There is a long queue for the gallery space which has reached capacity and is operating a one-in-one-out policy. The people curve along the side of the building and continue to stretch across the concrete landscape of the Southbank Centre, its brutalist shapes, its hues of grey. A lot of the outfits are brightly coloured, shiny, catching light in speckles of glitter and sequins. A lot of the cheek bones are shaded in, a lot of the faces are structured with cream palettes, a lot of the cheeks are awash with air kisses, and a lot of bodies are here. The show is DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics in Hayward Gallery’s smaller, free HENI Project Space. It is a relatively varied view of Drag portraiture in regards to its span of the type of drag performed and produced by people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, ages and genders from the 1960s to the present day. The portraits take the form of paintings, photography, and video works that spread across the walls in their various sizes, with Paul Kindersley’s NatureDrag (2018) transcending the frame altogether and directly adorning the white walls of the room.
The poster uses a photograph by Hunter Reynolds (as their alter-ego Petina Du Prey) titled Shh (1990/2012). The face of the figure is central, their eyebrows perched in a darkly painted curved arch above pink eyeshadow and black liner that frames their look to camera. Their blusher and lipstick are also pink, blossoming on their pale skin, which is illuminated in contrast to the black background, whilst a small speck above their mouth forms a painted on beauty mark. Their silver beaded necklace moves down from their neck, over the dark hairs that lie flatly on their chest, before meeting and running over their black top. Their top and the dark hair on their head meet the black background, and form a mass that the made-up face cuts through. Over their lips, however, is a black glove, the index finger pointed up. This covered hand joins the surrounding darkness, it makes a shape over the bottom right quadrant of the skin, it disrupts the pretty face. What is this one finger? Clearly belonging to Reynolds, it is both instruction to us and to their self: Shh! I remember this in school: “fingers on lips”, the command followed by the gesture would make quiet the class of thirty boys and girls after they excitedly returned form recess, giddy from play and snacks, lined in a corridor before re-entering the classroom. But in this image, “Shh” has many more implications then the shutting of the mouth to mute its sound. Like the monochromatic article that covers the hand, the shushing here is dark, and indicates a deeper sonic absence: SILENCE.
SILENCE=DEATH, the infamous slogan from AIDS-activist group ACT UP, was often imposed over the reclaimed Nazi symbol for homosexuality: a triangle as pink as Reynold’s lips that themselves form a loosely triangular shape as the bottom lip sits flatter than the top. In Shh!, the sign for morbid silence cuts across the instrument for the voice, the image of the face disrupted by the shape of the gloved hand which appears as an awkwardly shaped cut-out, the lacking space where a voice could or should be were the digit to be removed and allow a bubble of sound to break out of the lips’ seal, the travel through air and find an ear to prick. On the forehead, just below the hairline, are two white rectangles of face tape. This cosmetic trick, usually hidden from view under wigs and patted over with make-up, pulls the skin up, perhaps helps give the eyebrows in this image that powerful arch, makes skin taut and tight, the pores in a bondage of beauty standards that attempts to reverse signs of aging with an age-old technique. The exposed tapes visually double as plasters, small bandages that make a naive attempt to aid an ailing body. In relation to the disease of AIDS that the image already makes clear allusions to, these are Band-Aids on a bullet hole, too little and too late to fix the broken bodies that destroyed a generation of people, predominantly gay men. The pointing fingers that bars the lips points upwards, between the eyes and the plasters that mark the spot where horns would sprout were the figure of feminine-masculinity (often associated with homosexuality) the devilish creature those on the conservative far-right would sometimes have one believe.
With all these messages signalling out of the frame, the image speaks both loudly and quietly. Thdrage photograph instructs you to do as it does: to be in silence. It is a format that communicates in stilled and static light, a captured moment that preserves dead time, the photograph is both deathly and silent and yet loud and resurrecting. Reynold’s image reminds us of the deaf ear given to those with AIDS. In doing so Reynold’s speaks to a history and legacy, reminding us of the media’s muteness concerning the mutating virus and to speak out.