A retrospective is defined as an exhibition that chronologically presents the works of an artist to show their artistic trajectory. Yet the title of Cabello/Carceller’s survey show, ‘Draft for an Untitled Exhibition (Chapter II)’, invites visitors to reject traditional notions of artistic practice and exhibition making.
Helena Cabello and Ana Carceller, who began collaborating in 1992, present an artistic and critical approach to the discourse surrounding the representation of gender, sexuality, minorities and the role of institutions within the context of a late-capitalist society.
The exhibition rooms at Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo juxtapose works – mostly video installations and photography – from different periods, to reinstate the temporal complexity of life experience beyond the idea of linear progress. In the first room, a time line of the artists’ career is spliced with socio-political facts related to the status of the queer body. The opening entry dates from 1586, ‘the Vicar of Madrid requests a genital examination of Eleno/Elena de Céspedes, hermaphrodite’, while a more recent statistic reminds visitors that homosexuality is still illegal in a third of countries. By integrating personal experience with political history, a different relationship between body and time is proposed.
Cabello/Carceller’s working methods include the use of fiction, the play of representation and the inclusion of untrained actors in their videos to dismantle stereotypes, uncovering divergences with conventional values and facilitating alternative narratives. ‘The State of the Art, a performative essay’, was both filmed and exhibited in the Spanish Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennial. A migrant woman encounters three other fictional characters in the halls of the pavilion, all of whom are auditioning for employment, a recurring experience for much of the Spanish population. The characters are of different social statuses but all of them engage in some form of sexual dissidence. The film, which borrows feminist, queer and Brechtian aesthetics from experimental cinema, asks how we can resist in a capitalist system that praises extreme competition and economic value.
Judith Butler’s argument that gender is performative is an important framework for contextualising the artists’ work. The notion that a stable gender identity is an illusion can be seen in ‘Archive: Drag Models’, a series of photographs in which women present themselves as male characters from films – those played by the likes of Marlon Brando, Brad Pitt and James Dean. The photos – conceived by Cabello/Carceller in collaboration with their models – are displayed alongside the iconic film stills they reference, radicalising history by the means of fictional narrative while illustrating the codes of gender.
Cabello/Carceller’s narratives also question physical spaces marked for the creation of genre. For instance, ‘Some Place’ is a series of photographs depicting clubs once they have closed: emptied of people, action performed. I write these words back in London, in a café opposite the glowing neon of Dalston Superstore, a venue where LGBTQ party-goers and drag artists dance each weekend with no discrimination or judgement. I wonder if a future in which people are never defined by their gender or sexuality is possible, considering the weight of history we are carrying in our contemporary bones.
By performing subversive actions and troubling the categories of hegemonic systems, Cabello and Carceller offer hope that, one day, transformative politics could emerge.