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Monika Kokoszynska, Polish Masters
 
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From the series: Polish Masters
 
The Unsewing of Gender. Photographs by Monika Kokoszyńska
 
When I started writing this text the media were flooded by the first (as it is probably not the last) wave of astonishment, outrage and indignation caused by the fact that a transsexual person became a member of the Polish parliament. The affair was not triggered by Anna Grodzka’s political views, her political programme or the programme of the political party she was running for, but because she admitted that she has changed her sex and because she undermined the binarism which many people hold sacred and which forms an indispensable and unchangeable, as it would seem, foundation of identity. Outright hostility of which these comments reek lets’s us suspect that the moment sex loses its status of a stable term it begins to appear to some people as a deadly threat to the order of the world which will then cease to be a safe and comprehensible place. The moment which turns old order upside down, however, is not the moment when change appears possible; it is rather the moment we start talking about it, the moment when we introduce the problem into the public sphere, when standard categories become unobvious, and finally when it turns out that what we used to believe is not always a coherent structure. Only until the stranger remains in the closet can the status quo be preserved.
      Monika Kokoszyńska’s photographs do not seem to have any revolutionary aspirations, they are not elements of a political struggle or a social campaign - the authoress makes this clear. Nevertheless her works display the same wounds that have been inflicted in reaction to Anna Grodzka’s parliament election - the seams have been ripped apart in the same places. Kokoszyńska tells us that identity from this perspective is an unstable, ambiguous construction, changeable and sewn from pieces of fabric that do not always match.

When gender becomes a spectacle

The models sitting for the first of the series presented here, entitled Polish Masters, were the girls from a drag king group called Da Boyz. Drag is a crossdressing spectacle, a masquerade, but also an exaggeration of the roles we ordinarily play. It used to be an element of theatrical convention, clearly separated from everyday life, it used to be a depravity threatened by the heaviest kinds of punishment as a deviation from severe religious standards. It reveals the artificiality of the categories into which we persistently try to inscribe ourselves and shows the fallibility of dreams about a stable and unchangeable identity defined once and for all. Usually this kind of deconstruction embraces sex and gender which suddenly become a set of signs that anybody can put on, a set of behaviours and gestures that can be imitated by anyone. Drag queen and drag king, respectively more womanly and more manly than anyone in the audience both start tearing those stitches which have ensured our identification up till now. Therefore drag is a gesture of rebellion (probably stronger in the case of drag kings who imitate and deconstruct dominating masculinity from the position of women whom the patriarchal social system gave passive and submissive roles) – rebellion against the culturally imposed (hetero)normativity.
      In the carefully staged Polish Masters Kokoszyńska catches this game of dressing up and masculinity in statu nascendi. Self-confident poses, provoking gestures, facial hair, dark glasses and a challenging, rude look – this is enough to get disguised as a man during a photographic session. He may be dressed in a tracksuit or a suit, a chasuble or a vest, a rockandroll uniform or working clothes. He may stand next to a car, sit around a messy office, sit in some room where the national flag and the Pope’s picture hang on the walls, he may tense his muscles in the gym or in a recording studio, lie back on the couch in a go-go club or stare softly back from the sacristy. As the authoress says, stereotypical masculinity prevails everywhere and takes on different, although actually similar forms. However, set decoration is a patchwork, just like the role which these models take on, it is built of a lot of garish elements, be they matched or mismatched. And Kokoszyńska the photographer used exactly this patchwork method that perfectly renders the nature of the portraited phenomenon; she combined fragments of posed, stylized photographs in order to create a singular space, braced into one.
      This space is inhabited by the Polish male – which is significant, as Polish Masters means Polish stereotypes, identities built from props found not farther than the nearest backyard. The flag hanging next to the picture of “the Polish” Pope is probably the best example, although things we can see in the streets everyday might be also found in other photographs. Thus the girls not only “play” or “pretend” masculinity as such – for their masculinity is Polish and perhaps it even symbolizes the Polish national character. This masculinity possesses certain features that can be grasped, pinned down and mocked, stretched between the symbols of the state and a devotional kitsch. There is no masculinity as such; for this equation is always conditioned by local history, customs, the dominating religion etc.
      It might also be worth mentioning that in the world of the Polish Masters women play a quite important role. However, it seems somewhat phantasmal: we have to do with posters of undressed women, calendars, a “titty” mug in the office, a picture in the window of a truck cabin and finally with the photograph of a tied girl which hangs over the photographer’s couch. A woman here is reduced solely to her body, provoking us with sexual openness and subordination; in fact, female physical presence is reduced to the dancer’s feet in the go-go club, entwined high around a steel pole. But next to all this some family photographs loom on one of the walls paradoxically pointing to the hypocrisy inherent to this world. In this way Kokoszyńska seems to uncover the basic mechanisms of the Polish patriarchal social system, the rules of the contract of gender which marks both space and those identification constructs we feed and live on.

Face to face with the uncanny

While the Polish Masters spring from the fascination with crossdressing and are an attempt to explore and understand terrain previously unknown, the second series – Untitled – confronts the viewer with an almost ascetic uncanniness. In this case the joyful spectacle and the garishness of colours and props disappear along with exaggeration and kitsch. We are left with the naked human body; human, as these bodies are not unambiguously masculine or feminine. The faces looking at us are mysterious, they have no forenames, surnames, dates of birth or any other traces of personal history. We do not even have at our disposal such a lifesaver as the title or a signature, the models are anonymous, they wear no costumes and carry no props that could help us place them on the map of social identification. We do not know who they are, what they do and what they like to eat for breakfast. We only have their faces. How much we will read from them and how much we will see depends solely on us.
      Ten portraits, ten figures, ten riddles. No artificial smiles, no flirtatious gestures, no self-confident poses – rather curiosity, perhaps confusion, sometimes openness, sometimes deeply hidden despair, lurking in the model’s eyes. The face is not covered by make-up, no rouge gives life to the cheeks, lips are not adorned by bright colours. The skin of the models is, in fact, unnaturally alike and against the pale, cool background this unnaturalness is dramatically amplified, it gains an unsettling, almost a cadaverous character. Perhaps this is where the uncanniness of these pictures comes from; these portraits may seem to be torn away from life also in a different, more literal way than as the simple taking off of everyday masks.
      The uncanniness of these photographs causes a certain discomfort which intensifies the longer we scrutinize these anonymous figures and study their faces, trustfully turned our way. They are strange, alien, because they do not display those signs thanks to which we could locate them in some context known to us and make them familiar. They are naked and they put this nakedness, this renouncement of all kinds of masks, on display. The viewer is unable to escape into a comfortable evaluation or judgment because he does not have any clues; he could try to follow the trace of permanent make-up or adjusted eyebrows, concentrate on a violet cap, although these features will not take him far. And they certainly will not let us refrain from noticing the fluency of the process of identification which turns disturbingly misty before our very eyes when it is deprived of support in the form of props or gestures which we know. There is no crossdressing, no wanton game with the signs we all know so well – there is ony an unbearable – because indeterminate – intimacy. There is no safe, aesthetic excess, no “camp” distance, no loudly shouted “no”. There is silence.
      Kokoszyńska tries to show her heroes and heroines such as they are, before they have put on layer after layer of complex constructions of the social personae. One could say that in this way she reaches a similar point as in the first series – since if Polish Masters demonstrate how it is possible to quote a norm in a subversive way, here Kokoszyńska stresses those moments that escape this very norm and question it at the same time. Both drag kings and transsexual/transgender people upset the binarism so deeply imprinted in our consciousness which tells us to see a deadly threat in those who trangress the limits set by some stiff norm. And let us admit it: they are a deadly threat to the norm in question since they show that its hegemony may always come undone and that perhaps it is not as universal, as unanimously obeyed and as untouchable as most people would like to believe.
Dagmara Rode
 
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From the series: Untitled
 
Copyright ©2011 Galeria FF ŁDK, Monika Kokoszyńska, Dagmara Rode