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Out and About: Transgender Voices Of Vanishing Woods, Bodies and Breath

@ The Kitchen
512 West 19th Street
Now through May 11


Transgender Voices Of Vanishing Woods, Bodies and Breath

by Daniel da Silva


Image taken from

My first encounter with Anohni’s voice on the album I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian, 2005) was an overwhelming experience. Anohni’s voice struck me as woodwinds. I heard clarinets—full, reverberating, textured—at once material and ephemeral, as layered vocals gave way to each other, as one note ended, and others began; clarinets, in that Anohni’s voice took me up and wrapped me in sound as breath blown across reeds. Others heard Nina Simone, Bryan Ferry, Jimmy Scott; the album won the Mercury Prize in 2005, featured several guest appearances, and album art that included a photograph by Peter Hujar of Candy Darling on her deathbed. But it was Anohni’s voice that resonated across the album tracks, through the speakers, under your skin, into your heart – in that recording and in all of Anohni’s work since. Her voice has been for me a gathering ground for queer expression, love, hope, complaint, lament – a material archive in the resonances of voice and body, giving and receiving.

Entering The Kitchen gallery space to experience Anohni’s multimedia art project Love, I was reacquainted with her voice, her breath, as clarinets, as winds across woods, but also her voice as artist, as concern, as archive, as multimedia experience, as texts and mourning, as theatre and as intimacy. Anohni’s art beyond her music is still full of sound, and in this exhibit, through her voice, we are introduced to other voices, loves, memories, petitions, reflections. Love honors, among other things, the memory of original Johnsons member Dr. Julia Yasuda, whom Anohni called “the sacred heart at the center of my life and work” when she passed in 2018. As music plays, and the soundscape of the exhibit cuts between different tracks, sounds, emersions, and performances, we are confronted by Dr. Yasuda’s bookcase—allowed to reflect on a life represented in the materials we collect, and read, and write, and linger on, and the shelves on which they are gathered, messily, spilling beyond the linear arrangement. Recorded voice messages of Dr. Yasuda play overhead, in contrapuntal polyphony to the music and voices of the exhibit. We are inundated with voice and sound, and this is only the beginning.

There is more than Anohni’s voice here, and yet it is her art and impetus that pulls these other materials together. They are a queer archive that registers laments, memories, activism, and reflections on a terrain of transgender voices. The walls are black, the light is dim, the mood is solemn and reverent, but it is not foreboding. Rather, I am overwhelmed with appreciation and curiosity, and want to linger at every aspect of the exhibit; read the pages of typed script of former performance pieces; wonder about notes jotted in the margins and over pages of texts from books that evoke our climate crisis, our world in crisis, our hearts in crisis, crisis, and love. A video loops behind a rippled diaphanous curtain; transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson’s death certificate is blown up and on display (the namesake of the Johnsons); an elongated ovoid hangs in the center of the room. You can look behind the curtains, reflect at the space underneath the ovoid, the materials that gather around lives, that we gather in our lives, and the voices that turn and return to us; about vanishing amplified; about many vanishings, like breathe over reeds, that reverberate, and make sound that moves toward a vanishing point and yet remains with us.

Beyond a memorial to Dr. Yasuda, this exhibit “underscores correlations between crises past and present, inhaling the AIDS epidemic and exhaling the ecological disaster currently unfolding” (The Kitchen). Anohni describes it as “full of poppycock, violence, beautiful songs and very still moments. It’s not particularly linear or particularly narrative. The structure is like an odyssey, almost modular” (Interview). But mostly, as I took in the exhibit I was left with remembering Anohni’s voice—as sound, as breath, as hands that bring together a queer iconography that seems gone; the ghost of dark and dimly lit queer spaces, gay bars, anxious hearts, of species dying, of a world cut up. Yet, I am also here, now, in this moment, a part of this archive, as sound I hear, as things I can see, remembering, reminding, returning. Anohni offers, “I think about holding space for vanishing, of people, of communities, of biodiversity, in a way that opens into spectral time, leaking all points at once” (The Kitchen). It was, for me, an opening in spectral time, in which a voice like woodwinds decades gone returned, and through these transitive voices, crises and love are painful and beautiful, overwhelming and ephemeral – present, urgent, and gone.

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The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality is the locus of interdisciplinary feminist and queer scholarship and teaching at Columbia University.

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