Tag Archives: Body Impolitic

A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints

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Laurie says:

I love the wood block prints from the Ukiyo-e (“floating world”) in the Japanese Edo period.

Kitagawa Utamaro – From the Series Fujin tewaza jūnikō (Twelve Forms of Women’s Handiwork)

There is an excellent article by Susan Chira in the New York Times about a stunning exhibition of prints from the Edo period in Japan. They are of a wakashu, who were considered a third gender. The article is thoughtful and discusses these works and their context both in Edo Japan and
in the present time.

A figure in a translucent kimono coyly holds a fan. Another arranges an iris in a vase. Are they men or women?

Wakashu and Young Woman with Hawks

As a mind-bending exhibition that opened Friday at the Japan Society (in New York City) illustrates, they are what scholars call a third gender — adolescent males seen as the height of beauty in early modern Japan who were sexually available to both men and women. Known as wakashu, they are one of several examples in the show that reveal how elastic the ideas of gender were before Japan adopted Western sexual mores in the late 1800s.

Suzuki Harunobu Youth on a Long-Tailed Turtle as Urashima Tarō

The show, “A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints,” arrives at a time of ferment about gender roles in the United States and abroad. Bathroom rights for transgender people have become a cultural flash point. The notion of “gender fluidity” — that it’s not necessary to identify as either male or female, that gender can be expressed as a continuum — is roiling traditional definitions. …

The wakashu are a case in point. The term describes the time a male reaches puberty and his head is partly shaved, with a triangle-shaped cut above the forelocks that is a telltale way to identify wakashu. During this stage of life only, before full-fledged adulthood, it was socially permissible to have sex with either men or women. …

It is one of the many reflections on contemporary society that this provocative exhibition raises. Walking through it is a reckoning with categories, definitions and how they resonate in societies still uncertain about whether lines between genders should be bent or blurred.

You really need to read the whole article to get a sense of what this means. There is also fascinating information and a video at the Royal Ontario Museum site , where the exhibition originated.


Hosoda Eisui – Wakashu with a Shoulder Drum

It runs til June 17th and I’m hoping to see it when I’m in New York.

Old Stories Told in New Ways: Memory Landscapes Revisited

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Laurie and Debbie say:

Last weekend, we were both at FOGcon, and Laurie presented her Memory Landscapes project in a Saturday evening panel, which Debbie (of course!) was on. Attendance was small, which gave us the gift of intimacy. “Audience” and “panelists” gathered around a table with the artist, to look closely at the work and talk about what we were seeing.

Laurie says: “Since the election, I had been thinking that I would have to put Memory Landscapes on hold, or at least move much more slowly on it, because I felt such a drive to focus on directly political work. What this panel reminded me is that the Memory Landscapes project is political work. It’s about my life, during which I have always been deeply involved with politics and the world. It’s also about the things that have changed in my life and the things that have not changed. It’s about political struggle, and political pain and joy, along with all the other aspects of my life.”
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Handkerchief

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One Memory Landscapes image we looked at was “Handkerchief,” which speaks directly to the murder of Emmet Till in 1955 and the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. By linking these two deaths, Handkerchief invokes the never-ending stream of young black men’s violent deaths in the intervening years, and links both murders to Laurie’s world, to the political struggles of the 1950s, and much more.
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Shawl

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Here’s Laurie again: “Watching the people at the panel interact with these memories, I realized I can’t stop working on Memory Landscapes. Not only is this shared political work, it offers people an opportunity to allow and access their own stories (personal and political) in an entirely new way. When we tell stories in any form of text, or in a linear narrative such as film, we impose a structure on them. We change them by their nature from an associative chain to a structured tale with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this work which I invented to be the best mirror of my own memories that I could devise, something more happens than my being able to express my own memories in the way they work. Other people start experiencing their memories this way too: they take my framework and apply it to their own lives and to the interaction of my political history with theirs.”

We are both huge fans of narrative, even though we understand the ways in which it is false by nature. Narrative is one thing that got us where we are today. False but compelling narrative is one of Donald Trump’s great strengths, and one of the great strengths of his surrogates, who are our enemies.

Suzy McKee Charnas, in her first novel, Walk to the End of the World, said “New stories must be told in new ways.” Audre Lorde said “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” What the panel reminded Laurie, and perhaps taught the rest of us, is that Memory Landscapes is a new kind of storytelling which applies to old stories as well as to new ones. And perhaps it will be a new tool to dismantle the house that cannot stand.