Transfigurations: A New Look into Gender

by Megan Garn

Walking into Hicks, Kalamazoo College’s Student Center, I walk up the stairs, past the talkative game room, past the coffee shop, and past the student organizations work room. Tucked away in a quiet hallway lies the exhibition, Transfigurations, by Jana Marcus – a photographic series about the transgender community. On display till June 11th, the exhibition, as Marcus puts it in her artist statement, “aims to illuminate who transgender people are, a subject which the mainstream culture has often shadowed in mystery and misunderstood.” [1]

Jana Marcus, Transfigurations, May 2012, Hicks exhibition space. Photo by Megan Garn.

Marcus is professional photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area focusing on documentary, editorial, and performing arts genres. She received her MFA from San Jose State University, a BA in Community Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and studied photography at The School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Marcus began this project in 2003. She started interviewing and photographing transgender men (female-to-males) about their journeys of self-discovery: “I found the thought processes intrinsic to what kind of men they were striving to become, and what was informing their choices, were the stories I wanted to tell.” [2] In 2005, she turned her lens to transgender women (male-to-females) to photograph and document their thoughts on femininity and how societal pressures may have influenced their views on womanhood. [3]

Walking in the hallway, narrow and not in a typical gallery space, the limited flow of people allows for reflection. Looking at the portraits, they are very formal and simple images. It is just you and the portrait in front of you. There are no props in the portraits; there is nothing elaborate to make you see the men and women as they are. Their essence of who they are shines through. They almost stare at you, returning your gaze.

 

Jana Marcus, “You must have a very strong sense of self to transition”, 2003-2006, black and white photograph with text. Photo by Megan Garn

The artworks are destabilized through changing the meanings of what it means to be man or woman, and what that appearance may look like. This destabilization of meaning refers to jouissance and the relationship that the viewer has with art and if an art object can have an effect on the viewer. [4] The image of a woman, who we as viewer know was once a man, is no longer a stable object visual object, i.e. man or woman. It takes on a new meaning. As Parveen Adams states in her article, “Out of Sight, Out of Body: The Sugimoto/Demand Effect”:

“for [the photograph] is no longer a secure object, saturated with meanings that locate both it and us, physically and psychically. The object does not appear in the gap of the real. With this object there is no gap between the real and reality. This object does not stand in for something else. This object stands, and it isn’t the referent of representation.” [5]

The figures take on new meaning; their appearances no longer refer to just woman or man, but stand alone. The artist is changing the subject’s relation to the object.

After taking the images in, I begin to read their stories. Their stories have underlying themes of how they felt like they didn’t belong and how they had to learn a new gender. It is powerful to allow the viewer to see the common exploitation and marginalization of these individuals. It unites these individuals around their identities and perhaps allows for political and social empowerment and equality. While they are grouped together, they are not portrayed in the same way. They are individualized. Due to their personal statements, there is the recognition and representation of their personal experiences that you wouldn’t get solely from a photograph. Their personal statements about what it means to be a transgender person allows for representation of themselves and their culture in a manner in which they see fit. They have control of how their identities and experiences are portrayed, how their “transfigurations” came about.

These individuals are not only claiming how they wish to be seen as transgender persons, but are also suggesting that an individual may choose to jump ship and pass into another identity, thereby seizing the power to choose how he or she wants to represent her own cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, religious, and sexual identity. They are going against the idea of Althusserian interpellation. As Cherise Smith explains in Enacting Others,

“the cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, religious majorities allow an individual to believe she has the power to decide how she may identify and call herself when, in reality, the majority has mandated the identities from which she can choose, thereby reinscribing its own normative and powerful position and deepening the divisions between identities.” [6]

The transformations in Transfigurations give hope and enable us to choose to define our identities. And while they wish to pass as the opposite gender, they do seek to pass as or for their adopted personae by suppressing or masking their ‘true’ selves. These individuals and their portraits break that binary system. One man even claims that he is more of a man because he used to be a woman. The portraits give a new image to what gender is, what it could look like, and what it could be.

 

Notes:

[1] Jana Marcus, “Artist’s Statement,” (2011), http://www.janamarcus.com/docus/TransSlideShowintro/index.htm. Accessed March 27, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Parveen Adams, “Out of Sight, Out of Body: The Sugimoto/Demand Effect,” Grey Room 22 (2005): 87. Jouissance can be defined as the precise mechanism that links the relation of object and spectator and that of signifier and body. It is that of embodiment, and it concerns a particular relation of the subject.

[5] Ibid, 99.

[6] Cherise Smith, Enacting Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 13.

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