I talked with Gray Wielebinski about how the challenges of reclaiming queer embodiment can be navigated through, variously: sports, art, football fandom, tactile media, science fiction, and the disappointment of witnessing “the man behind the curtain.” Their latest exhibition, “Dark Air,” takes up these questions in an attempt to divine real feelings from cultural mythology, even questioning the rituals associated with the art exhibition complex itself.
By way of an introduction: give me your origin story in three sentences. Be as reductive, hyperbolic, or flat-out wrong about it as you want.
I grew up in Dallas, Texas and then moved to LA for several years before moving to the UK to get an MFA at the Slade.
Like you, I’ve studied in both the US and the UK. It seems like art education in Europe is so much more freeform, like it really forces you to be self-directed, to fiercely pursue your own choices and then have the discipline to stand by them. Do you feel like you had this kind of freedom at Slade? How did having that (or not?) shape your process?
Yeah, for sure, it’s a completely different situation in a lot of ways, but also there are so many other variables that make up each of our relationships to education and work and expectations and productivity. Even though I’ve been super lucky to have found and known I wanted to make art, and have had so many people in my life be really supportive an encouraging about it, I also think my relationship to education has been really tied to specific notions and expectations about success and productivity and doing things in a certain and particular way that doesn’t really have any kind of guaranteed path or even much of a reality when it comes to art.
So I think a big part of this process has been letting go of things and ways of living and and being and “succeeding” I thought I knew. I think, for better or worse, the “freedom” you described, in practice, can actually just feel quite lonely and scary and irritating, but for me it did finally push me to a breaking point and ultimately make me more self-sufficient and proactive in my art practice and empower me to rely on not only myself but my peers more than anything or any institution. But there are so many ways to arrive at this point that don’t necessitate formal education or academia!
From a giant, hybrid stuffed animal to a football scarf, your upcoming exhibition “Dark Air” is filled with really tactile, touchable work. Was this a conscious intention?
I think in some ways consciously and in other ways subconsciously, the idea of both having a “tactile” practice and also to literally make something physical that takes up space in the room became a really important thing to me near the end of my studies at the Slade, in no small part due to the fact that I was facing my relationship (or lack thereof) to my own body head-on. Up to that point in a lot of ways my relationship to my body and my transness was so intellectualized and insular and essentially in the realm of my own head that eventually it became really necessary and cathartic to instigate a “tactile” practice. I needed to relate to my own body in new ways through the act of making as well as through the work itself.
That being said, my practice has always incorporated collage in one way or another, whether it’s paper or sound or sculpture, so once I started to move in this direction, sculptural work became a really fruitful way for me to create hybrids or collages using materials that have aesthetic and symbolic meanings built into them, using them to invert or embrace expectations.
The scarves specifically can also be thought of as a combining of ideas and influences and meanings—between art, fashion, and sports—to make something else. I originally started making a series of multiple football scarves, each woven with individual parts, to ultimately make up a larger drawing that was playing with ideas of memorabilia and fine art, clothing and costumes/uniforms, fanmanship and fetish objects, painting and textiles. For my upcoming show, I collaborated with DATEAGLE to make new unique scarfs in reference to the creature and the show itself, thinking a bit about the idea of the “merch table” that might be outside a sports match or a sacred site as a marker of the experience, after which they’ll each take on a life of their own.
I feel like so many artists gravitate away from athletic themes, unless they’re approaching them with this sense of condescending, ironic detachment, retaining this “nerds-versus-jocks” binary like it’s some John Hughes movie. What prompted the recurring symbolism of sports in your work?
I did personally play a lot of sports—it was a large part of my life growing up, and, for better or worse, it was an identity that I “lost” or gave up in parts along the way, in retrospect, due to a lot of trauma around gender and identity. On one level I started using sports as a theme to engage directly with my ambivalent relationships to masculinity, particularly toxic white masculinity, in relation to my trans identity as I was wrestling with feelings of repulsion and loss and desire and even jealously, as well as embracing my genuine love of my alternative reality.
In this way I started creating utopic, queer worlds using sports culture and aesthetics—for example, the locker room—that can be more inclusive and open in order to “reclaim” a part of myself and open these possibilities up to others. And on the more macro level I engage with how these potential utopias may often stand in direct contrast with many of the realities in which we live and what it might mean to wrestle between the two.
Sports can be, on a personal level, a way of relating to your body (which isn’t necessarily something to take for granted if you often feel disembodied or dissociated from it), relating to or creating communities and histories, but it can also be a culture that not only reflects but amplifies some of the worst parts of our society like racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. Sports can genuinely make people feel unsafe, which I don’t take lightly either and is inherent to the work.
Ultimately, sports then become a very relevant and potent arena for discussing race, class, gender, national identity, the body, celebrity, costume, and power dynamics. In many ways, particularly in the US, the world of sports has been and continues to be hugely political and seeps into our lives on an almost daily basis, much broader and more accessibly than, for example, contemporary art. So I think writing sports off completely, even in an ideological way, feels dangerous. The lack of detachment or condescension doesn’t mean a call for constant seriousness or certainly not complete reverence by any means, but I take my ambivalence seriously, and from there I feel able to play a bit within those parameters.
Mythology, too, seems to play a central role in “Dark Air.” How does myth fit in with the themes of sports and queerness that keep popping up in your work? Does it reconcile the two, which at first (and perhaps superficially) seem to be opposed to one another?
In a broader way, myths and myth-making are essentially the stories and shared beliefs through which a society or culture creates its realities, parameters, and belief systems. So particularly for marginalized people, this notion of “social constructs” doesn’t necessarily reflect the realities in which we live but it can be a very useful tool for survival, communication, community and ultimately questioning and fighting the powers that be by understanding where they came from, similarly to how science fiction can often function as allegory and speak to our contemporary moment and futures.
In another way, nation-states—the US in particular—rely heavily on myth-making and controlled narratives. Particularly since moving away from the US and to another country with a somewhat similar yet specifically curated identity with its own histories, rules, and visions of itself, I’ve gained new perspectives through which to see the power and forms of contemporary “myths.” Sports definitely play into this broader notion of myth-making. Think about the Olympics, as well as notions of sports stars as celebrities that teeter on deities.
But I was also thinking on a more personal scale of the notion of rituals and the sacred vs. the mundane that have an interesting intersection between sports, identity, myth/religion, and even art. There is certainly the importance of attaching meaning to certain icons or holidays and rituals (or big games or art exhibitions…) but behind these larger markers there are myriad other emotions and experiences and practices that make up our meaning as well. For “Dark Air” specifically, I am thinking about mythologies around “threshold” figures and how, with further inspection and perhaps introspection, their power over us lies elsewhere: they may have the potential to show us something about our perceived paths and obstacles as well as our expectations of life “before” and “after” prescribed moments and markers of Change.
Both aesthetically and thematically, your practice strikes me as totally unique. Do you have any influences that you’re drawing on? Who or what inspires these ideas?
Yes, of course, There is a long list of artists I am inspired by and draw from conceptually and/or aesthetically. I’m inspired by so many various ways artists use or decontextualize materials or items or symbols to give them new life or meaning, how artists create new ways of embodiment and represent the body (or not), speculative fictions and world building techniques, the way artists use color and story-telling and humor!
I also am personally and artistically really invested in and interested in drawing inspiration from a broader range of sources, from TV and film and books and podcasts and pop culture at large. In this way, science fiction has also been a huge influence in how to create other worlds and possibilities while, in the process, creating a way to engage with our own realities and communicate to a broader audience.
What’s one detail of “Dark Air” that viewers should absolutely be aware of before they see the show?
On the one hand, there’s some meta-commentary about the ritual of an art exhibition itself as a type of event that we attach expectations and meaning to, and literally journey across town to get to, only to be faced with something Awe-inspiring or very much not, so take that as you will. But ultimately, by making my Guardian/threshold figure—which is usually resigned to protecting or standing between us and our *real* destination or goal—the main attraction, I’m hoping to throw a wrench in the notion of the “hero’s journey” and our perceived set paths, goals, and obstacles. So even if you find it much more akin to the dud that is the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz rather than a fearsome Sphinx, I can only hope it might make you think differently about how you get home.
courtesy GRAY WIELEBINSKI
interview ADINA GLICKSTEIN
More to read