A Feminist Narrative in 14 Parts
For my mother, who knows who she is.
Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?
I recently had the pleasure of working with Corinne Singer and Maggie Kobelski on Corinne’s ongoing series in feminist self-portraiture. The first installment, entitled “Mother, May I?,” came into being in late December when, at the seaside town where I once spent my childhood summers, I walked into the Atlantic Ocean wearing my mother’s wedding gown.
For as long as I can remember, it has simply been expected that I would marry in that dress; but following the deterioration of my parents’ relationship, my struggles with mental illness, and my efforts to come to terms with my own sexual and gender identity, the oppressive implications of such an assumption took on violent significance. Always symbolic of conformity, by the time of the shoot my mother’s wedding dress had become a representative site upon which the traumas of my adolescence—the toxic constraints of heteronormativity, the lingering anxiety of disappointing my mother through my unconventional state of being—were made manifest.
In some ways, “Mother, May I?” functions as a visual counterpart to “Love and Other Theories of Subjugation,” wherein I describe an allegorical scene of submission in (and to) the waters of the Atlantic, reflecting upon my own psychological need for respite. In other ways, it was a challenge to my own body: kneeling in ivory satin among frigid water was a means through which I could explore my own physical limitations, and in doing so, engage in an incomplete (but perhaps not entirely futile) effort towards transcendence. In the latter regard, the entire endeavor can potentially be read as a reflexive, even masochistic act; more than anything, though, it was the visual extension of my understanding of the human body as an intimate site of desire and revolution.
The conceptualization of this piece drew heavily upon the feminist tenants of physical reclamation. My status as a neurodivergent, differently abled queer person with a complex identity that includes ‘woman’ is visually and thematically evoked in the lines of Sapphic poetry painted onto my body: the characters along my collarbone read, “Someone, I say, will remember us, in another time,” while “Hymn to Aphrodite” extends across my back and shoulders.
Efforts at self-portraiture are complicated by the many facets of my identity that cannot be reconciled. With regards to the trajectory of the photographic narrative, however, the themes that come immediately to mind are captivity and sacrifice, abandonment and solitude, violence and desire, sensuality and subjugation, shame and self-medication, resistance and liberation, baptism and rebirth. In my artwork and my writing, I have rarely achieved the sense of catharsis that I experienced when modeling for this piece.
This narrative is dedicated to my parents, my queerness, my body, my resistance. It is dedicated, in short, to the willful destruction of beautiful things.