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1992.21_Juan Davila

Juan Dávila

Self-Portrait as Ingre’s Violin 1984
gelatin silver print
60.5 x 51 cm
Monash University Collection
Purchased 1992

Before I had even begun to write this text, you emailed me several times telling me that MUMA’s ‘Queer Readings of the Collection’ project was a form of erasure, censorship even, delimiting the potentiality of how your work could be, or should be, read.

Your work is not ‘queer’, you said, but a sustained analysis of the unconscious; if not ambiguous, it is nothing.

It’s not that your work doesn’t engage with non-hetero subjectivity and desire, it’s more that you don’t want to be labelled a ‘queer artist’. You are not the first artist to feel like this. In 1982, two years before you made Self-Portrait as Ingre’s Violin, several artists refused to be included in The New Museum exhibition, Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art. Artists didn’t want to be ‘thematised’ (much like you now) or ‘outed’ (remember, your friend Paul Taylor later outed Robert Rauschenberg in 1990).[1] Perhaps your refusal has something to do with your sexuality being put on trial, ‘made a spectacle of’, as suggested in On Sexuality and Politics, 1984.[2] Or, perhaps, your refusal is part of a broader refusal to let labels/tags/words/terms—be they medical, sexual, sociological—limit what we can be.

Your work has long undermined the stability of signs, of the signifier and signified, especially when it comes to your body. That much is evident in Self-Portrait as Ingre’s Violin.

I first saw this work in MUMA’s storeroom, where I took several photos of it on my phone; later that day I went to meet you, excitedly showing you my snaps: you leaned in to get a better look; I asked, ‘Is this you?’, pointing to the curved bare back decorated with two f-holes, sitting on floral patterned linen. You answered, ‘It’s not me’, despite the work’s title.

In your work during the early/mid-1980s, you appear as mutable body: male feminine ‘muse’ (Self-Portrait as Ingre’s Violin), Virgin Mary (Pietà, 1984), camp male national ‘hero’ (Ned Kelly, 1983), seductress (The Kiss of Spider Woman, 1981).[3] It is not so much the labels, or signifieds and signifiers, that matter here as much as your commitment to exposing, corroding and then radically expanding the restrictive structures (painting/art history/collections) that control signification (of art, bodies, sex, gender and desire).[4]

In Self-Portrait as Ingre’s Violin, you re-stage Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924. This being the case, are you asking me to repeat what every art historian has ever said about Ray’s work? I’ll oblige. Ray’s ‘muse’ appears first as a nude in homage to the French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and second as a violin-shaped body waiting to be played by the artist (f-holes included). But how am I to read your image? Semiology seems too obvious, and I find myself balking at the art historical tool of visual analysis; it seems more fitting, given the subject matter and context, to think about what Self-Portrait might say about Australian art history. Is it that your ‘nude’ critiques how Australian artists and art historians have failed to speak through the specificity of their bodies, universalising the desires of some for all?[5] Or is it that artists and art historians have not paid attention to the socio-historical, colonial/antipodean context from which they speak, instead reproducing normative/European bodies, canons and epistemologies marginalising everything else?

In any case, you saw your body in Australian art as ‘a transgression’—a word that you now feel is anachronistic—but context matters: ‘my desire has no gender; assume my body in the history of Australia as a symbol of the transgression of the patriarchal law’ (The Kiss of Spider Woman, 1981).

I invoke your critique of the structures that determine signification in Australian art, some forty years later, to open up how to critically write embodiment—mutable and wild—into contemporary art history and collections.

Verónica Tello is a Chilean-Australian art historian. She is Senior Lecturer, Contemporary Art History and Theory, University of New South Wales.

[1] Ariel Goldberg, The Estrangement Principle, Nightboat Books, Brooklyn, NY, 2016; Paul Taylor, ‘Interview with Robert Rauschenberg’, Interview, December 1990, reprinted in: Paul Taylor, After Andy: SoHo in the Eighties, Schwartz City, Melbourne, 1995.

[2] In this artwork you state ‘We are being made spectacles of’, reflecting on the ways in which non-hetero bodies were being put on trial via the media in the early 1980s. Thanks to José Da Silva for pointing out this possibility to me.

[3] This vocabulary emerges in dialogue with Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity,2nd ed., Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2008 [1998]. Dávila’s 1981 photo novel, The Kiss of Spider Woman, appropriates narrative arcs and imagery from Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman.

[4] See Jack Halberstam for further critiques of structures of signified and signifiers: Jack Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability, University of California Press, Oakland, CA, 2018.

[5] Juan Dávila, ‘Spider Woman in Australia’, Art & Text, no. 4, 1981, pp. 15–16.