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Actress Tilda Swinton breaks gender barriers with new ‘Orlando’ exhibit

Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography is, above all else, a delicately crafted love letter to her mistress Vita Sackville-West.

The novel is one of Woolf’s most provocative works, specifically for its inciting event in which the main character, Orlando, undergoes a fantastical sex-change midway through the novel and lives for 300 years.

Considered to be satirical historiography about the British estate, Orlando serves as an intricate commentary concerning the perceptions of gender, imperialism, and natural force.

Sally Potter’s 1992 film adaptation of the novel served as a crucial experiment in representing the fluidity of gender and sexuality in a cinematic manner. Orlando (1992) was considered to be Tilda Swinton’s break-out role as an actress and established her as an important figure in the film industry.

Almost thirty years after the film’s release, Swinton has collaborated with The Aperture Foundation as a guest editor and curator of their Summer 2019 issue to further explore Orlando in a contemporary context. The issue is paired with an accompanying exhibition that opened May 24 at Aperture Gallery.

In her opening statement about the exhibition, Swinton wrote:

“I have come to value the landscape of this beloved book far less as being only about gender and far more as being about the profound flexibility of the fully awake and sensate spirit… I have come to see Orlando as a story about the life and development of a human striving to become liberated entirely from the constructs of prescriptive (tired old binary) gender or social norms of any kind.”


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For the latest issue of Aperture, guest editor Tilda Swinton invited a group of artists and writers to make work inspired by Virginia Woolf’s pioneering 1928 novel “Orlando.” . In “Orlando,” Woolf tells the tale of a young nobleman in the age of Queen Elizabeth I who lives for centuries—and along the way mysteriously shifts gender, a point that is radically rendered as a nonevent. Now, Swinton calls upon Woolf’s central themes—curiosity, transformation, and the deep perspective that is earned from a long life—and connects them to our present day. In a look behind the scenes, Swinton notes, “this issue of Aperture will be a salute to limitlessness, and a heartfelt celebration of the fully inclusive and expansive vision of life exemplified by the extraordinary artists collected here.” Read more at . Pre-order the issue now through our link in bio. And visit “Orlando,” an exhibition guest curated by Tilda Swinton, opening on May 24 at Aperture Gallery in New York. . Cover: Vivane Sassen (@vivianesassenstudio), from the series “Venus & Mercury,” 2019. Courtesy the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg. Sculpture belongs to Musée du Louvre, Paris, and Château de Versailles, France #ApertureMagazine

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Potter’s work opens the show with a series of six pre-production images that she used to help secure funding for Orlando. Potter took these photos in the Sackville-West estate, the main inspiration for Woolf’s 1928 novel. These photos display the elaborate costume pieces Swinton wore in both her male and female portrayals of Orlando.

While Swinton pushed many times in her interview with The New York Times that she believed that Orlando was about much more than just gender, the show largely focuses on depictions and perceptions of gender and sexuality. Only the work of American photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya delves deeper into the novel to explore its blatant racism.

Sepuya, who listed Orlando as one of his main artistic inspirations in an interview with i-D, is an artist who attempts to deconstruct traditional photographic perception. Each one of his works prominently features a camera pointed directly at the viewer, effectively turning the photograph into a mirror his audience is looking into.

While his piece “Darkroom Mirror (_2100693)” below was not featured in the exhibition, it is a piece that exemplifies his study of the apparatus itself.


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Darkroom Mirror (_2100693), 2017, 24×32”

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In the show, Sepuya’s photographs explore the two moments in which Woolf describes Orlando’s violent and purposeless assault of a family heirloom: the preserved head of a Moor.

While most older (read: white) critics chalk these two scenes up as just another layer of satire concerning British heritage, Woolf does not treat this idea with the delicacy it deserved.

A 21st century reading of the novel shows an ignorant, shallow, disregard for the power dynamics at hand. She didn’t have any right to use the n-word when Orlando recalls the assault later in the novel. It could be said that Woolf was a “product of her time,” however that does not mean she should not be held accountable for these scenes.

In the New York Times interview conducted by Ted Loos, Loos mentions to Swinton, “a particularly fraught moment related to race.” It’s important here that we call it for what it is: Orlando has two moments that are blatantly racist.

It’s important to directly engage with this exact rhetoric from the onset of attempting to engage with the novel as a whole. Dancing around the issue at hand–describing it as a “fraught moment”–dampens its severity.


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The Conditions, on view

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Sepuya’s untitled photographs depict Sepuya himself, a window overlooking the sea, and three separate depictions of Moors: two paintings against the same window and what appears to be a cut-out photo of sculpture against a door frame.

These two settings are in obvious reference to the beginning of Woolf’s novel, which opens with Orlando as a young boy, brutalizing the decapitated Moor’s head in his family attic before going to look through a stained glass window.

Sepuya’s work provides a powerful reimagining of this scene by removing Orlando’s presence completely. In doing so, he lets the various depictions of the Moor serve as a ghost-like presence, a haunting reminder of what imperial violence really looks like, and the senseless cruelty of Woolf’s original description.

Multi-media artist Zackary Drucker is a trans woman who contributed three portraits of Rosalyne Blumenstein to the collection. Drucker, who is also a producer on the Emmy award-winning show Transparent, explores gender posturing, dysmorphia, and BDSM culture in her larger body of work.

Zackary Drucker, Rosalyne, 2019, for Aperture

Here, Drucker’s studies focus on Blumenstein, an influential trans activist, and foremother, and likens her to Botticelli’s Venus. Drucker’s work explores the feminine binary and the seductive beauty that comes with it. Drucker also contributed a series of Blumenstein’s own photograph collection to further pay homage to her mentor and muse.

Both Mickalene Thomas and Walter Pfeiffer contributed bubbly portraits of their subjects, pairing nonsensical outfits with even more fantastic set pieces to create hallucinatory dream-scapes with their work.

Thomas’s photographic work has an added layer of transformation due to her use of collage to transform her original images into a distorted and colorful reimagination of reality.

Mickalene Thomas Untitled #3 (Orlando Series), 2019

Thomas’s body of work focuses on the representation of the black body in art, and the four pieces she contributed explore the fa’afafine third-gender community of Samoa boys who are raised as girls. Her primary subject is her partner, Racquel Chevremont, again recalling Woolf’s motivations in writing Orlando as a love letter to Sackville-West.

On the other hand, Pfeiffer’s dream-like portraits of young men presently explore the intersections of feminine presentation and “macho boys” as well as a fascination with youth. This includes an untitled photo of a sleeve stuffed with flowers, resembling the ruffled Elizabethan costumes of Swinton’s male portrayal of Orlando, and a young man wearing a flower crown.

Lynn Hershman Leeson is most known for her elaborate performance art piece Roberta Breitmore. The piece called a “private performance” on her website, spanned five years in which Hershman Leeson opened bank accounts, rented an apartment, as well as saw a therapist as a fictional character.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Rowlands/Bogart (Female Dominant), 1982, from the series Hero Sandwich . Hand-painted collage

Hershman Leeson made intricate spreadsheets detailing how Roberta would wear her makeup and physically perform, such as her 1976 work “Roberta’s Body Language Chart.” This piece of performance art poked holes into the presentation of womanhood, an idea that Woolf constantly engages with with her genderless coding of Orlando.

Each on of Elle Pérez’s photographs is a small character study, largely focusing on members of the LGBTQ community. Perez’s work resists any type of set narrative, presenting a black and white portrait as well as a photo of a vial of testosterone for the exhibition.

Viviane Sassen’s series Venus & Mercury is a photographic study of the Palace of Versailles, another strong connection to the intimate study of the European estate present in Woolf’s original text. Sassen later stained her collection of images of classical statues with pigment, sometimes to represent a type of otherworldly aura, sometimes as a blatant placeholder for blood.

Viviane Sassen Venus & Mercury, 2019

Collier Schorr’s untitled series serves as a visual documentary of the trans model Casil McArthur between the years 2015-2018. Schorr met McArthur right as McArthur began his transition. Schorr’s work explores McArthur’s transition from pre to post-op. Schorr also contributed a video installation of the musician Melissa Livaudais playing the guitar made by the sculptor Daniel Oates.

Jamal Nxedlana is a creative director at Bubblegum Club, a publication that focuses on engaging the world with South African youth culture. Nxedlana showed three original photographs for Orlando, a series titled FAKA Portrait. FAKA is in reference to the performance art duo Fela Gucci and Desire Marea.

In an issue of Bubblegum Club dedicated to the duo, the introduction reads: “For the queer, the trans, the non-conforming, the female and the black… there is FAKA.” FAKA, as well as Nxedlana’s portraits, rigorously challenge all forms of the gender binary.

Jamal Nxedlana, FAKA Portraits, Johannesburg, 2019, for Aperture

Lastly, Columbus-based photographer and installation artist Carmen Winant supplied five pieces to the exhibition. Winant’s work, titled A melon a pineapple, an olive tree, and emerald, a fox in the snow, is a series of two-part layerings in reference to Orlando’s encounter with a Russian princess at the beginning of the novel.

The first layer of the series is a 2002 photo of Winant’s breasts marked with faint scratches. Three of photos layered on top of her 2002 work are the original photos Woolf included in Orlando, many of which including photos of Sackville-West herself dressed up as Orlando.


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Orlando opens tomorrow at @aperturefnd 🎭

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The remaining two pieces come from a pamphlet about clay working. Both this concept and the layering of multiple images against one constant base suggest the transformative nature of the themes presented in Woolf’s work.

Orlando is on view from May 24 to July 11. The accompanying Summer 2019 edition of Aperture magazine is on sale now.