Crafting Queer Spaces: Living Beyond Limits

Living Beyond Limits (20 October 2018 – 3 February 2019) at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art was a queer re-exploration of its art collection. Assistant Curator Helen Welford and I (Claire Mead) invited members of local LGBTQIA+ communities to co-curate and queer it with us. Based on their choices of objects to be displayed, co-curators wrote interpretation labels based on their own personal experiences and thoughts around queerness...

Is an object queer in its authorship?

Adam Cooper chose Andrew Logan’s ‘A Modern Perspective’ (1998). He explained that he related to the distortion of his reflection in the jewels shattered mirror as a metaphor for exploring his bisexuality. Adam articulated the way in which he feels pressured to ‘perform’ a certain way and mask his sexuality depending on his social surroundings. A parallel label also sought to emphasise Andrew Logan’s own links to queer performance. The Alternative Miss World events he founded in 1972 celebrates non-conformity and the ‘bizarre’. It relates to the kitsch and theatrical aesthetic in his objects, that like many of the costumes featured in the contest, are made from found materials.

Photo courtesy of Middlesbrough Collection at MIMA, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and Hynes Photography.
Photo credit Danielle Johnson, courtesy Andrew Logan’s studio.

Is an object queer in what it represents?

Stephen Allan interpreted Lucy Harvey’s ‘Melancholy Amulet’ (2009) as a representation of mental health issues faced by many members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Through its pills in a chain link around a porcelain figure, queer feelings are distilled; linked to both the personal and the collective. The initial object may have not had a queer intention – yet it took on a new cultural meaning for Stephen. The amulet as an intimate hand-held object also contrasts with its wider social relevance, as Stephen interpreted. The artist, Lucy Harvey, expressed her joy at the fact the amulet was able to take on new meanings linked to queer identity when interpreted by members of her community – transcending the original intent of their work.

Is an object queer in its very form and medium?

A contributor who chose to remain anonymous re-interpreted one of Nicholas Arroyave-Portela’s vases. They saw the fluid, malleable nature of the vase as a reflection on the often ambiguous and shifting nature of gender and sexual identities. As part of his Throwing Lines series, the artist stated that his aim was to subvert an ancient proverb about water taking the form of the vessel it inhabits. Instead, he asked, how could a vessel take the form of the water within it? The subversion of the vessel’s form and its fluid nature reflects a subversion of the idea of gender and ‘fixed’ nature of sexual definitions when seen through a queer lens.

The experiences that these craft objects prompted are personal and powerful. The exhibition’s co-curators made these objects their own in reclaiming and queering the collection. Their intimate, domestic nature (vase, jewel, amulet) of many of these objects also subverted the museum space in new ways – making the personal public and the public personal.

These co-curated, (re-)queered and re-interpreted objects from the collection sat alongside other craft object linking these ideas around domesticity, queerness and craft. One of these was Angus Suttie’s Untitled (Unfinished work) (1991/92). Suttie’s ceramics practice had strongly referenced domestic life in its use of forms such as teapots and ladles. In ‘From Latent to Blatant’ in the 1976 Spring issue of the Gay Left, he recounts his personal navigation of gay identity since childhood. His recounting of the ‘feminine’ domestic sphere (symbolised by his mother) is intertwined with the toxic notions of misogyny and masculinity he faces in public as he discovers his own sexuality. The work on display, straying from the colourful Suttie pieces in the collection, was one of the last works he made before dying as a consequence of HIV/AIDS. It forms part of a series of work started following his partner’s death and his own diagnosis, exploring illness within his body. Two separate forms feel like interlocking bodies, tube-like channels and veins. The creases in the modelled clay, like skin, were made all the more visible by its partially glazed, unfinished state. The queer body becomes an object between the domestic and public sphere. It reflects an intimate expression of the body while linked with Suttie’s public voice as a gay activist. In turn, this voice was echoed by Barbara Kruger’s print Girl don’t die for love (1992) for Visual AIDS, an HIV/AIDS activist organisation. The poster which was initially conceived to be mass-distributed was pinned to the gallery wall – alongside her work Untitled (You are the perfect crime) (1984), which was framed.

Following feedback in our workshops, we also created a space in the exhibition for people to make work themselves, which manifested in small foldable zines. Workshop contributors and visitors to the exhibition used these zines to tell their own stories and build upon the interpretations given by the co-curators. The exhibition is finished – but the zine display remains to be added to. This medium is used by many queer activists and primarily emerged as a way to publish voices that would never reach mainstream publishing. Here, craft is a means to elevate activist, collective voices publicly through the process of making. Its potential in museum spaces is not only to challenge the way we classify craft compared to so-called ‘high’ art. Rather, it also becomes a way of queering and subverting this space through the interspersion of personal voices and experiences – via curation and making alike.

Above photos courtesy of Middlesbrough Collection at MIMA, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and Hynes Photography.

Words: Claire Mead (she/her)

Claire’s Twitter can be found here.

About the Author

Claire Mead is a programme producer at Makerversity, Somerset House and an independent art and design curator. In 2018-2019 she was curator in residence at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art where she co-curated the exhibition Living beyond Limits queering the MIMA collection with Assistant Curator Helen Welford, and members of Middlesbrough’s local LGBTQIA+ communities. She works in collaboration with various museums and heritage sites around social issues with a strong focus on sexuality, gender and queer-feminist activism. In parallel to exhibitions, talks and workshops, Claire explores these issues via performance with her drag king alter ego Eugène Delacroissant.