Tuesday 3
Tuesday Smillie, 'Untitled (page 261)', 2017. Endless edition, Laser print on paper. Installation view at DCA, 2019-2020. Citation: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace Science Fiction Books, 1980), 261. Photo: Ruth Clark.

No sun, no sky, no horizon. A whitish-grey void, in which we appeared to hang…

Ursula K. Le Guin

A suspension. A suspension of time and space. A suspension in the words on a page from Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), given away as an endless edition by artist Tuesday Smillie. On the right as you enter, a small pile of pages quietly sets the tone of the exhibition Seized by the Left Hand, a love letter to the late-great feminist writer Le Guin. [1] The expansive survey of artworks deals with gender and sexuality, through colonialism and race, to trans activism. A constellation of drawing, film, installation, painting, and sculpture, by artists Sophia Al-Maria & Victoria Sin, Andrew Black, Harry Josephine Giles, Emma Wolf-Haugh, Isaac Julien, Flora Moscovici, Abel Rodríguez, Tuesday Smillie, Manuel Solano, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa and Ming Wong, fills the galleries of Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Science fiction is the entry point into alternative and radical politics and ways of being; the artworks becoming protagonists in a science fiction set in a whitish-grey void. Imagine feeling out of time and place. Imagine, as the above quote continues, that in this place, it takes ‘a strong effort of will to speed up to a normal pace’. And in this whitish-grey void—the gallery, the state, the world—this normal, with its endless violences, there are beautifully camp, colourful and queer acts of sedition.

Vic Sin
Sophia Al-Maria & Victoria Sin, 'BCE2018', Video, 9 minutes. Installation view at DCA, 2019-2020. Courtesy the artists and Project Native Informant, London. Photo: Ruth Clark

Counter-sites

A low boom billows through the galleries. A continuous beginning. The opening crawl of text, like Star Wars but without the queer let down. [2] A gxd with prosthetic breasts, flowing white hair, dressed in lace, backlit in pulsing white light against a backdrop of stars, proclaims: ‘I want to see the infrastructure that makes you up […] I want to really see you.’ [3] The throbbing and pulsating rhythm of Sophia Al-Maria and Victoria Sin’s video, BCE (2018), is a treatise on the divine, queer intimacies and sex. The work thinks on the scale of molecules and force relations not bound by normative understandings of time and place. Karen Barad says: ‘[e]lectrons are queer particles, mita’ y mita’.’ They are ‘neither one nor the other.’[4] Outwith the strictures of capital, heterosexuality and reproduction, the universe is drag and we’re electrons who fuck. Back on earth, Andrew Black’s video, Revenge Fantasy (2019), recounts fingering near Faslane, nuclear fission and submarines. A narrator tells tales of ass licking in the countryside, shots of pigs eating, hills, mountains, ticks being removed from eyelids, set to a lush dystopian soundtrack by Oliver Pitt. If Al-Maria and Sin shatter identity within the infinite expanse of space, Black reconfigures it in a relationship between queers and the land. The joyful portraits of family, friends and lovers by Manuel Solano, a blind artist who lost their sight due to an HIV-related infection, evokes ways in which queers relate and remember. Solano’s paintings are nostalgic and melancholic, the beaming faces against vibrant pinks and blues remind of the importance of memory in LGBTQ personal and social histories.

Patiently waiting in the back-corner room of the gallery, a poster asserts: ‘It is when transition under capitalism is recognised as work that transitions beneath, beyond, against, through and after capitalism expand towards and over the communal horizon.’ Harry Josephine Giles’ zine and series of five posters, Wages for Transition (2019), is unequivocal in its direct action and pragmatism. Read the posters, take a zine, leave a donation to Edinburgh Action for Trans Health.[5] The work invokes earlier 1970s feminist campaigns for renumeration of gendered labour under capital, such as Wages Against Housework and Wages Due Lesbians. The zine, as manifesto, is the New Hope to Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back (1992) or the reboot, a searing provocation and push back against a violent transphobic state and toxic debate in Scotland and the UK. Within the exhibition, it breaks with a science fiction imaginary and offers a materialist vision of an always already existing trans and gender nonconforming resistance – ‘[t]he work of wages for transition has already begun.’[6]

Harry JG
Harry Josephine Giles, 'Wages for Transition', 2019. Zine, printed and bound by DCA, in an initial edition of 200 with accompanying series of five posters. Photograph by Ruth Clark.

Ambiguous Utopias

‘Utopia is a displacement, a European invention’ says the narrator in Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s Promised Lands (2015). In a sentence, I’m reminded of that hand (even the left one), of the author, the curator, my hand, those white professions of utopia and other worlds so often built on the backs of black and brown bodies. The 22-minute video depicts a locked off shot of trees and foliage silhouetted and framing Lake Victoria at dusk (or dawn), with overlaid text and the voice of a narrator. Each element disrupts the other, exploring colonial violence in Africa, memory and representation in art. Ming Wong’s video, Bloody Marys—Song of the South Seas (2018), is a collage of performances of the song Bali Ha’i from the musical South Pacific (1949). The 10-minute glitch and flickering between video sources reveals technological complicities in the construction of white Western narratives of utopia. These narratives are reclaimed in the paintings of Abel Rodríguez, an elder of the Nonuya ethnic group, who depicts forests and fauna of his native Colombia informed by a deep ancestral knowledge of the region. These struggles in culture and knowledge production play out in the exhibition space. Vitrines with curated artefacts evidencing the queerness of nature, and Emma Wolf-Haugh’s Domestic Optimism—Soft Furnishings (2019), which occupy central areas of the larger gallery, both nod to colonial and art historical modes of collecting, categorising and ordering.[7] The cosmic colours of Flora Moscovici’s science fiction background, painted across the expansive back wall, traces in the architecture of the building a breakdown in narrative, a rupture between queer futures and that whitish-grey void.

Install DCA
Seized by the Left Hand Installation view at DCA, 2019-2020. Photo: Ruth Clark.

An ambiguous utopia on which to end or begin, or begin to end, is Isaac Julien’s mesmerising video loop Encore II (Radioactive) (2004). A reader sits in their very mid-noughties apartment and is transported to ice worlds, walking backwards on a beach. Ice melts. In the apartment light flashes behind drawn curtains, death and gunfire on the streets outside. Back on the beach, the reader walks along to the soundtrack of post-apocalyptic radio chatter. The work oscillates between something going on out there (the gunfire, the flashes of light), and an interior (the apartment, the imagination, the worlds we conjure or already inhabit). A return to the start or the end of the exhibition, next to the pages which introduced this whitish-grey void.

A Slow Arduous Progression (2016) is a framed essay by Le Guin on gender with handwritten annotations by Tuesday Smillie. The work and an accompanying essay by Smillie reflects on Le Guin’s simplistic views on gender and sexuality whilst stressing the writer’s capacity to reflect and learn. I think of Le Guin’s contemporary, Samuel R. Delany. In 1976, Delany wrote Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia in dialogue with Le Guin’s other oft-cited novel, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974). [8] Both (as the subtitles suggest) are about utopia. While Le Guin renders beautifully complex worlds that think through alternative economic, political and social systems, Delany, a black queer writer, in meticulous character studies, reveals such world making projects as marked by complex intersections of class, gender, race and sexuality. For Delany, borrowing Foucault’s idea of heterotopia, an always already existent utopia as counter-site, other worlds already existed, known and lived by queers.[9]

Seized by the Left Hand reminds that desires towards alternative ways of being always contend with infrastructural and institutional logics (those hands) that would locate them as otherwise. In these tensions, in the whitish-grey void, there is learning in Seized by the Left Hand: learning from indigenous, queer, trans and POC artists and activists, learning, that the work has already begun.

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[1] The exhibition was co-curated by Eoin Dara and Kim McAleese and is complimented by a public programme and new commissioned writing. The project uses Le Guin’s writing as a ‘lodestar’ (a guiding star) as an approach to working together and in navigating some of the pressing socio-political issues of today through art and culture. See: Eoin Dara and Kim McAleese, ‘Introduction’, in Seized By The Left Hand – Tuesday Smillie, by Tuesday Smillie, ed. Eoin Dara and Kim McAleese (Dundee: Dundee Contemporary Arts, 2019).

[2] Unlike Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2019), in this version Finn and Poe definitely fuck. See: ‘“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”: Finn and Poe Aren’t “Boyfriends” – Variety’, accessed 14 January 2020, https://variety.com/2019/film/news/star-wars-finn-poe-not-boyfriends-lgbtq-representation-1203423286/.

[3] Gxd is a gender-neutral term for God.

[4] Karen Barad, ‘Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart’, Parallax 20, no. 3 (3 July 2014): 173 [Original emphasis].

[5] To find out more about Action for Trans Health, see: http://actionfortranshealth.org.uk/; for work and events organised by the Edinburgh chapter, see: https://www.facebook.com/edinburghath/ and https://twitter.com/EdinburghATH.

[6] Harry Josephine Giles, Wages for Transition (Edinburgh: Easter Road Press, 2019), 16. Also available here: https://medium.com/@harrygiles/wages-for-transition-dce2b246b9b7

[7] The vitrines I refer to are a curated display of artefacts from the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum. The snails, crustaceans, chickens, and fish on display are intended to illustrate a queerness to nature, but my intention is to highlight conventions of exhibition and museological display indebted to colonial archiving practices. Emma Wolf-Haugh’s Domestic Optimism – Soft Furnishing (2019), which references an albeit gendered and queered high modern aesthetic in the 15 panels of denim, cut and re-stitched with embroidery and badges, points to tensions between queer cultural production and dominant art histories.

[8] Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996); Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (London: Gollancz, 2002).

[9] Foucault explains a heterotopia using the analogy of looking in a mirror: ‘The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.’ In Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986): 24.

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James Bell is an artist, writer and PhD candidate at Northumbria University, with a background in education and production in artist-led and contemporary art organisations. James’ PhD research focuses on histories of feminist and queer cultural activism in contemporary art practice. Graduating with an MFA from DJCAD, Dundee (2011), James was a committee member of artist-led spaces Generator, Dundee (2011—12), and Rhubaba, Edinburgh (2013—15). Prior to undertaking a PhD, James was the Producer (Learning) at Collective, Edinburgh (2013—17); and Board Member of Baltic Street Adventure Playground, Glasgow (2015—18). Previous selected projects include: Aye, and Gomorrah…, Rhubaba, Edinburgh (2017); and The Sphere, part of Of Other Spaces…, Cooper Gallery, Dundee (2016)

Seized by the Left Hand is an international group exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts that takes as its starting point some of the ideas contained within American writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Curated by Eoin Dara and Kim McAleese, featuring Sophia Al-Maria, Andrew Black, CAConrad, Harry Josephine Giles, Emma Wolf-Haugh, Isaac Julien, Huw Lemmey, Flora Moscovici, Quinie, Abel Rodríguez, Victoria Sin, Tuesday Smillie, Manuel Solano, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa and Ming Wong.

14 December-22 March 2020 (CURRENTLY CLOSED)