Gender and representation

© Werner Hammerstingl, 1999

Given recent developments in technology we might be nearing a point after which we will be able to decide on a gendered on ungendered human future.

Alba D'Urbano has, with her work "hautnah" (close to the skin) achieved a symbolic reminder that skin (the external body) is just another interface in a world informed by new cultural ideologies. D'Urbano's work suggests that we can wear our skin identity like an item of clothing and it- just like clothing communicates as much or as little as the personal and public notions on this issue inform.

Gender is still one of the central differences within our species which, together with the myriad of naturally endowed and chosen range of attributes, skills, abilities, appearances, expressive codes (to name a few) make up who we are.

This make-up, or identity is of course not universal and the "reading" of the codes we use to consciously or unconsciously signal who we are, might be interpreted as we desire or completely mis-read.

Gender and representation are two concepts linked by what are often very complex, even obscure conventions and significations.

Before we commence a detailed treatment of this topic we might consider the following two questions:

The depiction of males, females and cross gendered individuals is always be linked to an ideology. It may be the predominant ideology of an era or a much more marginal one.

The polarities for gender-depiction include:

Sexualized reference

Non-sexual reference

all depiction operates with a mix of literal and metaphorical.

For example: Sandro Botticellis' famous painting The birth of Venus (1480). The painting was made at a time where the idea of depicting a symbolic figure from classical mythology was in itself a heretic practice. So here comes the metaphorical aspect. During the middle ages we have the beginning of didactic (instructive) interpretation of classical mythology. Marcilio Ficino and other neo-platonic philosophers provided a framework which allowed for an allegorical christian interpretation of this work. Ficino's argument went along the lines that "the life of the universe,including that of man, was linked to god via a spiritual circuit continuously ascending and descending, so that all relevation, whether from the bible, Plato or myth, was one. Similarly, he proclaimed that beauty, love and beatitude, being phases of this same circuit were one.

Thus neo-platonists could invoce the "celestial venus", the nude venus born of the sea, interchancheably with the virgin Mary, as the source of the "divine love" (meaning the cognition of divine beauty). This celestial Venus, according to Ficino, dwells purely in the sphere of mind, while her twin, the ordinary Venus, engenders "human love".

Once we understand this metaphorical reference and the implied quasi-religious message of the painting, we no longer perceive the image in terms references to ancient Greek mythology, but rather it's reference to re-birth (The renaissance takes it's name from re-birth), the nude becomes the "Virgin Mary", source of "divine love" in the form of divine beauty, and even the wind gods on the left begin to resemble christian angels.

Equally, all depiction is treated to a mixture of objective and subjective interpretation. These factors themselves are subject to change over time.

Some of the questions which will help us negotiate these difficult waters between images featuring and representing gender-related subjects include:

We can see from these few examples that the representation of gender is a very political issue and that the debate around issues related to this topic is a necessary and useful one.