new queer aesthetic,” the high-gloss claws came out fast. Pundits in the local gay media wrote the show off as unrepresentative, unfocused and generally wrong-headed—questioning even the very essence of the term “queer,” and whether the company of artists in the exhibition fully represented the term’s diversity. With less at stake—she does not claim to represent the queer community, not being actually queer herself—the Globe and Mail‘s Sarah Milroy nevertheless gave the show a lukewarm reception, rightfully pointing out the exhibition’s handful of glaring missteps and questioning its motley patchwork look. But Milroy also noted, in fairness, that any show determined to mark with precision an era, ethos or collective enterprise is bound to be trouble(d).

Looking for trouble should be part of the job description for the AGYU’s new director/curator, Philip Monk. The AGYU was growing stale, producing increasingly insular and scholarly exhibitions with questionable audience appeal outside of the campus’s academic base. As a queer man making art in Toronto, I couldn’t be happier to see someone at least trying to collate the current crop of art by gay men into a cohesive whole, to bring a vibrant but mostly micro-budgeted, storefront-based art scene into a larger, well-funded institution. After all, the AGO is not knocking on our doors.

The central conceit of “Sinbad in the Rented World” (the title comes from a legendary unfinished film by gay experimental filmmaker Jack Smith—a clue in itself to the exhibition’s intentional sudden leaps, missing plots and less than polished presentation) is that Toronto is experiencing another gay renaissance. One by-product of this is the marked development of a queer male aesthetic fuelled by socializing, live music and club nights, party-going, dress-up play and public performance.

What “Sinbad” doesn’t tell you, at least not overtly, is that much of this work is in a direct and at times confrontational dialogue with that old gay standby, camp.

Gay men have been defined, for good and bad, by camp since at least the late 1960s, when so many seminal essays on homosexual aesthetics followed the Stonewall riots. Why, essayist after essayist asked, do gay men like old Joan Crawford movies? The reason, it was determined, is that gay men, living outside of normative concepts of Nature, were attracted (naturally) to the artificial. And celebrating artifice, especially poorly executed artifice—because it is so much tacky fun—quickly became the shorthand for, and then the defining action of, camp and camp aesthetics. Thus drag, thus golden-age Hollywood tributes, thus the elevation of lowbrow art forms such as comic books and mass-produced kitsch, thus the obsessive collecting of economically worthless but sentimentally invaluable trinkets, thus lip-synch performance art, thus karaoke. I could go on, but these are the sins I’m personally guilty of—all activities gay men flocked to in the last century because it was widely accepted that the celebration, indeed reclamation, of junk culture was in some way an essentially gay male act, a way of mirroring one’s outsider, outlaw, déclassé status. As camp icon John Waters put it, “Satire or irony is elitist.”

But what if you’re a gay male artist who has grown up after the revolution, in a time of (relative) liberation? Gay artists under the age of 50 (and all of the artists in “Sinbad” are well under 50), especially those living in Canada, are hardly the ostracized, pathologized outsiders their forebrothers once were—nor are they as likely to identify, at least wholly, as a subclass.

Thus, their relationship with cultural products deemed trashy or ephemeral reflects their own ambivalence toward the label of “other.” Where camp once reiterated the gay male status as sub-citizen, and carried with it the residual bitterness of the outcaste, gay camp’s second wave embraces the abject, the foolish and the malformed as objects of desire, as treasure that does not need to be reclaimed or recontextualized, but simply loved.

While early camp was all about the knowing sneer, the distance and even contempt between the ironically celebrated icon (or fodder) and its too-knowing, smarter-than celebrant, the new camp is determined by unabashed affection for the thrown away, the overlooked and the ugly. Where the old camp was snide and sneaky, the new camp is blunt and ingenuous. Where previous camp artists trod with pointed stilettos, current gay artists walk with fuzzy slippers. Contemporary camp is defined by a genuine comfort with all levels of cultural production, not a disconcertingly blurry line between mockery and adoration.

The gay campers in “Sinbad” want us to know that their warm feelings for such arguably low-rent source materials as Pierre Berton’s 1970s Canadiana book The Last Spike, alarmist instructional/propaganda films and fetishistic pornography are never chilled by arch irony. Raised in an era of relentless relativism and schooled to read art as a boundary-free spectrum, not a hierarchy, these artists are not plagued by double-mirrored semiotics—if they are telling you they like the garish flotsam of popular culture, it’s because they really like it.

Cases in point from “Sinbad”: Andrew Harwood’s sequin-coated photo-constructions; Scott Treleaven’s mockumentary; and Will Munro and Jeremy Laing’s plushy mascot re-enactments of hardcore pornography.

Of the three, Harwood’s Sequined History sequin collages owe the most to old-school gay strategies. Sequins, the pixel building blocks of drag, are as gay as wigs. What Harwood does with his sequins, however, is move them several notches up the materials ladder, from finishing touches to base materials. Harwood’s process is deceptively simple—he culls images from manly sources (namely 19th-century photos of all-male Canadian railroad teams) and then meticulously covers the pictures with dense patterns of flat, semi-opaque sequins, thus inverting the sequin’s decorative status as a mere flourish, a frill.

In Harwood’s art, the sequin is literally on top. It’s as if he is making a cake entirely out of icing. At the risk of literalizing the art, what Harwood has done by placing images of heterosexual male power underneath a jewel-toned, Liberace glaze is assert a gay male supremacy. This is art made without traditional camp’s self-deprecating winks and apologies to taste and decorum. The new camp replaces passive-aggression with bossiness.

Scott Treleaven mines similar gay-makeover territory with his short film The Salivation Army—a faux-documentary about a violent gang of gay anarchists. What is most compelling about The Salivation Army is how often it fools both critics and audiences. Many commentators have mistaken the film’s earnest tone and grainy, art-house look as a signal that The Salivation Army is a serious testimony, an actual documentary about a group like the Black Panthers or Baader-Meinhof. But the film is semi-fictional, and sometimes seems a takeoff of alarmist anti-gang films, showing protagonists who actively recruit others to their self-made army, the subject of much alarm in the infamous Jerry Falwell-produced anti-gay video The Gay Agenda, which claims that gay men recruit young boys.

But if The Salivation Army was merely a straightforward parody, it would be far less interesting—what holds the viewer is Treleaven’s skilled recreation of a sincere, and sincerely overwrought, cautionary film. Taking apparent cues from propaganda films and gloomy expressionist cinema, the film works because it is deeper than mere satirical pastiche—it is an homage to the guileless wonder, indeed the innocence, that allowed, and continues to allow, alarmist films to be made. The Salivation Army is as endearingly ardent as a Latter-day Saints commercial or an after-school special—a genre of button-pushing, formula storytelling to which it is greatly indebted—and just as achingly effective.

Conversely, Jeremy Laing and Will Munro’s multimedia installation The Wall of Virginia Puff Paint is as deliciously silly as a dive into Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk, and about as earnest as a sprinkle-covered donut—the perfect counterpoint to Treleaven’s faux agitprop. A high-concept exploration of the extensive, and extensively weird, subculture of textile-based sex fetishes (plushies, furries, latex and nylon fetishists—Google it yourself), the piece is a Victorian whorehouse run by Bonobo monkeys.

Decorating a large tent with chintz, ornate furnishings, fluttering sheer curtains and themselves (costumed from head to toe in sequin-spattered, pink nylon bodysuits complete with multiple orifices and comically exaggerated sex organs), Laing and Munro, on video, proceed to screech and bellow like farm animals as they penetrate and re-penetrate each other in a beautifully choreographed display of polysexual perversity.

Looking like a cross between a Japanese porno manga and an Edith Wharton novel, Virginia Puff Paint brilliantly plays on (and undoubtedly will contribute to) the Internet-fuelled explosion in sexual subcultures, but without a whiff of denigration or mockery toward others’ perversities. In true new-camp style, Laing and Munro didn’t stop to parse their source material into manageable, and thus vulnerable, pieces—they simply joined the cult, an act of self-abandon impossible for earlier camp artists, who approached any act of enthusiasm with caustic cynicism.

Some viewers will undoubtedly miss the old ways, the gay/camp aesthetic dominated by resentment and a double-edged, self-hating razor wit. But not me—you catch more (butter)flies with honey than vinegar.

This series of essays on emerging Canadian artists is sponsored by The Fraser Elliot Foundation in memory of Betty Ann Elliot.

This is an article from the Fall 2004 of Canadian Art.

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