Surrealism and Beyond Gender

surreal grrrl living in an even more surreal world

CN: vague talk of gender-based violence, transness, transphobia and trauma

I’ve been wanting to write this for a little while but it is quite a heavy and complex topic so I won’t be diving into too much detail on this, but i do still want to talk about it. So here goes lets talk about what surrealism can tell us about how we experience gender and how is used is used by both cis women and trans ppl to reflect those.

I’d like to start by examining some work by Paloma Varga Weisz as it is the most recent example I have seen IRL and spent time with. Wilde Leute (1998) is numerous small clay figures that are human-animal hybrids (i don’t really see the animal other than some lumps on heads that might be cat ears? Is this accidental neo-anarchist trans catgirls representation? lmao) and arranged in groups she has called ‘families’. on closer inspection u can see there are 3 types of bodies - excluding the children here - tits with no visible genitals, no tits with visible genitals and finally no tits and no visible genitals. the 3 genders, basically. 

Varga Weisz has created sculptures that are ‘uncanny’ and go ‘beyond the boundaries of gender’ and she has done this based on her experiences and understanding of that (altho she doesn’t like to ascribe meaning to her work) and thats fine. she has created a world where gender is (a little) more diverse, or rather bodies are more diverse but i’ll go with what she’s trying to do here, and where gender isn’t a big deal and where gender-based trauma and violence isn’t happening because how can it once we’re out of the binary, patriarchal system?

We’ll come back to this.

I want to throw the work of Remedios Varo in the mix so we can cast our minds back a bit cuz this isn’t a recent thing at all, but Varo is a painter whose work I quite like and I feel she is doing something similar. 

Varo’s figures eventually begin to take a more androgynous look about them and start to become human-animal hybrids as well (altho her’s are more obvious to my eye) concerning herself with the surreal and fantastical. Leonora Carrington was doing similar things, one's work often being confused for the others on a regular basis as their styles were so similar.

Both Varo and Varga Weisz here are playing with gender - a thing i absolutely suggest more cis ppl do - and in particular a way of leaving gender behind but not entirely. The hybrids suggest a desire to not leave womanhood behind as such but to create a safer space beyond binarist notions of womanhood, perhaps where trauma and systemic violence are behind them or perhaps just re-contextualised.

Nothing new there. Cis women have been making work like this for generations. So u will by now be asking what this vegan has beef with?

Well its 2021 and I live in the UK and I’m trans so its pretty impossible for me not to want to understand these works more, as ‘beyond gender’ is not just the realm of cis women wanting an escapist fantasy, its many trans ppls reality. So a dissection of how those two things intersect feels necessary and timely.

Ok so i’m not an owl-human hybrid with legs for days i’m 5ft 4 transsexual with dodgy knees, but thats not the important bit here. Cis women are seeing a world without gender or beyond gender as a safer space and as a fantasy to imagine what could be. Varga Weisz imagines what families would look like if dads got therapy. Varo conjures more mystical imagining of this kind of space. As someone that has tried to live as non-binary in this society for the past few years I can tell u being ‘beyond gender’ is not anything like the two are imagining. This is why we end up with such traumatised detransitioners. It's not because Being Trans Is Bad and It’s A Cult, it’s because it's seen as a way out of gender-based violence only for these women to be given a different flavour gender-based violence. Same can of worms, just a different label slapped on it.

In Varga Weisz and Varo’s work we are asked to focus on the figures, on the individuals (or groups of individuals) as if the figures are beyond gender. But are they really?

I spent a good few years stating i was non-binary til i was blue in the face and that did nothing but give me further and more complex layers of gender-based trauma. Just the same as detransitioners because we are sold the idea of individual change as salvation. I’m not trans to save myself from anything, I'm trans because I am. 

I don’t believe we should be considering these kinds of works as figures at all. The moment there is a figure or a body in front of us we focus solely on that and damn do i know what it's like to be scrutinised for your body or erased for it (Wilde Luete has 3 body types and guess who’s is left out…). No, I think we should move past the figures and think about what they’re saying about the world they are in. Both artists works vibe with 2nd wave feminist ideals of gender abolishon. In Wilde Leute we see that gender has been abolished successfully, it's just that trans women's gender has been abolished first. 

These cis women get to theorise and make art about this as a space without gender where they will be safer with one foot still in womanhood and they get to take the best bits for that and not the shite. Is that a bad thing tho? Not necessarily. 

Varo’s paintings suggest a darker side - she often depicts people working and hints that for all the fantastical removal of direct gender-based violence and oppression we’ll still be in the grip of capitalism. If gender can’t be sold to us or capitalised on then it will be abolished for us and we can all be the perfect uniform gender-neutral worker. She is showing us that she understands the darker side of this, but not the light at the end of the tunnel.

So whats a #GirlBoss to think?

Well the answer as u may have guessed lies with the trans community.

Working around the same time as Varo was Claude Cahun - a jewish, non-binary, lesbian artist who lived on the island of Jersey with their partner and their cat and who regularly gave occupying german officers anti-nazi propaganda to try to engage and deradicalise them. They were an all round badass and we’re vocal about being third gender or as they put it “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me”. (Cahun is constantly misgendered and thrown into the binary gender they were assigned at birth despite being vocal about not being, but we’ll address that another day).

Cahun was playing with surrealism and occultism in their photography and using this as a way to express, among other things, how playing with gender can be liberatory. In their work we can see that they were not trying to explore this as a safe space whilst keeping one foot firmly in a particular camp. We can see this in their work and in their life. In their art we can see they are using this in a different way to Varga Weisz and Varo - this is not theory, this is reality. By using photography with themself as the subject they are showing that this is possible that they can transcend the rigid gender binary not as a theoretical safe space but as an act of liberation. In their life they wrote about their feelings of being Third Gender or Neuter in french and english and used clothing and costume as a tool to disguise themself to distribute anti-nazi propoganda as part of the war effort to help liberate the island of Jersey.

Unfortunately it didn’t work. Cahun and their partner were eventually imprisoned and were sentenced to death and only survived due to the island being liberated after they were imprisoned and viciously tortured. They died in 1954.

Varo on the other hand escaped the spanish civil war (leaving her husband behind to fight) and nazi occupied Paris and left for Mexico with a number of other artists and poets in her close circle. She lived until 1963, almost a decade longer than Cahun.

Now that isn’t me judging anyone’s wartime decisions as that is absolutely not a thing I care to do, what I am saying with that is that we can see this use of the idea of moving beyond the binary mirrored in both of their lives - Varo was using this as a theory whilst Cahun was existing in it in reality. Both were using the same space but for different reasons and this is where the struggle lies.

When I dug further into Varga Weisz work I found it triggering. Not cuz it was transphobic, but cuz the space beyond gender where she is playing is the same space where my trauma of living beyond gender is. This space that falls under this category of Women’s Spaces that are safe for women is then seen as under threat from the walking stacks of trauma that are transgender ppl who live in this very same space. 

Perhaps that is in part why these Radical FeministsTM are constantly butting heads with us and why they feel we’re invading their spaces, because we are a physical embodiment of that gender-based trauma in a space that they are trying to escape into.

While I’m not gonna stuff Varga Weisz in the category of surrealism cuz I'm not a qualified art historian to decide this, but i do think her work follows some of this vein that Varo’s work does and that is where things get interesting and messy. As I said earlier I think more cis ppl shouldo be playing with gender as its all ultimately going a step in the right direction, but the big question we constantly need to ask is ‘why?’ - why do u want to play with the concept of being Beyond Gender? - This should be asked not as a method of gatekeeping, oh far from it, but to help stimulate that conversation and see what Varo was clearly beginning to see and what many trans ppl already know. 

This space where cis women have come to play with gender is no longer a playground. The Conservative government in the UK have stoked a Culture War and turned it into a warzone (the fact that my reaction to Varga Weisz and Varo’s work is to be mildly triggered when they are things that I should and do enjoy is evidence of that), and they are trying to make it impossible for the possibility of this as a shared space of surrealist gender liberation where cis woman and all trans ppl can create a space for everyone who needs to, to be Beyond Gender. 

If surrealism can be used to create some of the wildest and trippiest of shit then it can be used to give us a space where Beyond Gender works for everyone.

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