Reimagining Queer Presence in Grand Museum Rooms

In 2021, two unimaginably large film portraits of two trans elders were unfurled with pride of place within the massive interiors of two of New York’s most prestigious art museums. At the Guggenheim Museum, Wu Tsang’s commission “Anthem” (2021), a collaboration with singer, composer, and transgender activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland, played on an 84-foot curtain suspended in the museum’s central rotunda. At the Museum of Modern Art, Adam Pendleton’s “So We Moved: A Portrait of Jack Halberstam” (2021), a transgender scholar and professor, is playing twice a day (until January 30, 2022), stretched out on a towering scaffolding of the artist’s design into “a hollow that rises from the second to the sixth floor,” in the words of the New York Times.

These two artists — Tsang is transgender and Asian-American, Pendleton Black and queer — share a commitment to inter-generational encounter as queer art, rendered as film, built into installation, taking up vast atria as a matter of intimacy. “So We Moved” is surrounded by Pendleton’s paintings and sound and image collages of Black and queer people who inspire him. Similarly, “Anthem” consists of an audio collage of the music, sound, and words of queer and trans struggle and song, what Tsang calls a “sonic sculptural space.”

Cynics surveying the striking concurrence of these sister works in bastions of the art world might understand this as evidence of showy repair within United States art and culture to redress the paucity of BIPOC in powerful settings. But these two huge and intimate, eloquent and quiet works, as queer art can, portend change beyond mere visibility, elocution, or attention. Instead, inter-generational dialogue is centered as a model of “interconnectedness” according to Tsang, or as a way to both be in, and, as Pendleton says, “overwhelm” the museum.

Installation view of Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen? the Museum of Modern Art, New York, (photo: Jonathan Muzikar)

Of course, one can overwhelm with size, but there is something more (or less) happening here. In my own scathing review of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory in 2017, I could not quiet my disdain brought on by his patriarchal ownership and mastery over that vast place which were for me a “contemptuous manifestation of just the opulent, grandiose art form for our time.”

We are still in an extended reckoning with bloated male bullies who take up too much space as prop for their own inadequacy and aggression. One recompense is the new voices entering places of institutional power. But our movements for justice, signified here by honoring elders through conversations that are held within historical context and queer and trans community, allow us to understand how we can fill grand space differently. These works demonstrate that scale and even prestige are not in and of themselves the problem. The sheer size of something need not be connected to a formula of growth or domination, but rather consideration or reverberation. Guggenheim curator X Zhu-Nowell explains in an audio guide that Tsang’s piece leads to the questions: “What is a museum space? Who is it for? Can we reimagine possibilities for a collective resonance?”

Wu Tsang, “Anthem” (2021) color video, with sound, with fabric and carpet, dimensions vary with installation, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, (© Wu Tsang. Installation view, Wu Tsang: Anthem, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2021)

Let’s look (and listen) and reimagine what big rooms and museums (and money) might allow for. Grand and yet never showy (there is so much quiet in these films), fully present but not certain or singular (the films’ subjects know much but are keen to question and listen), these delicate portraits of huge figures fill but do not dominate the buildings’ lofty architectures because they are not interested in domination. Instead, Halberstam swims; Glenn-Copeland sings.

To be seen (and heard) in a place of importance is a form of recognition. Yes, the bigger you are, the harder it is to avoid the fact of your presence. But, given histories of invisibility for trans, queer, and people of color, no single artist could ever magnify any one image or person to rectify this violence. This gesture of compensation grows not as a matter of size, but as a spreading of intergenerational affection. “He was looking at me in a powerful way,” explains Halberstam of Pendeleton’s portrait-making in their conversation after a screening. “And I had to accept his regard.”

Jack Halberstam in conversation, in Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen? , in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (photo by the author)

These portraits refashion patriarchal space as co-creations of acceptance between queer and trans artists and subjects, overwhelming their space with the magnificence and beauty of people rarely seen as such. Unlike other uses of spectacle — to convince, commandeer, or corrupt — the grand queers in the atria dance in conversation, song, and quiet with their artists and also their viewers. The artists and their subjects model how to inhabit space with compassion.

Along with the grand queers in the atria, we are joined by the many voices and visages installed around them, other visitors and museum employees, all of us helping to fill these cavernous spaces with our bodies and hearts. A commitment to trans subjects, and their queer communities, is manifested as a holding environment made approachable by our concern, grounded in intimacy and legacy, enfolding any viewer who will stop, listen, and receive love. Glenn and his partner Elizabeth, in a video interview displayed in an anteroom at the base of the Guggenheim’s rotunda, are two of many queer voices building out the space as a context for receiving:

Glenn: Well, love for me is continual growth, you know. Love is about, for me, is about developing the confidence, the confidence to love myself and love other people not as a noun but as a verb, right? Which means that I’m thinking about them in a compassionate way, and I’m doing some action compassionately towards the people that I love.

Elizabeth: For me, loving Glenn just means letting myself feast my eyes on his beauty — these beautiful hands that I love so much, and beautiful brown eyes, and just really taking in his love for me, really letting myself receive his love for me, and that was a challenge for me for many years. It’s like, take it in, it’s being offered. Don’t push it away ’cause you’re afraid. So really receiving it.

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