Provoking the Patriarchy: Elle Kennedy
by Paul Weiner
Elle Kennedy is a 23 year old artist from the United Kingdom who lives in a state of flux between London, Brighton, and Bath. Having studied design and fashion history at Brighton University, Kennedy’s work deals with the contemporary discourse on fetishization through the lens of a transgender woman.
How do you begin a new work of art? Take us through your material process.
My everyday life, the experiences of my friends and family, and the transgender experience internationally are the sources of my inspiration. I usually take a good few weeks to develop an idea for a piece, as I like my final work to have a coherent and strong concept behind it. Most of my ideas come about during bouts of insomnia where I find myself analyzing my life and the lives around me.
When creating pieces which deal with the transgender experience internationally, I take extra care to honor the message about trans women in grim situations, with sensitivity and authenticity. Once I have decided upon my idea, I then decide upon a suitable color palette, which has to compliment the black and white backdrop.I consider the colors of what I am wearing in the image, the colors of additional materials which I may layer onto the piece, and the tone of the photographs which I alter through basic copying and scanning techniques, whether I want a ‘bluey’ moody tone or a bright, flushed tone. I then chuck all my props into my rucksack and use local photo booths to take the pictures. This is an essential aspect of my work.
I’m interested in the ideas of trans women being perceived as violating the heteronormative sphere through using what is essentially such a public, open, generic, and common space to create deeply personal trans-related art that, to me, seems like something of a statement of defiance but also self empowerment. I like the idea that the tiny curtains found in photo booths are shielding me from the criticisms and scrutiny of others whilst I chaotically, and often messily, create my images.
I’m also interested in ideas around on-the-go or fast art, as this fits my lifestyle and mindset. Photo booths facilitate this. Once I have created my images, over a few days, I reproduce the images, often altering them, savagely gluing, layering the images over one another, and changing the order of the images to suit my concept. I use thick, cheap tyre markers, permanent pens, and sometimes paint to complete my aesthetic. I consciously use almost ran-out and old tools to communicate austerity and thrift. I hastily scrawl the slogans and messages onto my work in a way which suggests the pieces are worthless scraps and disposable. I consider this to be branding or labeling my work. The titles of my work are consciously confusing, literal banal, or tacky much like the titles of a porn film, a b movie, or a gaudy flop pop song.
I like to think that my work would look suitable in a gallery, a bin, or a telephone box like a prostitute’s calling card, as if my pieces are cheap pieces of trash easily disposed of. This very much relates to the perception of women, including trans women, being disposable objects to be visually enjoyed then forgotten, disposed of, or even killed. Hence, the last square on my pieces is often black or cut out to symbolize this.
Have you found it hard to find your place in the art world given your position as a transgender woman?
I’ve been making art for years, but it’s only recently that I’ve felt confident enough to go public, share, and expose it for opinion criticism and hopefully success. The reason why I’ve taken so long to share my art is some of the pieces intimate nature. Transitioning is an incredibly public ordeal, be it coming out to friends and family, taking those initial baby steps, dabbling with one’s style, voice, etc. whilst facing ridicule, scrutiny, criticism, and possibly violence. I really struggled with the public nature of transition and therefore enjoyed being able to keep my art private, to myself and a few very close friends.
My art is something of a diary. I only feel confident enough now to share that diary with the world. My art directly addresses the public nature of transition – the voyeurism of the critical stranger in the street, the fantasies of the “trannychaser” – a heterosexual male who fetishizes trans women. But, mostly, my pieces help me articulate within my own mind the realities of my identity. I suppose the art world has always been a refuge for those who may be classed as the “other” within society. Despite being a regular gal in most ways, I’m constantly made aware of my “other” status, and I communicate this status within my work. Jean Michel Basquiat, my biggest influence and favorite artist addressed his “other” status within his work. His dignified yet confrontational methods of doing this have been a huge influence upon me.
My work addresses a broad range of topics such as the socioeconomic positioning of women within society and questions about the contemporary female experience. I would hope that this quality of my work resonates with all women, transgender or not.
Tell us about your interests conceptually.
I’m very much interested in the ideas of the public sphere, the private sphere, and the blurring of the two. Social networking has enabled this blurring of the two spheres. I’m fascinated by how much people are willing to share about themselves. I personally share very little of myself though social networking, but I choose to metaphorically whore myself out through my art to tell stories of the modern female experience.
Since first stumbling across them as a child, the calling cards of sex workers have fascinated me. Who are these women and men hiding behind false names, dated photos, and cheeky slogans enticing punters? The poses, slogans, and fake name I use in some of my pieces reference the calling cards and the lives lived by these people. I refer to death in many of my pieces to communicate the fate that many sex workers face. The murder rate of sex workers is incredibly high, especially that of trans women. The voyeurism faced by sex workers, assisted by calling cards, may ultimately lead to their death.
I like my works to appear shallow, sordid, and vein, as this is what sex worker calling cards may appear to be. Yet, in reality, we are all guilty of such acts through our own social networking habits or our relentless self promotion, be it on a dating websites, within the employment market, entering into education, or indulging in new lingerie to please a lover. Ultimately, we all end up on our knees. It’s just that some of us are more open than others.
In some of my pieces, I explore the shallow and often cruel world of pornography. Again, behind the façade of glamour, lurks something of a dark world which is rarely discussed yet commonly acknowledged as existing. Through over-the-top depictions of hyper-femininity, my work seeks to remind the viewer of the façade. Being a trans woman endures a degree of fetishization. My work plays up to the male gaze, warping the fantasies of “trannychasers” and mocking the fickle nature of male sexual desire.
Would you say that transgender women and women suffer from the effects of the patriarchy in the same ways (e.g. fetishization, masculine gaze, “othering”) as women born with female physical characteristics, or is the effect different or more pronounced? Do you think race, religion, or mental state can play a similar part in terms of being viewed as an “othered” person within the masculine power system?
I think it’s blindingly obvious and rather sad that we still live in a society which remains primarily dominated by privileged white men. I don’t feel I have the right to discuss the “other” status of other minority groups; however, it remains super obvious who comes under that status due to race, class orientation, etc. When creating pieces which explore the transgender experience internationally, I’m keen to acknowledge my relative privilege of living within the UK, having had access to an education, and having medical and emotional support around me.
In pieces such as “Athens is Burning,” I’m utilizing my privilege to communicate messages about trans women who may not be able to get their voice heard, yet suffer greatly. In such pieces, the work becomes almost entirely not about myself- I just happen to be using myself as a medium to channel information and messages about such topics without pitying or patronizing such women. I think there is great progress being made whereby minority groups become slightly less “othered” within society. For example, 20 years ago, gay men in particular were very much considered the “other.” Yet, as a group, they have made great strides and have become less defined by their “other” status.
I see this happening for the trans community very, very slowly. Again, I can only really speak from my own experience, but I think the way that trans women are fetishized is very much down to their passing ability – whether or not people know their trans status, their pre or post op surgical status, who knows this, and how they choose to navigate the worlds of dating and sex. Crudely, it would seem that so much of a trans woman’s life is defined by her appearance and what is between her legs. If a trans woman “passes” and attracts the attention of, say, a wolf-whistling builder or attracts the flirtation of a stranger in a busy bar, this is an experience that may be familiar to both trans and biological women, these are examples of the male gaze being actively exercised and acted upon in the public sphere.
If a trans woman does not pass, she may still come under the curious male maze. However, the voyeur may be less inclined to show sexual interest and may become abusive instead. So I would argue that passing trans women are fetishized in the public sphere along with biological women, yet most trans women, including those who do not pass, are fetishized within the private sphere, for example, within the fantasies of “trannychasers,” curious strangers, and within trans pornography. And, of course, when individuals fall in love, one’s surgical status may become irrelevant, not reviled or fetishized.
In my experience, there are endless conundrums faced by trans women when it comes to romance and sex. For example, do I want to be fetishized? Does this stranger know that I am trans? Such questions pose about the inner and outer self alongside ideas around the public and private sphere. Such questions may resonate with biological women. “Does he only like me because I’m blonde? Am I comfortable being fetishized due to being Asian? Will he be comfortable knowing that I am twice divorced?” All women and, of course, men navigate the struggle of how much of oneself should be kept private, who has the right to know one’s history, and what is the appropriate way to navigate social and personal issues in one’s life. By decoding the images that I have created, the viewer is invited to explore my public and private identity whilst considering and questioning their own.
This idea of bringing about public activism in a heteronormative public sphere is intriguing. Would you ever consider making public performance art?
I’ve considered moving into performance art and can see how it may end up being something of a natural progression for me artistically. However, I’m focusing on my current format at the moment, which I suppose incorporates elements of performance when creating such works. I would be interested in performance art, which explores voyeurism and pornography within the next few years. I just need to look into ways of financing and facilitating such art.
Do you think that your work in any way attempts to disrupt the masculine gaze or simply explain its impact?
I would say that my work seeks to highlight the masculine gaze in the most literal way through the performing of female sexuality that indulges the masculine gaze. However, through the work’s grubby aesthetic and my trans identity, I seek to challenge, warp, and sordidify male fantasies. I’m not demonizing male sexuality or even the masculine gaze. Through my own style, I may subliminally seek to indulge it. However, I use my work to highlight what happens when the voyeurism and sexual desire of a minority of men gets out of control – violence and even murder.
Naturally, sex workers are more likely to encounter this by having few legal protections and coming into contact with all sorts of clientele. By having reoccurring imagery in my work such as messy hair and black eyes, whilst dabbling with sexualized gestures and aesthetics, my work actively confronts the issues faced by sex workers, trans women, women, and those whom may have “other” status. I stare directly at the voyeur, inviting them to question him or herself and invite them to contemplate their own gaze. In a sense, I gaze back at them. In pieces, such as “Real Girls Take It,” I have purposely communicated a non-passive female sexuality, which may disrupt and confuse the male gaze. That piece is probably one of my most complicated, with various meanings. But, despite being rather crude, I like to think that it contains positive messages about women owning and indulging their own sexualities.
I know academics and artists such as Jacques Lacan, Toril Moi, Hélène Cixous, and Mary Kelly have dealt with similar concepts in the past. Are there any particular philosophers or artists who have impacted your work?
To be honest, I’m fascinated by pop and what may be considered “trash” culture. Therefore, I find myself looking for logic and inspiration in the lyrics of sickly Britney Spears songs, in the slurred words of Anna Nicole Smith, or in the dialogue of bad teen films. Photographers such as David Lachappelle, who I admire greatly, choose to portray such culture in a kitsch, camp, and over-the-top style. However, I choose to communicate ideas about such a culture by creating a more stripped-back, barren aesthetic.
I have found the writings of Ariel Levey and Lauren Greenfield incredibly eye-opening when it comes to discussion about such topics, and, of course, Naomi Wolf’s writings remain relevant. I literally think every teenager should have to read The Beauty Myth. Some of the performative elements of my work dabble with Judith Butler’s ideas around gender and identity. There seems to be an abundance of confident and creative-minded young trans writers at the moment, notably the likes of Juliana Huxtable and Paris Lees, who I was lucky enough to meet.
It’s great that the contemporary trans experience is being documented in such a wide variety of ways via visual art, academic writing, blogs, film, etc. I greatly admire the way in which artists and photographers of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Keith Haring and Oliviero Toscani, conveyed social awareness messages though bold and distinctive aesthetics. I also find German expressionist painting incredibly beautiful, for example, the work of Kirchner. The repression and persecution that the artists faced now seems unfathomable and tragic, making such works even the more poignant. I particularly admire the way in which Kirchner coherently told stories about his time through his beautiful abstract style.
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