June 24th, 2016
Living, Inventing, Becoming
In a pioneering new book, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst document their gender transitions and their lives together.
By William J. Simmons
Relationship, the photobook by Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, is both a beautiful documentation of two lovers and an important intervention into the heterosexist, homophobic landscape of art history. Spanning from 2008 through 2014, the images expand upon the artists’ presentation in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, organized by Stuart Comer, who also provides an introduction. We know Drucker and Ernst from their collaborative performances, as well as their spearheading of trans visibility with a distinctly LA flair (they lived in Ron Athey’s old house in Silver Lake—which, as Comer notes, recalls the gloriously queer Southern California world of Athey, Catherine Opie, and Vaginal Davis). Drucker and Ernst are now producers on the wildly popular Amazon series Transparent, which has perhaps led to the optimistic assumption made by the book’s back cover that “trans has never been more accepted.” While that may be true within a certain progressive subset of the American population, the fact remains that any depiction of a gender-nonconforming body is an act of revolution that unsettles the biomedical heterosexist patriarchy.
What is even more explosive is the fact that Relationship represents two individuals who undergo their transitions simultaneously and remain together throughout the process. As Kate Bornstein mentioned at a recent conversation at the Strand bookstore in New York celebrating the release of Relationship, this is the first visual account of trans-trans love. It’s hard for even self-professed “experts” of gender theory to wrap their minds around that. Even Judith Butler, the influential philosopher and gender theorist, for instance, was recently asked to grapple with the latent transphobia of her movement-creating, but often misunderstood, theories about gender performance. But Drucker and Ernst allow us to see their journey as it happens. They don’t have to explain themselves or allow us any access; it’s not their responsibility to educate cisgender people, but it is certainly an act of generosity that they do.
However, explaining is often what we expect of gender-nonconforming artists. Comer’s assertion in the foreword is a distillation of what would likely be said by anyone who has taken Gender Studies 101. He describes Relationship as “a codex for how we might reconsider our families and relationships, not as fixed structures but as elastic communities capable of celebrating, rather than fearing, transformation.” But Relationship should not be viewed merely as a lens through which cisgender readers can deconstruct their own lives. As perhaps its first priority, Relationship exists for itself and for the community that can most immediately understand it, as well as the community still to come—the queer and trans youth who are growing up in a world where trans identities are no longer consigned to invisibility. The photographs are not a rubric for a queer theory checklist. These are not images of Others that cisgender people might marvel at from a distance; Relationship is not a “codex.” Bornstein’s assertion that “the book takes trans a step beyond acceptance into desirability” should instead be the key takeaway. In these pages, we see the wondrous complexity of human sexuality—a physically and conceptually vast phenomenon. The beauty of trans-trans love—the gentle caresses and lightly muscled stomachs, legs dappled with endearing hairs, supple asses, veined breasts, and narrow waists—becomes its own kind of criticality even though it doesn’t have to be. Love can simply be glamorous or horny or sleepy or, really, whatever it wants.
Still, it is important that we do not lean on lofty concepts and attend to Relationship only as a photographic project. When I began looking at these images, my first instinct was to attempt to understand the historical underpinnings of the project. How do Drucker and Ernst compare to Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, and Cindy Sherman (the examples cited by the book’s cover)? Well, they don’t. All of those artists operate within the context of a normative art history that privileges established modes of sexuality. Sherman, Andy Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp don drag, but at their core is a reaffirmation of two fixed genders, if only ironically or as stereotype. Furthermore, although Clark and Goldin have produced important documentary images, Drucker and Ernst are not necessarily documenting; they are living. In Relationship, the term “documentary” might not even hold, given that the book is a record of two unique bodies in a state of mutual becoming. This defies the inherent fixity of the camera and points to what historian Ariella Azoulay has called photography’s “civil contract”—its ability to exteriorize previously unseen social relationships and differentials of power.
Most of the time, Drucker and Ernst are not in the picture together, but we understand a psychic relationship when a purely physical one is absent. The photographer is changing, even as the photograph is being taken, and so are the subjects, like two vines that slowly grow into each other and become unified. We come to understand the potential of the photograph to reveal bodies in flux but also modes of seeing in flux. This is more important, I think, than trying to find art historical precedents for Relationship, because what the book actually asks is that we rely not on outmoded visual cues and social narratives, but rather, like Drucker and Ernst, invent new ones.
William J. Simmons is an adjunct lecturer in art history at the City College of New York, and a PhD student in art history and women’s studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Relationship was published by Prestel in June 2016.