Review of “Hide/Seek” at the Brooklyn Museum
Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, my high hopes for the arrival of Hide/Seek to the Brooklyn Museum—the first major museum exhibition focused on sexual identity—was met with a good deal of disappointment. I don’t deny that the Smithsonian scandal played a major role in the untethered growth of this expectation: the battle between David Wojnarowicz’s film, Fire in My Belly and old Republican Congressmen fueled the hype that I fed it without considering the overall context of the show. In the end, however, I was forced to admit my own delusion, that the media attention was simply an issue about Wojnarowicz’s work (not so much concern about the exhibit itself), and yet another public affirmation of the Republicans’ age-old political enslavement to Christian values.
The show itself, then, was an interesting, but still less an enlightening experience: the kind that you would travel forty minutes from Manhattan, but probably not an hour and a half from Long Island City to see. As both Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter for The New York Times have pointed out, Hide/Seek’s curators, Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, rely heavily on (the now) well-known, queer historical names to constitute the bulk of their presentation. Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ellen DeGeneres: these easily recognizable figures serve merely as affirmation rather than a change of an existing perspective on complexities of sexuality and sexual identity as treated throughout Western history.
Indeed, however, the gem of the show, Wojnarowicz’s video, temporarily put an end to my own dissatisfied mutterings. That piece single-handedly pushed through the mildness of the show’s other selections to come forth as the blunt and didactic side of the silenced narrative: the anger and pain behind homosexual marginalization during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. Homosexuality is not a secondary fact to be noted in the lives of these modern artists and historical icons, who merely passed with muted acquiescence in normative guises; homosexuality (also transsexuality and gender-bending) constitutes an all-too-present reality that can sometimes takes lives. The curatorial work seems to compile a list of famous examples, as opposed to presenting a thorough investigation. Not all art or curatorial work needs to be didactic in regard to these discourses, but the issues at hand require a more serious acknowledgement of the stakes in question for the non-heterosexual male than what is made by Katz and Ward: namely, these individuals’ erasure from history. Harmony Hammond has written of lesbian artists: ”We do not have a history. We are not even visible to each other” (128). Hide/Seek does make these sexual identities visible, but treads back, having offered little or no critical commentary, which is an amazing feat considering the number of explanatory placards placed next to every single piece on the walls. After viewing the selections and overwhelming amount of text, still a pertinent question lingers ever so forcefully: “So… now what?”
The awkward cliff-hanger quality of the exhibit becomes especially pronounced through the curators’ choice of the time frame. The visitor’s entrance into the gallery space introduces her to the 1898 Salutat by Thomas Eakins, an all-male composition with a barely clothed boxer as the central figure of physical admiration that is an early example of homoeroticism, timidly expressed under the constraints of its time. She then follows the rest of the works that are arranged by chronological order—some 20th century portraits of poets like Frank O’Hara, more cryptic canvases by David Hockney and Jasper Johns—then finally ends at the 1990’s with works that provide explicit commentary on sexual identity and the handling of the AIDS during the epidemic: Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Face in Dirt), c. 1990, made after his own death sentence by the diagnosis of the disease, Félix González-Torres’ “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, an endlessly replenishing mound of candy piled up in response to his lover’s death, and other such works.
But just a reminder that the year is now 2012: where are the works that were made in the last two decades? Cutting off the show at a point in history when a significant percentage of the gay population perished because of a society’s unwillingness to recognize its own problems as such, Hide/Seek offers a perspective on the future of the non-heterosexual-male identity that appears morbidly bleak.