LINDA ZHENGOVÁ PHOTOGRAPHY: A FACILITATOR OF A CZECH QUEER UTOPIA?
Linda Zhengová’s photo series “Showering with Glasses” serves as a utopian refuge of a radical kind of imagination, where different bodies merge and become one, regardless of their gender or normative forms of hierarchy.
In 1992, one of the most prominent philosophers of the past decades, Gilles Deleuze, wrote his text “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” His work can be understood as a reaction to Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish (1975) where Foucault analyses the operational frameworks of disciplinary societies. In such societies, subjects are observed hierarchically, their judgment is normalised, and they are constantly examined. In contrast, Deleuze outlines a shift from an industrial, and hence disciplinary society, towards a post-industrial society of control. He argues that this change took place together with the birth of neoliberalism as the operation of markets has become the main apparatus of social control. Deleuze states that now, “control is short-term and [consists] of rapid rates of turnover, but also continuous without limit, while discipline was of long duration, infinite, and discontinuous.” In this way, a society of control can be understood as an open system where people live in a sheer delusion of having freedom. In this system, power and responsibility are mediated through technology, making them diffused and decentralised as a result. Consequently, Deleuze highlights the necessity of undermining the system by stating that “there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”
Since Deleuze does not provide any specific examples of such weapons, there is some room for interpretation which allows for a shift from theory to practice. The medium of photography can be regarded as a possible tool for the subversion of contemporary societies of control. Throughout history, photography has evolved from a scientific medium that documented reality into a tool to criticise, suggest, and trigger new ideas in relation to what a particular image represents. In addition to this, thanks to the Internet and social media, people are constantly exposed to thousands of images every day. Not all imagery has the same impact and it is, therefore, important to investigate the type of photography that can challenge this system and the existing status-quo.
I consider contemporary queer photography to be a suitable medium to challenge the society of control through its aesthetics which aims for the contestation of the viewer by inviting a non-binary gaze and a post-human imagining of ourselves. Queer photography can be a tool to realise queer theory in practice as it has the power to expose the oppressive binaries surrounding sex, gender, and sexuality. Correspondingly, this essay analyses my own photography series Showering with Glasses (2018-2019) within the context of the Czech LGBTQI+ art scene and politics in order to outline the potential of queer utopia as a method of subversion.
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During communism, homosexuality was medicalised and criminalised in the former Czechoslovakia and the rest of the Soviet Bloc. In the country, “decency”—behaviour adhering to generally accepted norms—was adopted by the communist regime as a form of “social control and regulation of sexual identity and behaviour.” At the time, the norm was that any open expressions of diverse sexualities were censored, while homosexuality and trans-sexuality were examined under psychiatric lens. It is therefore not surprising that there has been an immense hope for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexed, and queer people to escape homophobia after the fall of communism. Instead, however, since 1989 the dominant homophobic discourse has continued and has manifested itself in the form of urging LGBTQI+ subjects to “articulate their claims for recognition and equal rights in a non-threatening manner, advocating sameness, quietness, inclusion, conformity, and discipline.” It can be said that in Czechia, political and civic acceptance comes at a cost that a liberal political view is endowed to pay—a lack of radical queer politics.
According to gender scholars Simona Fojtová and Věra Sokolová, visibility and invisibility are crucial factors that make it possible to analyse the developments of the LGBTQI+ discourse in the Czech Republic. The notion of “queer” still seems to be foreign to the majority of Czech people as the political and media discourses adhere only to the terms “lesbian”, “gay”, and “homosexual”. Art, therefore, can be considered as one form of visibility that might contribute to a wider acceptance of non-normative sexualities and genders.
Since the 1990s, many LGBTQI+ art initiatives have attempted to disrupt the persistence of patriarchy and homophobia in the Czech Republic, however, some of them still had to face various forms of suppression. For instance, between 2011 and 2013, Czech art historians and curators Ladislav Zikmund-Lender, Milena Bartlová and Kateřina Štroblová prepared an exhibition Queer Codes at The Moravian Gallery (Brno) in order to highlight the importance of visual art in introducing the queer discourse to the public. However, in 2013, the gallery appointed a new director who decided to cancel this show despite agreeing to pursue all the other shows in progress. Most probably this decision was, to a strong part, influenced by his other position as the project manager of the Catholic Episcopate and Diocese in Brno. The results of the preparations for the exhibition were only presented abroad, during the 2012 Amsterdam Gay Pride, where an exhibition What a Material: Queer Art from Central Europe was arranged by the Czech Center (a governmental cultural organisation). In this case, Czech queer realities became only acceptable within the Western discourse which aligns more with the notion of progress (and less with that of decoloniality, though) and, hence, the country’s image abroad rather than working on what truly matters: improving LGBTQI+ rights and the visibility of queer people and forms of arts in the Czech Republic.
Other examples of suppression mentioned in “Swishing: Queer Curating in the Heart of Europe” written by Ladislav Zikmund-Lender include the inhibition and complete avoidance of Czech artists’ sexualities and their relevance in their art practice when presented during a show. For instance, the exhibition in the Gallery of the City of Prague featuring a famous Czech inter-war painter Toyen, who is also one of the first openly proud Czech lesbians, presented her cross-dressing as a practice that resists traditions, instead of mentioning that it is more of a statement regarded to her sexuality. Then in 2012, the Memorial of National Literature completely disregarded the homoerotic collection of arts and books of Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic, or in 2007, when the painter Jan Zrzavý was exhibiting, his homosexuality was never mentioned. These cases illustrate that the artists’ works were taken deliberately out of context with the purpose to be stripped of their subversive power of momentarily queering the time and space they existed in. It is clear that they posed a threat to the hegemonic art system that is so closely tied with history, culture, and politics and, as a consequence, needed to be suppressed. Additionally, since the exhibitions were showing no longer living artists, it was most definitely easier for art institutions to shape them into the direction they desired. Consequently, these instances demonstrate the ways in which compromised visibility of queer people still tends to operate in the Czech Republic, and therefore, there needs to be a stronger resistance by contemporary artists to avoid these forms of censorship.
I particularly see the potential in the art events organised during Prague Pride which in the last decade managed to introduce queer art to the public in a relatively successful and open way. The Artwall Gallery has to be regarded as a Czech leading platform for addressing social issues related to sex, gender, and sexuality. During different editions of the Prague Pride, the Artwall Gallery featured the series Immaculate Conception by Jana Stěpánová showing portraits of same-sex parents in 2013 or Slava Mogutin’s series Lost Boys presenting Russia through a homoerotic lens in 2016 (Figure 1). The photographs of both artists were on display as a series of posters in the city centre of Prague and could be widely seen, for instance while riding a car or in public transport. As shown in a public space, the photographs were able to challenge people’s systems of knowledge on a larger scale than when exhibited in a gallery space. This is mainly due to the fact that people make a conscious choice to enter a gallery (and to visit a show or exhibition in particular) whereas, in the public, the images become inescapable and hence, immediately confrontational. Since both of the artists examine the public/private binary, they critique “the universalized individual subject.” Consequently, their art introduces alternative modes of being where binary oppositions and identity categories are destabilised. In this way, I perceive the initiatives of the Artwall Gallery as grassroots movements that are able to facilitate a visible kind of resistance against the status-quo.
In response to the brief outline of the queer art scene in the Czech Republic, I would like to continue by delving into my own photography series Showering with Glasses and explore how visual aspects of queer photography might have a subversive power.
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Growing up in the Czech Republic and coming from an ethnically mixed (Czech-Chinese) family, I always considered my upbringing to be a relatively open-minded one. Nonetheless, I realised that was not the case. After immigrating to the Netherlands and completing a minor in Gender Studies, my perspective on life and my surroundings changed tremendously. I became aware of how much of a taboo the topics of gender and sexuality are in my home country. The persistent avoidance of conversations on these topics, the normalised usage of homophobic slurs and uncontested binary logic have permeated my mind.
As a reaction to experiencing both a suppressed visibility in the Czech Republic and a hypervisibility of queer people in The Netherlands, I decided to create a photography series Showering with Glasses. The project reflects my personal transformation and journey towards my understanding of gender and queerness. In short, it is an intimate detachment from how I have been raised for most of my life and my pursuit to step out and explore the unknown. The title of the series is a metaphor for the process of transformation that I have undergone. Throughout my life, I have always showered with my glasses on, but it was only once I was told that I was doing something strange and unnatural that I started to doubt myself and my actions. In hindsight, this experience helped me realise how many things in my life are structured based on what people told me and their sense of “normality” which is founded on socio-cultural codes that are generally accepted in society. Therefore, my series is a deviation from this understanding of what life previously meant to me and instead it highlights the importance of exploring new types of knowledge pertaining to what life can be.
The series consists of two main components: flower still lifes (Figures 2 and 3) and a collage composed of numerous photographic materials (Figure 4). The most important parts of the process of creating were researching and questioning the imagery I was producing and also creating new forms out of existing ones. During the process of creating my floral still lifes, I always worked with existing flowers and tried to construct a new hybrid out of them. By combining numerous elements, the flowers are recognisable while simultaneously containing an element of strangeness and unfamiliarity when observed in greater detail.
At the same time, the photographs allude to well-recognised clichés, such as colour coding in Western society, where blue is generally connected to the “male” sex and pink to its “female” counterpart, which is something widely used in the Czech Republic as well. However, as the photographs do not necessarily reveal male or female components based on their respective colour, there appears to be an inconsistency regarding the background and foreground of the images. Therefore, the aim of the photographs is to purposely confuse one’s familiar knowledge of common flowers and colour codes and provoke viewers to re-think their judgment about how certain human and non-human subjects or objects should look.
The display of the flower still lifes (Figure 3) is based on the creation of speculative family trees and hence, their possibilities of hybridisation. This arrangement attempts to destabilise the notion that people only exist in binary forms while emphasising that we come in numerous variations that are constantly hindered by and defy binary logic. These family trees aim to unveil to the viewer the repeating, or newly emerging, elements between distinct types of flowers and hence, the relations between images and our inner selves.
The formation on the right resembles an upside-down triangle which corresponds with an internationally recognised symbol for female genitalia and is further enhanced by its pink background colour. I deliberately included this triangular shape in the display in order to test the viewer’s susceptibility to binary logic. By recognising this symbol, one can immediately begin the search for its binary opposite, which is male genitalia in this case. However, its absence in the display might once again disorient viewers, perhaps even generating a sense of punctum by making the viewer feel that there is a missing element. By triggering the viewer’s realisation regarding people’s constant recognition and response to binary codes, I hope to prompt viewers to self-reflect and detach themselves from binary logic as it still has an immense impact on our daily lives.
The second element of Showering with Glasses, the collage (Figure 4), comprises photographic materials such as archives, portraits, snapshots, and landscape imagery. Similarly to the flower still lifes, I have attempted to create new visual combinations in order to elicit alternative perspectives that concern the body and its relations with other bodies, nature, and animals. The collage combines many photographs with the intention of overwhelming the viewer. Even though still images are presented, the collage may trigger a sense of dynamism and movement because of the way the used images are positioned. For instance, at the top, there is a photograph of a mountain connected to a close up of a female crotch. The precise placement of these images may lead to a triangular eye movement across the image while making the crotch appear to dissolve into the landscape. This effect makes the elements in the image appear to be not only part of each other, but also constantly folding and unfolding within themselves. By having a multitude of focal points and bright colours, the viewers might feel confused about where they should gaze. This process can be said to displace mere optic visuality and instead invites other senses to become part of the aesthetic experience. Haptic perception is specifically important in this case as the collage creates an odd sense of depth which prevents optics from exercising complete control over the image. The collage is, therefore, an attempt to displace visual mastery, enabling the viewer to momentarily become one of the plants, people, or animals depicted.
The fact that the collage consists of numerous images may allow additional comparisons to be made between them, and viewers can then observe the relationship between the said different elements. Upon re-examining the photographs from a distance, the images become one. The overwhelming combination of elements may intensively affect the viewer by enabling the exploration of the connections and interrelatedness of things that they did not know existed beforehand. At the same time, there is a strong emphasis placed on colours, as different shades of pink, purple, and blue are used and combined to form a sense of unity and harmony. However, this impression remains sparse as it is abruptly interrupted by a bright red close up of a foot which has a completely different tonality from the other images used in the collage. The foot was one of the last elements I placed in the collage and, to me, it adds a certain element of uncertainty to the overall perception of the work. Throughout the collage, the colours function as opacity filters by making some depicted objects/subjects less visible and others barely identifiable. As such, all the elements I mentioned and tactically included in the collage aim to disrupt and displace the moment and location of their existence. They are used to queer the space and time of the viewer who is observing the image.
Showering with Glasses, therefore, serves as a utopian and futuristic imagination where different bodies merge and become one regardless of their gender or any form of hierarchy. They all have equal importance.
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The formal analysis outlined above proposes an alternative ontology, a conceptual framework which argues that our bodies do not have to be marked in terms of binaries; rather, it posits that the “nature” of our bodies has multiple potentialities which consequently bring a moral argument in favour of a post-gender ethic. By challenging this so-called normality, queer photography critiques essentialism and opposes binaries that are heavily structured within the status-quo, and in this way it manages to delineate their selfhood. The mode of being reflected in queer art creates the potential to re-evaluate our understanding of ourselves and of others alike, which may subsequently result in behaviour that eliminates or at least minimises these exclusions. In this way, the ethics introduced by contemporary queer photographs based on their escapist and utopian imaginings are directly related to reality, where this potential may become vehemently subversive. Queer utopian worlds are, accordingly, not a wish-fulfillment but they rather function “as a challenge to the limitations of the political and aesthetic imagination.”
The existence of a queer utopia can, therefore, be understood as an emancipated visualisation of a queer future. As utopianism mirrors the failure to be normal, this escapist imagination is one of the most crucial aspects of queer art’s aesthetics that can be used as a tactic to resist current politics. Because of this, there is a need to first imagine queer spaces, then embark on quests to discover (or produce) them, and lastly—and most importantly—to find ways to maintain and celebrate them.
Contemporary queer photography and its tactics provide an in-depth understanding of the persistent oppression that is perpetuated by the hegemonic time and space people currently live in. Through their confrontation of normality and deeply ingrained socio-cultural values with regard to sex, gender, and sexuality, the photographs function as temporary disruptions and potential subversions of dominant times and spaces, paving the way for change, and perhaps breaking the existing system of control. This essay is, therefore, a utopian invitation to create queer art as a form of documentation, imagination, speculation, and confrontation.
In this context, it is necessary to acknowledge that not all Western gender theory concepts are applicable within Central and Eastern European contexts. It is always crucial to provide perspectives that are specific to each locality, to each particular situation, that take into consideration the specificity of such cultural and historical realities. I believe that emerging artists from Central and Eastern Europe have the potential to contribute with new and dynamic insights not only into the art world but also into academia, as they present unique local perspectives on their life experiences that are less likely to be confined to the already established art canons. The variety of queer art in the Czech Republic is rich in the techniques and approaches it employs, but remains in dire need of local support and exposure. Being exhibited abroad (primarily in the West) barely ever contributes to local acceptance.
Considering the fact that in post-socialist Czech Republic LGBTQI+ people continue to face violence and discrimination, one is left with nothing but hope for a better future. Currently, it can be observed that the Prague Pride is the main facilitator of bringing queer art to the public. However, since the general public is aware that this event only takes place during a certain period of time in the year, it is something expected and known to last only temporarily which perhaps no longer makes it a threat to people’s traditional socio-cultural values. There is a need for art initiatives to happen all around the country at various times throughout the year in order to have a true impact not only in the popular mindset of the people, but also in the way policymaking is conducted on a national level.
It is, therefore, essential to make queer art and analyse the ways in which it might disrupt normative narratives and temporalities that structure people’s understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality and contribute to a fluid and ambiguous re-evaluation of such categories. Through its celebration of failure, vulnerability, and escape, queer art can pave the way for the transformation of contexts and perspectives, creating a space to criticise and challenge the pitfalls of our current societies. Resisting the status quo is fundamental to the preservation of a critical culture where a queer future may thrive.
 See Michel Foucault’s (1977) “Part Three: Discipline” and the sub-section “The Means of Correct Training” (p. 170-195) in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books.
 Gilles Deleuze (1992) "Postscript on the Societies of Control." October 59, p. 6.
 Deleuze, 1992, 6.
 Deleuze, 1992, 4.
 Jan Průcha (2001) Multikulturní výchova: Teorie, praxe, výzkum, Praha: nakladatelství ISV, p. 11.
 Simona Fojtová and Věra Sokolová (2013) “Strategies of Inclusion and Shifting Attitudes towards Visibility in the Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Discourse in the Czech Republic after 1989” In Queer Visibility in Post-socialist Cultures, edited by Nárcisz Fejes and Andrea P. Balogh, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 107-109.
 Simona Fojtová and Věra Sokolová, 2013, 107.
 Simona Fojtová and Věra Sokolová, 2013, 109.
 Ladislav Zikmund-Lender (2018) “Swishing: Queer Curating in the Heart of Europe” In Queer Curating, edited by Jonathan Katz, Isabel Hufschmidt, and Änne Söll, Issue 37/May 2018, p. 77.
 José Esteban Muñoz (1999) Disidentifications: Queers of Colour and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 169.
 This colour coding is widely used during, for instance, “gender reveal” parties or parents’ arrangement of their expected babies’ rooms, clothes, and toys which may be said to further determine the yet unborn child’s gender in a binary way.
 For further information about the reverse triangle symbolism and its origins, see for instance Philip S. Rawson’s book Tantra: The Indian Cult of Ecstasy (1973, pages 16-23 and 122-123) or Barbara G. Walker’s book The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (1988, pages 39-40 and 44).
 In Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes introduces the concept of punctum which can be understood as an individual reaction to certain details in a photograph that emotionally affects the viewer. He defines punctum as a “wound,” a “prick,” and a “bruise,” stimulating a shock response in the viewer. Yet, he highlights that this concept is heavily subjective (pages 25-27).
 Lucy Nicholas (2015) Queer Post-gender Ethics: The Shape of Selves to Come. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 8.
 Nicholas, 2015, 5.
 Nicholas, 2015, 7.
 José Esteban Muñoz (2009) Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, p. 17.
 Judith Halberstam (2005) In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, p. 14.