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Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Giulia Casalini

Often the boundaries between art and ‘queerness’[1] become blurred: the artistic artifice has the capacity to influence our thinking and subjectivity through a queer aesthetics-politics, while our queer identities, knowledges and pleasures are themselves already art. For instance, the way one loves, or practices sex, can itself be considered art (as in the case of kink or BDSM). Similarly, an art object with flamboyant colours and extravagant shapes can lend itself to queer coding, to those able to see it as such (as in the case of ‘camp’ aesthetics).[2] Besides, did not Oscar Wilde himself – a timeless queer icon – say that “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”?[3]

Having lived for at least fifteen years in the queer artistic, relational and political world, I have already come to the conclusion that our queer identities – even when not professionally involved in the artistic-cultural sphere – are intrinsically ‘artistic’ because they are shaped by the power of fabulation. Already in 1988, the much-quoted Judith Butler spoke of the potential of performance art to enact queer subjectivation, thus opening up an explicit parallel between the constitution of gender and theatre.[4]  Butler, however, was not simply referring to the performativity of gender (as a psychosomatic characteristic), but also to the performativity of sex (i.e. the biological attributes of an individual), which, once declared ‘male’ or ‘female’ at birth, will then be repeatedly interpellated by the external world that will constitute it as such.[5] Therefore, in a queer perspective enabled by the power of art, in repeating certain acts and words to the extreme we can not only construct infinite genders and ways of practising sexuality and relationships, but also re-signify our own flesh.

For instance, in Agnes Questionmark’s performance installation Transgenesis (2021), the artist’s identity overflows as she imagines herself as a hybrid non-human species. By elaborating her transgender becoming through a post-human lens,[6] Agnes Questionmark rejects an anthropocentric becoming by being reborn as an aquatic, viscous, polymorphous and tentacular creature. Her gelatinous body fills an entire swimming pool, emerging from the edge with her larger-than-life presence and mesmerising song. In her month-long reincarnation ritual, the artist is not alone: pulsating and glowing embryos await their birth whilst a dancing formation of webbed creatures occupies a space inhabited by fluorescent sculptures, which resemble corals and nudibranchs.

Queerness is in constant motion, tumultuous and exciting. Like water, it can take the form of unimagined fiction-realities, in defiance of a patriarchal and colonising world that asserts itself through the negation of migrant, of colour, trans, disabled, feminine, sex-positive or queer subjects. Likewise, queer art is Live Art. It is live because it is embodied, hybrid, affective, and without predetermined genre or gender – in the artistic or corporeal sense. Photography, dance, theatre, archive, new media, installation and more, Live Art is ‘a cultural strategy to make space for experimental processes, experiential practices, and the bodies and identities that might otherwise be excluded from traditional contexts’.[7] Live Art is present wherever there is interaction with the audience. Queer art, no less indefinable, is itself Live Art because it spills over its own boundaries, filling up categories, making them swell, exceeding them – or eliminating them altogether.

What does ‘queer’ mean? To be succinct – and inspired by Gayatri Gopinath’s definition – in this text I understand queerness as a non-(hetero)normative sexual and gender orientation; but also, as a mode of desiring and reading among objects and subjects that are not strictly queer (as per the previous definition), whose relationship or association allows for the emergence of alternative and divergent histories.[8] For instance, in her work Vodka and Tena Lady (2018) Gioia Maini aka Charlie G Fennel talks about the relationship with her 90-year-old grandmother, with whom she has lived intermittently since the death of her mother in 2010. The project, which takes place in a domestic setting, centres the elderly woman who (often equipped with colourful accessories such as sunglasses or bandanas) tells anecdotes and more or less obscene stories to the camera; meanwhile her granddaughter (who identifies as non-binary) acts as her ‘sidekick’. The duo therefore proposes, through a process of ‘disidentification’[9] from the mainstream culture typical of Italian TV programmes, an intergenerational matriarchal version of ‘post-porn’’media entertainment. Before being exhibited, the project was shared on the Instagram profile @vodka_and_tenalady until after the grandmother’s death in 2017. This affective archive of everyday gestures, images, stories and actions breaks with the moral expectations of decorum and seriousness deemed necessary in situations of care, illness and death – especially in the traditional Italian Catholic context – and instead produces an irreverent and shared feeling of ageless queer joy.

Queerness does not, in truth, have any age or historical linearity. Consequently, I believe that queer art cannot be historicised without running into a partial definition of this history – a predominantly white one drawing on Euro-American aesthetic-political canons. In fact, queerness has always existed (across space and time) – especially where the uniformity of thought of some people has oppressed the diversity of desire and expression of others. The artist Ambrita Sunshine, for example, born to an Italian mother and Ivorian father, re-signifies sex-positive, BDSM and underground queer culture through ritualistic and traditional dance techniques studied in the Ivory Coast for around ten years. Using animist rituals of traditional African religion, the artist reactivates an ancestral queer erotic transcendence in workshops and performances such as Acid Abla (2022). Thus, the non-binary Afrodiasporic artist investigates through dance the fractures inscribed on the colonised, racialised and marginalised bodies to find a space of belonging in the multi-sensorial trance.

Queerness, as José Esteban Muñoz defined it, is like a horizon or utopia towards which we tend: ‘We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future’.[10] Queerness therefore becomes a place to which one perpetually flees. It is hope and the desire to create new realities. Like for Chiara Bersani, who in her work subverts the representations attributed to bodies that, like hers, are not perceived as normatively able or conforming to aesthetic stereotypes (reiterated in the arts world). In Gentle Unicorn (2018), the 98-centimetre tall artist proclaims herself a unicorn – a symbolically queer animal for its magical powers, ‘camp’ aesthetic and mythical existence. With her legendary figure, the artist reappropriates the various meanings that this animal, as much as the non-conforming body, has undergone throughout history depending on the context: fantastic, prodigy, non-existent… Her silent performing body becomes the spokesperson for a crip queer[11] politics with an ordinary presence: the set is minimal, as are the lights, the costume, the make-up and the measured movements of the artist. By demanding our attention, Chiara Bersani becomes Art and mythology incarnate.

The bodies, in their queer search for identity, can also decide to vanish. In the work Liminal Bodies: practicing dis-appearance (2019) by Monstera Deliciosa, the artist covers herself with a metallic emergency blanket, thus becoming a mirror in which Western patriarchal society ‘can observe the insidious and persistent biopolitical violence with which it affects every “femme” or “diverse” life’.[12]  The (trans and non-binary) artist seeks to protect herself from the stares and the judgement with a shimmering blanket, finding shelter and love in an alien and symbiotic evanescence. No longer naked, exhibited, sexualised or objectified, Monstera’s body camouflages itself with its mirrored surface on a golden rock, or in the silver reflections of water. Through her metamorphic and reflective movements, the artist proposes to those who see her a queer identity that is no longer just flesh, but also environment and expanded light.

In this short text I have showcased perhaps lesser-known examples of queer art produced by non-binary, gender-fluid, trans or female Italian artists born in the 1980s and 1990s. For me, the works of these artists provide an opportunity to imagine queerness beyond the identity stereotypes within which it has been paradoxically encapsulated – both from outside and within its own community. Similarly, I would like to conclude by reflecting on the Italian identity of the artists in question by noting that, from a queer perspective, national belonging is in itself a shifting and relational identity: this identity is indeed specific to the language and geopolitical context in which its queer subjects have been formed, but, at the same time, it is constituted transnationally through the queer political struggles and aesthetic practices that are shared across the world.[13]


[1] In the Italian version of this text, I use ‘queer’ as an adjective and ‘queerness’ as a noun [feminine in Italian]. This is a queer-feminist choice that gives precedence to the feminine gender, which would be lost with the noun-adjective ‘queer’ [masculine in Italian]. Similarly, [in the Italian version of this text] I will use the indefinite plurals in the feminine form: this is why I use the universal feminine ‘the artists’ even when they identify as non-binary.
[2] Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ in Against Interpretation, Noonday Press, 1966. pp. 275-292.
[3] Oscar Wilde, Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of Young, L. Smithers, 1906. Available at: https://archive.org/details/phrasesphilosoph00wild.
[4] Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, in Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, pp. 519-531.
[5] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘sex’, Routledge, 1993.
[6] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, Polity, 2013.
[7] Live Art Development Agency, ‘What is Live Art?’, https://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/about-lada/what-is-live-art/.
[8] Gayatri Gopinath, Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora, Duke University Press, 2018, p. 14.
[9] “Disidentification is the hermeneutical performance of decoding mass, high, or any other cultural field from the perspective of a minority subject who is disempowered in such a representational hierarchy”. José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Colour and the Performance of Politics, University of Minnesota Press, 1999, p. 25.
[10] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, New York University Press, 2009, p.1.
[11] Crip queer theory is concerned with the relationship between compulsory heterosexuality and ableism. See: Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, New York University Press, 2006, pp.1-2.
[12] Conversation with the artist, 6 October 2022.
[13] I would like to thank Laura Leuzzi for reviewing and offering suggestions on the final draft of this text.