In the ’80s, when AIDS ravaged the gay community and sent tremors across the world, lustrous dreams among many queer individuals were blackened by death. Many people’s lofty aspirations — brilliantly feathered things — were shot out of the air.
This turbulent moment, and its heart-stinging ripples across time to the modern day, was the focus of L.A.’s last Queer Biennial, in 2016. The screams and terror induced by the epidemic, paired with the pariah-like status society bestowed on many HIV-positive individuals, gave way to inimitable artwork that yearned to transcend suffering and make sense of the insensible.
Now, in a grand reversal of theme, the organizers of this year’s Queer Biennial have focused the art event around the highest aspirations imaginable, utopian hopes and visions. “The title of this year’s Queer Biennial is ‘What If Utopia,’” curator Ruben Esparza says. “I think it’s important to have something thematic that drives a point. … The artists have been creating something beautiful the world has never seen.”
Since the moment John Waters opened the event on June 1, some of the earliest critiques of this year’s biennial have been that rather than being light-filled, idyllic imagery, many of the glimmering works are actually tinged with a recurring darkness. Indeed, in several works, such as with Israeli artist Gil Yefman’s re-envisioning of Adolf Hitler as a sex doll — a piece that hangs by a thread in the middle of NAVEL Gallery — it seems paradise comes with intense emotional release.
“Can you imagine fisting Hitler until his innards come out?” Esparza says of the doll with a chuckle, relishing the idea of the Nazi leader being reduced to something someone blows up to penetrate. “It’s gorgeous!”
Though the overall theme of this year’s biennial is different, there is overlap with 2016's in the subject matter. Just as the AIDS epidemic left a deep scar on the collective LGBT community’s consciousness, many queer individuals come from traumatic backgrounds. As a result, even the highest ideals of many gay artists are perceived through the lens of painful experiences.
“Some of the imagery in the exhibitions seems dystopian rather than utopian,” Esparza says of the phantasmagoric works. “A lot of us queer children come from damaged childhoods, where we don’t fit in and our families don’t accept us. We have this dark cloud that hovers over us.”
Indeed, back-to-back onslaughts against LGBT individuals throughout the years, from murderous viruses to the painful rejections by loved ones, have branded the psyches of many queer artists with a mark that confounds as much as it bestows a sense of identity.
“I think it’s important for artists to be messy, to create things that are indefinable, that cause confusion,” Esparza says, alluding to art-making’s potential for catharsis. “When you find out something new, and it confuses you, and you have to figure it out, you become better for it because you solved the riddle. It’s the evolution of humanity!”
Enigmatic describes much of the art on display at this year’s Queer Biennial. They elicit an otherworldly, dizzying sense of freedom — like dervishes twirling on some twilight plane.
In imagining a far-off concept such as utopia — among individuals who have historically been cut off from even common courtesies, such as the right to marry and use the bathroom of their choice — the artists have produced work that often reaches lofty notions via the wings of sass, an indomitable attitude.
“There are many reasons for the 'darker' aesthetic. Trauma is one of them, and that's very particular to our community,” says Ilona Berger of LAST Projects, who helped select artists for the biennial. “Magic is about destroying social constructs and limitations and being big, bigger than what they’re up against. It’s about the artists being themselves, whatever form that takes.”
In a scene too often centered on male gayness — on white twinks, in particular — Berger’s contribution to this year’s event was bringing in diverse perspectives, shedding light on work done by women, transgender folks, Chicanos and those without formal training. Still, no matter what background an exhibited artist came from, Berger says the suffering that comes with being queer seemed to be a universal pang.
“When I discussed with artists ideas about utopia, many of them were really dark,” she says. “Sexuality and identity is complicated, and I think our show reflects that.” Though darkness — mysteries, uncertainties, unresolved traumas — permeate the work, it’s safe to say that this year’s biennial somewhat ironically delivered a slice of heaven to many attendees.
“We really did Queer Biennial as a bridge for the different communities and artists we work with to get connected with one another,” Berger says, describing her goal in organizing the event and curating the idyllic yet grim works.
Despite a whirl of painful recollections — in some instances, a highway of broken dreams — resilience also shines through in much of the art, such as in Cleonette Harris’s neon piece “The Sisters.” Its hopeful presence is not only a testament to the human soul’s staying power, its grit, but also serves as a memorial to the shared sufferings of outcasts.
Perhaps in the end this is what utopia — paradise — is really all about, unity and connections that aren’t worn down by strange circumstance. “Not everything is dreamy and lovely in this utopian world,” Esparza says of the art collection, with another laugh. “Sometimes it’s the dark things that bring you pleasure.”