Eight rooms

On Saturday i went with a friend, B, to check out the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives. This is part of their season looking at Identity and Identification – of obvious interest to me as a trans person, especially as one of the ‘rooms’ was devoted to April Ashley, one of Britain’s most famous trans women.

As it happened, although Ashley’s room was interesting – especially the footage of her being interviewed by Michael Parkinson, it was the one which focused on the actress Fiona Shaw which made the greatest impression. It was supposed to demonstrate the multiple identities that an actor takes on; and, to this end, there were four or five TV screens on which you could watch Shaw playing various roles: for instance a mad woman in Gormenghast and a rather overwrought lady in an Ibsen play.

I can’t honestly say that i looked at these and saw someone changing their identity; but they were thrilling performances – Shaw is a true virtuoso. The standout was her portrayal of Richard II. For some reason though this only worked for me as an audio experience: if i looked at the screen there was no magic; but if i looked away and just listened I got goosebumps. It was that powerful.

I don’t think the issue was the ‘cross-gender’ casting – after all, her voice is just as female as her appearance; but rather that the physical aspect of her acting style is overdramatic. She has a tendency to gesture abruptly and stare wildly. Yet this exaggeration doesn’t carry through to her voice, so as long as you don’t look at her you aren’t bothered by it.

Not surprising then that the other exhibit which made a great impression on me was also audio-only. This had Shaw and her mother reciting a poem together. The idea here was to examine similarities and differences in their voices. For me, however, it was the relationship between them that was captivating: identity is interesting, human relationships are fascinating.

Other rooms focused on people such as Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA testing, and Samuel Pepys – although in truth this room was really an exploration of diarists more generally. Some of these were interesting, but not always for reasons related to identity or identification (an old computer made you think of how technology had progressed, the cover of an old novel caused you to reflect on how illustration styles have changed). Only one disappointed where I’d been expecting great things: Claude Cahun, a French photographer obsessed with androgyny. The endless self-portraiture was exhausting and really rather boring: self speaking to self in a vacuum.

Overall, it was an interesting exhibition, if a bit uneven. B commented to me that she felt there was a lot of padding – exhibits that were very similar or of little relevance – and i agreed with her. I was also disappointed with the presentation. The rooms were little more than wooden partitions; little attempt had been made to make them feel like rooms or individual spaces of any kind.

More satisfying than the the exhibition is the book, ‘Identity & Identification’*, which has been published to accompany it. In it you find interviews with people as diverse as the singer Billy Bragg, the Jewish-British journalist Jonathan Freedland, the philosopher Julian Baggini, trans woman Roz Kaveney and the Somali-Dutch former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Each interview is a thoughtful exploration of the person’s identity and in the case of the philosophers and scientists of identity as a concept and neurological phenomenon.

The depth and subtlety of the interviews is wonderful. Reading through them it came to me that identity is rather like an iceberg: we conceal more than we show. I can see two obvious reasons for this: the first is that aspects of our identity may rest on things which we feel might be contested or not understood by others; the second is that we take much of it for granted, so don’t think to ‘perform’ it. Unless asked, we may not even be aware of why it matters.

There’s a beautiful example of this in Jonathan Freedland’s interview. He says he identifies as Jewish, male and British in that order. When asked why he has singled out the fact that he is male, Freedland replies:

I suppose because i think it goes to something quite psychological – the inner voice as it were… And that, to me, feels like such a male voice.

As soon as i read his words i realised that this is also true for me – so true that i’d never even noticed. Fascinating from a trans point of view but also illuminating in a broader sense: we only really come to understand who we (feel we) are when we engage with others. Human relationships: not just more interesting than identity then, but essential to it.

All in all: 7/10 for the exhibition; 9/10 for the book of the exhibition.

* Identity & Identitification: ISBN 978-1-906155-86-5 (Black Dog Publishing)

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