GUEST POST BY ELIZABETH CORR
- Recently, I had the great pleasure of talking with Betsy Odom about her latest show Sis Boom Bah currently on view at the Hyde Park Art Center. Betsy, who lives and works in Chicago, received her MFA in Sculpture from Yale in 2007. Her fascinating body of work examines gender and sexuality in the sports world, highlighting the various ways in which these social constructs become public spectacle. Considering the nature of Betsy’s subject matter, we both agreed that there couldn’t be a more aptly named blog to host such a discussion.
Sis Boom Bah is on view until June 19th. For more information on this and other upcoming shows, please visit Betsy’s website.
Elizabeth Corr: One of the things that I find so striking about your work is your deliberate use of materials – leather, sporting equipment, auto paint – materials that traditionally evoke the masculine. You take these materials and incorporate them through feminine decorative traditions such as sewing and weaving, while also utilizing established masculine practices like leather tooling. Suddenly, everyday sporting objects are transformed. It’s like this “Ah-ha” moment, where the absurdity of society’s gender roles is highlighted and you realize just how much these notions permeate our daily lives. Can you talk about your fascination with the politics of gender and why you choose to use sports as a metaphor to investigate these issues?
Betsy Odom: I am extremely conscious of seeking out materials, techniques, and objects that I think contribute to that tacit construction of gender. Sex is infused in tooling leather. We drink from faucets that have grown ever more phallic as time has moved on. Decoration, carving, stitching, tooling – I suspect that many of these activities grew as a way to busy “idle hands.” And some of my own assumptions are way, way off, which I also enjoy. Like, I’m pretty sure that not many people see Emmylou Harris, a straight older country singer, as enough of a queer icon to merit her own sports-team. But my hope is that as soon as you start looking for signifiers, which are abundant in sports, you can conceivably see them everywhere.
In some ways I am trying to act out a fantasy where you can be aware of the absurdity of our cultural influences and still enjoy them, slipping in and out of social constructs like gender, class, race, and sexuality as you please. It’s sort of like the fun of mixing all the different sodas together to see what comes out. (Am I the only one who still gets a kick out of that?)
EC: I want to talk about your piece Double Whistle. To me this piece was so overtly sexual (all I could see was a double sided dildo, but that may say more about me than about your work…). I was fascinated by the fact that you chose to exhibit it within a Plexiglas box – essentially rendering it off limits. What are your intentions with this piece and what does say about female sexuality in the context of sports?
BO: The way I approach intentionality is a bit loosey-goosey. While I hate it when people say, “your interpretation is just as important as mine, my intent is not important, etc.”, at the same time, I do like to start from some pretty obscure or perhaps entirely invented associations. My take on it is this: not everyone reads the piece as a double dildo, or a curmudgeonly old man gym coach, or a tantric musical instrument, or an opulent and rare conjoined artifact. But hopefully, most people do read it primarily as one of the dozen or so things it can reasonably be. Then maybe the other interpretations seep in as well, showing how complicated even a simple gesture can be.
But, where Double Whistle actually came from: I had been mulling over the way my coach’s mouth seemed unnecessarily emphatic on her whistle. I tried a lot of things to express that such as playing with scale, materials etc. It took me a year before the idea of mirroring the whistle finally hit me. I suppose one of the cool things about interviews is that you can get into the stories about a piece’s process or origins, and about the artists themselves. On the other hand, I’ve had many an artist ruin my opinion of their work by revealing where they are coming from.
EC: Walking through the show, I was couldn’t help but think about the work of Judith Butler and her theories about gender and gender performativity. Butler, in a distinctly postmodern approach to gender, calls into question the idea that certain feminine and masculine behaviors are “natural.” She argues instead that the ideals that constitute ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are socially constructed, in essence making one’s gender a complicated ritual of performance. Sis Boom Bah draws our attention to one of the places where gender is regularly performed – the playing field. Talk about the ways in which you and your work have been influenced by postmodern feminist and/or queer theories about gender?
BO: This is probably going to be my longest answer, as I am casually passionate about gender theory. But, before I get into it, I’d be interested in your take on the notion of making art that talks to bigger issues. I personally needed a big dosing of queer and gender theory to even get comfortable with even the idea of making work that is explicitly about sexuality and gender. This is probably a bit of an aside, but I think a lot of artists have to deal with the discomfort that comes along with sometimes wanting to make work that is queer or political.
My discomfort is basically this. I had to face a fear of self-ghettoizing or even pandering in order to participate in a cause I care about, but I also had to cope with the awkward phase of early queer art, and more than that, a fear of continuing in a tradition that tends towards the cheesy. But, at the same time, there is a lot of great stuff actually going on by artists who are able to move in and out of a queer dialog pretty comfortably: Nicole Eisenman’s fan drawing of Shane from The L Word with a fist coming out of her vagina, Collier Schorr’s cover on the latest Aperture, Girls Like Us: Lesbian Quarterly for whatever that’s worth. Do you think I’m just paranoid in still worrying about this stuff?
EC: Paranoid? Absolutely not. Actually, the feelings you mention constitute a real rift within in queer theory relating to feminist standpoint theory and identity politics as useful paradigms for understanding the world. As you point out, while there is this element of freedom and empowerment in being able to speak from a certain perspective (queer or female in this case) there is also the very real threat of alienation and co-option (while certain commonalities may exist, certainly not all queer or female perspectives are universal). And so, as the artist, your worry about viewers taking one perspective (yours) and extrapolating into some kind of universal political statement about said groups (queer and/or female) is very real.
BO: At any rate, I am pretty revved up by Foucault’s idea that our discourse around sexuality tends to be, in truth, the total opposite of what it claims (i.e. the confession of sexual sins propagates more sexual sins for which to confess). I translate this into something of a bait-and-switch in my work: a lot of my pieces try to draw you in with materials, content, color, etc., only to bring you close enough to see something a bit more provocative, then question why you were attracted to the object in the first place. Sort of like your question about interpreting Double Whistle. I very much like the idea of the viewer wondering, “Maybe it’s just me?”
Judith Butler’s work on the performance of gender and her thoughts on sameness and otherness were a driving factor in me getting into this work. I’m especially interested in the way Butler points out gay and lesbian creative use of gender performance. But I wonder if queer play with gender comes from a larger cultural desire (imperative?) to point-out a hegemony, or does it fall into the same heteronormative fallacy of a sense of “naturalness:” i.e. “but I really feel like an androgynous jock,” which I often do, by the way, minus the actual athletic prowess. The need for consciousness of gender as a construct goes both ways I guess. And then there’s the whole other question of how this applies to the very real social issues riding on a perception of queer difference. How do we negotiate all this information?
EC: For me, part of what is so appealing to Butler’s approach to gender is how radically it disrupts normative ideas of heterosexuality. Can you tell me a little bit about how your works challenges these notions, and the ways in which queer culture and sexuality inform your practice and use of language?
BO: Butler is pretty convincing in pointing out that our focus on the biologically gendered body (or that gender is born of the body) encourages us to chain a big ol’ leash on the much wider and more interesting discourse around gender formation. I use sport as place to play with the body, joking with the unnecessary weight we give the body in connoting gender. I enjoy digging into ideas like Butler’s and others that gender is mostly relationary (the concept of female exists in relation to the concept of male, and vice-versa.). I am conflating those relations and projecting them back onto the body – in gear, skin-like materials, etc. What comes out may be a glimpse into what would happen if the performance we have all agreed upon as a society just suddenly ended.
EC: There is a long history of uneasiness with ambiguous gender and sex in sports, and this is partly because the sporting world so heavily relies on neatly packaged ideas of what constitute “female” and “male” especially as they relate to athletic ability. Your drawing, the only drawing in the show actually, references the most recent example of sex testing, which concerned Caster Semenya, a South African runner whose sex was called into question after her gold medal performance at the 2009 World Championships. What did you make of this story and can you talk about your appropriately named piece Un-titled (for Caster)?
BO: I was really blown away by this story because it is one of those instances where I really cannot get my head around what the “right” answer should be in terms of oppression vs. the roles of normativity in culture. Obviously the way this was dealt with is atrocious and inexcusable, which strangely seems to happen a lot when women’s sports are finally noticed. (Imus, anyone? Or the constant focus on the fact that you don’t see dunking in the WNBA?)
But, I don’t know for sure. Is it fair for Caster to run? Can we just think of her mildly intersexed physiology as a genetic advantage similar to height or big lungs? Or should there be events for men, women, and “in-betweens?” I love that this story made the world deal with how complicated gender actually is. Caster is now officially allowed to run in women’s sports and kept her title, by the way, but many speculate that there must be a caveat about testosterone suppression.
But honestly, my main interest in Caster’s story was a glaring omission in the coverage. Namely, no one seemed to publicly care about her sexuality! It is such a rare moment in our culture where gender and sexuality are kept separate. I’ve always thought that separating these is something I would like to see; but in this instance I think it is another form of imposed gender-enforcement. I personally think that, whatever we feel about Caster’s eligibility in sport, we should all agree on one thing, which is that s/he is amazingly sexy. So with the drawing, I simply wanted to celebrate her, well, hotness, the way we do with other athletes. Something like fan art meets the life-sized Michael Jordan poster for the back of your door.
EC: I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but after seeing Sis Boom Bah I started thinking a lot about the lingerie football league! To me, your work represents one side of the spectrum of gender and sexuality that, excuse the pun, gets played out in sports. And, lingerie football it seems must exist on the exact opposite side of that spectrum. Here we have women sexualized in an overtly heteronormative manner, whose athletic ability and prowess are undermined by uniforms (or lack thereof) and (tit)illating team names like Philadelphia Passion, Dallas Desire and San Diego Seduction. What do you make of this? And, can you talk about how the queering of well-established sexual mores in your work relates to (or makes necessary?) this type of performance of sexuality.
BO: Oh boy is that funny! I’d love to see actual women’s contact football teams doing lingerie football- pitting the Chicago Force against the Dallas Desire. I think it would put an end to the practice forever. Or maybe start a whole ancient Greco-Roman revival of naked athletics. Who knows!
Elizabeth Corr received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in African Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her graduate work focused on contemporary African art in post-apartheid South Africa. She lives in Chicago and works at NRDC, an environmental nonprofit.