January 2020

In Praise of Illegibility: Identification, Failure, and Joel Parsons’s Beholding and Being Held

The body is more than just the instrument through which we can resist; how we understand the body itself offers a site of resistance.

by Dr. Virginia Solomon

Pink rhinestudded images of the infamous Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev and unstable sculptural constructions of dowel rods, cans of Budweiser, rickety lamps, and desiccating roses surrounded the audience for Joel Parsons’s performance Beholding and Being Held at Crosstown Arts in Memphis, TN.[i] Making bedfellows of a strange mix of disparate popular and art-historical figures and gestures, the performance is equal parts resoundingly amateur ballet, ridiculously over-performed drag, and endurance body art. It also overflows with both humor and empathy within the queer mode of camp.[ii] With these gestures and references, Parsons pointedly insists on the desire for, and joy to be found within, ambiguous and ambivalent bodies that produce their meaning outside of the dominant model of identity as a unique expression of a coherent self.

In our contemporary moment it is impossible to consider questions of bodies and identity without also considering questions of politics. But what is the politics that Parsons presents through this work? How does this manifest in his conceptualization of the show, described on the hosting organization, Crosstown Arts’, website, as: “presenting the self as something constructed and performed?”[iii]  

Installation view, You Are The Hole, Crosstown Arts, Memphis, TN. Foreground: Detail, Beholding (2015). Background: Curtain for the Maintenance of Desire (2015). Photo credit by Chip Pankey.

By “presenting the self as something constructed and performed,” Beholding and Being Held focuses on identification as an ongoing and relational process. Identity is not something that each body possesses uniquely from birth, but rather something that is continually formed and re-formed over time in interactions with other people and institutions. In presenting the self this way, the performance undermines dominant ideas about identity as permanent, fixed, and adherent to something internal and essentially unique in each individual. Parsons’s attempts to trouble any fixed relationship between stable identity categories and the body builds on the fact that such a model of identity is contrary to our experience of our actual bodies as disjointed, changing, and not always within our own control.[iv]

The stakes for how we understand bodies, and why it is important to detach bodies from dominant contemporary ideas about identity, take on particular political urgency in our contemporary moment. Already tenuous and inadequate protections for non-normative sex and gender expression are withering. Bathroom bills, attempts to exclude trans individuals from military service, and bills precluding homosexual couples from adoption only scratch the surface of policies that rally opposition on the basis of identity. These bills in turn muster attempts to protect these targeted identities, but increased political organizing and legislating to protect and oppress both continue to reinforce a stable model of identity.[v] Art historian Amelia Jones explains how this model is inherently oppressive in her 2012 book Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts. Her argument is based on the historical relationship between the development of contemporary models of identity and self and the rise of modern regimes of capital, the nation, colonialism, and imperialism. Ibram X. Kendi makes a similar argument in his insightful How to be an Antiracist.[vi] Identity as the framework to understand bodies goes hand in hand with these oppressive factors of modernity. As such, rather than build a long-term politics around expanding acceptance for marginalized identities and thereby reinforcing an intrinsic model of identity, many scholars and activists in addition to Jones and Kendi advocate for recognizing the overlapping systems and structures that set the conditions of possibility for bodies.[vii] This politics highlights identification as an ongoing process that is written on and through the body rather than an expression of its unique authenticity. Parsons’s work models this politics through a specific set of failures in relation to stereotypical characteristics of identities that exist within his cultural context in Memphis.

Made to Fail

Parsons performed Beholding and Being Held on October 25, 2015 within his larger installation, You Are the Hole: An Exhibition in Four Parts. The performance progresses through a number of movements, each characterized by a different set of actions alternatingly specialized and pedestrian, off-set by distinct musical accompaniments. It begins with Parsons chugging two Bud tallboys, dressed in white tights and a pale pink t-shirt approximating a dancer’s rehearsal outfit. After drinking—an impressive feat of endurance art in its own right—Parsons cuts the now empty cans in half and attaches the bottom halves to his feet with an absurd volume of tape, making improvised pointe shoes.

After donning these shoes, accompanied by the opening notes of Bette Midler’s The Rose, Parsons moves in front of the ratty latex mauve curtain that bisected the gallery. There he begins executing a set of slow movements that bring him into ballet-like poses, each of which is held through one verse of the song. Through each iteration he changes nothing but the position of his feet, while maintaining a melodramatic expression that is emphasized by tear-shaped crystals suspended from a chain around his forehead.

Detail, Beholding (2015). Photo by Chip Pankey.

A third round of “The Rose” presents more animated choreography that takes Parsons across the stage trying and repeatedly failing to execute movements that place him on pointe, in part because of the pain from the cans cutting into his feet, and also undoubtedly from 44oz of beer catching up with him. The cans keep coming untaped—a choice clearly made to ensure failure, in dialog with failure itself as a queer tactic of engaging with identity. Queer theorists Jose Esteban Muñoz and Jack Halberstam both have discussed failure as a productive strategy within queer art practices. The concept explains artists’ deliberate failure to display any kind of conventional notion of virtuosity (be it performance, representation, construction, or any other mode of artistic execution) as a means of rejecting cultural norms more generally.[viii] Muñoz describes, “[q]ueer failure is often deemed or understood as failure because it rejects normative ideas of value.” Such work deliberately refuses the values of dominant culture and produces other values that do not reinforce the oppressions present within mainstream society. Parsons certainly seems to be working within this mode of queer failure with the choice to try and perform on pointe drunk with poorly constructed and undoubtedly painful footwear.

Video Still, Beholding and Being Held, Crosstown Arts, Memphis, TN, October 25, 2015. Video by Justin Thompson

The details of Parsons’s failure contribute to the politics of the body that Beholding and Being Held presents. He doesn’t deliberately fail within this section. He set conditions up in advance such that it was impossible for him to succeed despite sincere attempts in the moment. The failures of movement correspond with a failure to present a coherent and stable identity within the vocabulary present in the performance and the larger exhibition. This vocabulary—degraded interior decor, kitschy crystals, ballet, torn and stretched pantyhose, and empty oversized cheap beer cans—trades in stereotypes around femininity, masculinity, and homosexuality, but Parsons does not take them up to disprove the stereotypes. Instead, he presents stereotypes as representatives of identity as a concept. Stereotypes are intrinsically tied to the model of identity that he aims to disprove. As such, his carefully ensured but nevertheless earnest failure presents a failure of identity as a way to understand his body, and bodies more generally.

Exceeding the Limits of Identity

Beholding and Being Held takes up the performance of identification as a relational process located outside of the individual body with a song shift, from The Rose to Celine Dione’s Falling into You. The execution of markedly different movements accompanies this musical shift. While the first section highlights the impossibility of identity, the second part offers a suggestion for how we might perform embodiment otherwise.

In the context of an exaggerated lip sync clearly referencing drag modes of performance, Parsons enacts gestures that indicate loss of control of the body—manipulating his head and arm with his other arm, and keeping with that choreography as the music ends, getting increasingly more emphatic and violent as time passes. This demonstrates another failure—a failure to control his own body.[ix] More than simply failure, though, this gesture presents the body as shaped by exterior forces not by inherent and internal characteristics. It is an ultimate expression of queer failure, which makes something new on the basis of rejecting dominant norms and values. Parsons celebrates the body as the intersection of external forces that contribute its meaning, reveling in the possibilities that emerge from understanding the body outside of the framework of identity.

The artist highlights this desire to present a different model for making sense of bodies in the video that Crosstown Arts produced in conjunction with the exhibition. He says: “but then also I’m interested in work that, when I see it, it returns me to myself with a different understanding of myself. That maybe there’s a different understanding of a body… I mean I would hope that the work would do that on some level.”[x] The performance ended with the artist pulling members of the audience onstage to dance to Swedish pop star Robyn’s club hit “Dancin’ on My Own;” incorporating the audience into an exuberant embrace of a different understanding of the body, and thus a different form of politics, achieved through his disambiguation of identity.

Male and female, straight and gay—Parsons fails to present his body through any of the standard codes that exist for those identities within his contemporary context. The objective, though, was not to try and produce a different way to understand those already existing identities, or to create space for a new identity, but rather to demonstrate that ultimately identity is a bankrupt way to make sense of the body. This bankruptcy exists along multiple fronts. In the first place, identity does not align with how we actually experience embodiment. On top of that, identity is tied to oppression within our contemporary capitalist society. This relationship between identity and oppression, alongside the current state of electoral politics that makes it increasingly inaccessible to most people, provide the context not only for Parsons’s embrace of alternative ways to present the body. They also provide the context for thinking about the body itself as a site of politics. The production of meaning for the body is as rife with power and with the potential for control as is present within the formal institutions of the state. The body is more than just the instrument through which we can resist; how we understand the body itself offers a site of resistance.

Dr. Virginia Solomon received a Ph.D. in Art History and Gender Studies from the University of Southern California. Dr. Solomon’s research interests include contemporary art, curation, gender studies, queer theory, visual culture, subcultures, and alternative forms of politics. Solomon’s research has been supported by a Canadian Art Research Fellowship at the National Gallery of Canada and a Helena Rubenstein Critical Studies Fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program, among others. Their curatorial work includes the exhibition Tainted Love (2009) at the La Mama La Galleria in NYC and Shary Boyle and Emily Duke: The Illuminations Project (2011), realized while serving as the Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. Before joining the faculty at the University of Utah, Solomon was an Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History at the University of Memphis and a Postdoctoral Fellow in Visual Studies in the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons The New School for Design. Their current book project considers how the work of Canadian artist group General Idea presents a theory of subcultural politics.

Further Reading

[i] Parsons is a white cis man who grew up in Arkansas and attended college in Memphis and graduate school in Chicago before returning to Memphis to work as a professor and gallery director at Rhodes College. He is also the program director of Gender and Sexuality Studies. His multi-media work includes performance, video, sculpture, installation, painting, drawing, and print-making. For more of his work, see: https://joeltparsons.work/. Crosstown Arts is a non-profit, grassroots arts organization with a strong mandate around community engagement.

[ii] Camp is a form of cultural expression that developed within queer communities as a response to oppression within dominant culture. Often featuring either ridicule of the norms and standards of dominant culture, or celebration of things that are derided by dominant culture, camp continues simultaneously to be a form of resistance and of community building based on a shared sense of wink and a nod, underground humor. The form was first systematically discussed by Susan Sontag in her famous “Notes on ‘Camp’” in 1964, but can regularly be seen in contemporary media including but not limited to queer shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. Susan Sontag. “Notes on ‘Camp’,” The Partisan Review 31. N 4. Pgs 515-530. Accessible at: https://monoskop.org/images/5/59/Sontag_Susan_1964_Notes_on_Camp.pdf.

[iii] http://crosstownarts.org/calendar/you-are-the-hole/.

[iv] Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan offers an early iteration of this analysis of cognitive development in his famous Mirror Stage essay. Jacques Lacan. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” (1949) Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006, p 76-81.

[v] Legal scholar and activist Dean Spade discusses the political pitfalls of identity based legislation with nuance and complexity. Dean Spade. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. Boston: South End Press, 2011.

[vi] Ibram X. Kendi. How to be an Antiracist. NYC: One World, 2019.

[vii] None of these scholars, nor do I, advocate abandoning civil rights legislation and protections for marginalized identities, particularly in the short term. But many agree that building a long term politics around such aims reinforces many of the root problems that are necessary to fix to have a more just world.

[viii] Jack Halberstam. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NYC: NYU Press, 2009.

[ix] This inability to control the body resonates with Lacan’s discussion of the mirror stage mentioned earlier, as part of the disjunction that babies and toddlers experience is that others treat them as self contained individuals, but they literally are not able to control their own bodies completely and reliably.

[x] Video documentation of You Are the Hole produced by Crosstown Arts and shot and edited by Justin Thompson. https://vimeo.com/145950238.

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