Performance Matriarch Vaginal Davis Upends Fixed Notions of Genre and Gender

Vaginal Davis’s performance “Blick und Begehren (Gaze and Desire)” at the New Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the New Museum Theater, an image appeared on the screen: a cut-and-paste portrait of the artist Vaginal Davis over the face of a woman snapping a phone cord with the text above, “Whiteys Beware Radical Blacks Fight Back.” A phone call between Davis and an anonymous man whom she calls her “darling communism” played. “Unfortunately it is our burden to have to go over this again,” Vaginal Davis said in a high-pitched voice, referring to the subtle racism among the political left and the underrecognition of collective housework and chores.

Vaginal Davis’s performance “Blick und Begehren (Gaze and Desire)” at the New Museum

The punk icon and intersex, genderqueer performance matriarch kicked off the New Museum’s performance series last Thursday in conjunction with the just-opened show Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, curated by Johanna Burton. Trigger presents works by an intergenerational group of artists who explore gender as a fluid construct and how it intersects with race, class, sexuality, and disability. A self-defined “cultural antagonist” and “erotic provocateur,” Davis embodies these slippages. Her practice has spanned a multitude of genres from zine making to filmmaking, to DJing and being the lead singer of the punk band Afro Sisters. She’s a trailblazer, often cited as forming the queercore zine genre that grew out of punk as well as being an inspiration in the current drag scene in Bushwick. Davis’s one-night-only, one-woman performance at the New Museum, titled “Blick und Begehren (Gaze and Desire),” epitomized the artist’s eclectic background, as she ventured into song, poetry, lecture, and more.

Vaginal Davis’s performance “Blick und Begehren (Gaze and Desire)” at the New Museum

Davis demanded her audience’s utmost attention and participation, as she handed out drawings which would later reveal themselves as envelopes, containing her various scripts. Donned in a Rick Owens pencil skirt and top, but barefoot, Davis playfully recited and sang from the various scripts pulled out from the envelopes. Davis critiqued everything from global warming to issues of the apolitical art world and racism in this country, and, of course, gender. She cautioned Anglo-Caucasian countries to consider diversifying their gene pool if they want to survive as the planet warms.

In her brief lecture, or “lecturina” as she called it, she shared a fictive investigative report that discovered sperm in a sex club establishment that had the potential to create human life months after its expulsion from the body due to its fusion with the various chemicals in the club environment. Ridiculous though it may sound, Davis poetically probes her subjects, revealing how easy it is to unfix established modes of thought. In this instance, sperm — or “sperma,” as she referred to it — has super powers, making conception possible in a quite unorthodox way.

Vaginal Davis’s performance “Blick und Begehren (Gaze and Desire)” at the New Museum

The late theorist José Esteban Muñoz dubbed Davis’s mode of performance “drag terrorism,” alluding specifically to her unique style of performance and her decidedly unconservative politics. She’s been quoted as saying, “I was always too gay for the punks and too punk for the gays. I am a societal threat.” Her clashing of multiple performance styles, tongue-in-cheek play, and shifting between high-pitched and bravado tones are used to subvert fixed and binary notions of genre and gender.

Though clearly forewarning the audience to beware of accepting things as they are, especially in our current political climate, she left the audience with an inspiring message. Pointing out the toxic masculinity that was Enlightenment thought, which continues to permeate contemporary culture, Davis told us: “Do not despair — there are lesbian warriors among us who are busy and they are going to take it all down by the fist of Diana, those Madame Defarges.”

“Vaginal Davis: Blick und Begehren (Gaze and Desire)” took place at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on Thursday, September 28.

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