artist zackary steiner-fox explores queer marginalisation while living on a houseboat
The New Zealander is breaking down barriers to LGBTQIA equality, one provocative art project at a time.
Artists are often dismissed as "eccentric"; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or intersex artists perhaps even more so. Queer artist Zackary Steiner-Fox has been on the receiving end of this label, but by challenging it they have become one of New Zealand's most important emerging artists. Latent Cosmic Power, Zackary's recent exhibition, explored how the term is used to discredit queer people. An installation of partitions that formed paths as well as concealed people and objects, it helped viewers feel closer to the "other" while actually negating acceptance of difference.
After this compelling show Zackary left Auckland for the prestigious Varda Artists Residency, which involves living on a historic houseboat in San Francisco. From this temporary new home (which has also hosted Maya Angelou and Allen Ginsberg) Zackary talks us through their past work and current project, which draws parallels between the plight of monsters and members of the LGBTQIA community.
Your recent exhibition explored how the projection of "eccentricity" onto the queer community dismisses or discredits them, without addressing the differences that make them unique. How did you arrive at this idea?
While I was in my final year at art school I became frustrated with the lack of conversation surrounding queer identity when it came to discussing my work. Phrases like "fey play" and "chi-chi cool" were thrown around in lieu of an actual critique of the things I was trying to articulate. I'd also started to notice how more conservative - generally older - people I'd known growing up, who often said and did very problematic and bigoted things around me, didn't seem to have a problem with my obviously non-normative identity. I realised through conversation it had a lot to do with them reducing these elements down to me being an "eccentric" art student. There was an interesting duality which offered safety by way of ignorance, but also inhibited them from challenging their views.
You included a quote in your exhibition outline that I found so evocative: "I forfeit safety purely to turn a look. Stop traffic, start something else. That's sexy." Did you write that? And what is the "something else"?
I wrote that after a particularly awful conversation I had with local artist Rohan Wealleans at a bar, who tried to tell me identity art was dead, and that I was never going to get anywhere looking the way I did 'cause no one would be able to take what I do seriously. It was sort of the pinnacle of a lot of frustration I'd had with the art community. I was so sick of this reductive approach to my and other queer people's presentation of self, 'cause that's so often where the conversation ends. There's this idea in the art world that any exploration into self-presentation is superficial and even self-indulgent, and it's like, that's not my problem - it's yours. A lot of artists seem to think that art is always inherently critical, when in fact it really isn't. And as a result they aren't particularly critical of some of their own ways of thinking. I hope to challenge that.
Your construction of the screens in Latent Cosmic Power was really interesting, and how some of the details seemed to unravel their perfection - eyeshadow running down earrings, for example. What was your intention with including these details?
It's always been really important to me that the process of how my work came to the form the audience is viewing it in is evident. I like it to be honest in that respect.
The exhibition has been described as optimistic. Would you say this is true of your general outlook on gender identity and acceptance?
I feel like so much of my work is created out of frustration or anger, so it's nice to know that its physical manifestation is positive. I'd hate to make work that seemed hopeless or defeated, because queer people face those feelings enough day to day.
With discussions of gender identity becoming more prevalent in mainstream media do you feel society is moving toward greater acceptance of the LGBTQIA population?
I hope so! I don't know, I'm pretty cynical when it comes to mainstream media involvement with LGBTQIA issues. It's easy for media to write about marginalised communities in order to align themselves with a cause without actually saying anything critical or doing anything productive. But important conversations are beginning to happen now, so I guess we'll see.
You recently moved to San Francisco, and have described it as a safe place to explore themes of queer identity. Have you ever felt unsafe practising your art?
There have definitely been times where I've felt like divulging certain aspects of my research or practice would result in responses that were harmful. However, I've been incredibly blessed to be surrounded by friends who are supportive, sensitive and receptive, and I have a family who, growing up, were always overwhelmingly supportive of my gender identity and expression, but I always knew that away from them this safety wasn't ensured. I remember, as a kid, getting dressed up in nighties and dresses and sitting at the front gate of my house - the imagined but very real border between safety and harm, 'cause it was as far as I was brave enough to go from my front door. This danger experienced by queer bodies moving from private spaces into public ones is something I've been exploring in the work I've been making since I arrived here.
In the outline of your new project you mention hindrances to social progression. Is it your hope that your art will help to bring about tangible change?
I'm more interested in stimulating discourse around what change means for the LGBTQIA community, moving away from ideas of assimilation through traditional channels such as marriage equality and towards social change that offers alternatives to the institutions that have created and perpetuated this oppression and inequality.
What form will this project take?
I'm focusing on a series of videos that will use horror movies as a loose format for their form, but I'll also be creating some sculptural and image-based pieces.
What are your plans for after your residency ends in August?
New York! There are some really talented people of very diverse identities and backgrounds who I really want to work with. I'm hoping to continue exploring the work I'm developing here before I head back to New Zealand next June.