For Cardiff-based artist Rhiannon Lowe, it’s been a long journey to her recently opened exhibition at Swansea’s Mission Gallery, Cekca Het: Trans Panic. Patrick Driscall finds out about her background, practice, influences and much more.
After seeing her spectacular work and chatting online, it’s enlivening to meet Rhiannon Lowe as we step inside from the Swansea Marina area into a capacious music venue-like space within the gallery. Lowe bears witness in a kaleidoscopic introduction to what it means to be a woman from her own personal lived experience being a trans person. And she has paperwork to prove it.
Cekca Het: Trans Panic is a thought-provoking exhibition, and a strikingly honest experience. It feels Warhol-esque: a ‘happening’, with video installations playing mesmerizing film work, but without a burning desire to shock. Flames are projected in light, rising flickering from boxes you could sit or dance on – evocative, perhaps, of the heated public space trans people are forced to navigate?
A contrasting antique standard lamp shines a light on a hospital trolley laden with mystery medical apparatus, recently used for an operation one assumes. It’s accompanied by what look like body pieces, but made of recycled black plastic. A super-glam 80s looking magazine designed for the exhibition reveals a difficult journey – ending, ultimately, in a certain kind of triumph with humour thrown in, and at, a judging world full of disapproval.
There is an unsettling artwork expressing the dominating role of media barons like Rupert Murdoch in spreading populist culture war issues. Fabricated narratives suppress minority and other disempowered voices, in their place divisive fear-driven rhetorical clickbait, sucking in earnings from advertising at great expense to split communities. Division exaggerated across social platforms is racked up to hate-filled headlines which get broadcasted like fire, spitting sparks into the wind.
It’s a very publicly projected and exposing world of binary division; of pointing at, of black and white, the imagined them and us. The too-clever-by-halves, and those that fell out of education, those that love and those that hate, and those that shall never have. The artwork speaks of this poisonous mix spewed out by dominant media platforms, at ultimate expense to shared kindness, our acceptance of difference: an erosion of our collective humanity.
Mission Gallery’s layout encourages nosy exploration. A large welcome mat defines a gig performance space; a striking costume (made by Abi Hubbard) is used in a video piece to enchant and even disturb, becoming almost chrysalis-like. Vast colourful billboards (using portraits taken by Megan Winstone) suggest an upcoming music performance. Lowe plays bass and experiments with electronics, sound collage and sampling to create sonic surprises for show visitors.
On that note, what’s the story behind the reference to Martin Gore of Depeche Mode on the artist’s website?
Depeche Mode were the band I listened to most in my teenage years. I had little idea, really, of how they looked, apart from having a big poster on my wall, and their appearances in Smash Hits and Melody Maker. I saw them live once as little dots in the distance at the NEC. Years later I saw them on telly, heard them in an interview, and had an idea about what they, perhaps as individuals might have stood for.
Martin Gore was the pretty, feminine-looking one in the band, the quieter, more shy one, who sometimes wore makeup. He was an idea in my head – he wasn’t what I wanted to be, he just showed me that there were other people who didn’t ‘fit’ easily. I was spending my life fitting, and continued to try and squish myself into a shape I just wasn’t.
Michael Stipe was another person I thought about a lot. He played on the very safe edges, something I could try and at least understand. But these people lived in a very different world from mine. I had no real idea about what a gay woman was, let alone a trans gay woman. My world was about having a girlfriend and working hard, going rollerskating, making nice and being good at home, hushing out those niggling transition dreams.
I got a book about medical transition out of the library when I was 14 – I was so scared that there’d be a record of that book on my library card. That freaked me out, but the horrors within the book killed any dreams and hopes I had flat. Maybe dressing like Martin Gore was the heady heights I could get to.
How has this 80s vibe been represented in your exhibition?
I might be remembering the 80s as part of the 90s, ha. I mix up my teens and 20s, it’s all one long idea of a time. I have some Smash Hits-type imagery in the Trans Panic magazine; the portraits that Megan Winstone and her glorious team did of me have a pop-Siouxsie, PJ Harvey, Kim Wilde thing going on. I’ve made a bunch of zines, badges and merch, all things born out of that late 20th century time.
I’ve also swiped some late Soviet Russian-style typefaces, imagery, and the first bit of the title of the show, Cekca Het, which is a moniker for me to perform under. Cekca Het is a misheard, mythologicalised edit taken from an 80s TV chat show, held between Russian and American audiences as part of perestroika. During it, a woman was cut off midway as she tried to say there was no sex on Soviet telly: “cekca het”, no sex. Or ‘sex hat’ apparently might be a better translation. I also say it incorrectly, I’m sure. I found out about it through the brilliant singer and musician Jemma Roper; I’ve stolen something, and I don’t even know quite what it is.
How was growing up in Yorkshire?
My parents are brilliant. They do and did support me studying and working in the arts, but the precarious nature of just making work and trying to be an artist, well, that’s a non-starter for most people, unless you have cash behind you, and I don’t. My mum and dad wanted me to have security, and in those days, that meant A-Levels, and a degree, the basis of a strong and developing CV, haha. My CV is developing… that’s for sure.
We didn’t have a TV growing up, I love to blame that for so much! In a classic awakening moment, I first saw Boy George – yeah, I know – on a big screen, during a break, while I was taking part in a chess tournament one Saturday. I was just a middle-class white kid growing up under Section 28, trying to find stuff out about myself upstairs in the reference library. I drew and painted at school like a good student. Music was my main force, always has been really; I think it was through music that I began to realise more about myself, and the world. Took my time though…
The Trans Panic magazine cover, as seen on the exhibition website, says “Here comes the ideology.” Can you explain this?
I’ve put the words on the front of the magazine I made for the show. The mag’s a mashup of Sunday Times supplement, Smash Hits adverts, writing, artwork, medical notes, appeals. I’m trans, and according to some people, there’s a trans ideology – just like people cried wolf on a gay ideology in the 80s. These same kind of people reckon trans folk are recruiting; we’re lobbying, we’re touting, spreading our lies and weirdness, our ways of living, our deceptions. Truth is, trans folk are fighting for our rights. Today I’m of the more mocking, fuck-you fight; tomorrow that may be different, probably be hiding at home; but I need to grasp the means and chances when I have them to be at least a little outspoken.
It’s a rare privilege to have a public show, to have some form of platform. Our only ideology is one of staying alive, being. The second line on the magazine cover says something about pearl-clutching. Trans folk aren’t trying to steal your children, or your pearls – we’re still fighting for our basic rights, just to live.
What has been your best experience of working in the art world?
Scarborough, of course – running Millennium Bug-making workshops, getting stopped by the rozzers carrying a massive red metal trunk though town, hanging highly flammable, full-sized brown paper men in smoky pubs, drinking appallingly out-of-date £1 bottles of booze in the Tunnel Club, lying awake at night listening to the huge waves smash into the cliff walls.
What makes a good art curator, for you?
Bad curation is like a blocked drain: annoying, regurgitating, joyless. Good curation: just make sure there’s tea, biscuits and cans of booze, and pictures aren’t hung too high.
What particular personal strengths and knowledge do you think you bring to your work?
I try to bring an element of humour and a broader set of entry points to my work, if possible. I feel that’s necessary, because, while at the heart of the work, there might be very personal stories demanding personal responses, the subject matter can also be impenetrable without varied ways in.
I’m not so good at keeping to one form of medium, or having a clear message. I use different media both to bring varied ways of looking and listening to the work, but then also use them to create layers of mist, to try to hide behind, and bring uncertainty. I enjoy the push and pull in trying to draw people in to a certain point, and then make them look elsewhere for the next step. I’m all for fluffy edges, mind.
As a trans person, some parts of society choose to position you towards the margins. What unique challenges has this brought to your practice?
It’s made me a bit stroppy, argumentative; I often feel a bit lonely. In Wales, like elsewhere, there just aren’t that many visible trans people in the arts. You’re drawn to your own, in ways, as creative people, and being trans is something very specific; finding a place, a home, can be hard work. I am very lucky, and privileged, I know, to have a support network and allies. But I also know there are people who fundamentally have a problem with me as a being, a human, and that I will always be on the outside.
Trans people don’t often have a say, and when they do, it’s often a headline potshot. The nuances and intricacies of where we stand, or more often are made to stand, are lost in the wall of backlash. It’s sometimes easier to keep on going, making work, going out to get milk, bread, have a glass of pop, watch a film, try to make ends meet. But not being accepted, not seen, considered or included, being continually othered, watched, maligned, segregated, blamed can be very tiring.
I hope that my artwork, my making, is a way to show resistance, resilience – just a little. I make work like many other people working with art. We’re all showoffs. I just want to be subjected to the same scrutiny as others, not as some special case.
Your exhibition comments on the way the media is dominating the trans rights debate. What possibilities are there for this to change for the better?
The mainstream media should be burnt to the ground, not just because of its lack of compassion and desire to tell the truth, but because it gets more redundant every day. Trans rights aren’t a debate; our right to live in peace in, and as part of, society, shouldn’t be up for question. There are so many apparently concerned voices freely given airtime and space to spout fear and disinformation, encouraged and funded basically by powerful, evangelical, far-right phobics. Ill-informed comments make for sales and headlines, and trans voices are so rarely heard.
It’s hard to ignore the media, it still has too much influence and sway. I’d love to say it’ll soon be irrelevant, but so long as governments subscribe to and prop up corporate support of it, then we’re stuck with the shitshow it is.
How can art, culture and human rights still act independently of the social media maelstrom?
Not sure it can. Social media is part of how our contemporary lives are shaped and how popular society perpetuates ideas and ideals. I think it’s ignorant to think that independence from it is a possibility. We engage at our peril, but to disengage can be worse.
What kind of world would you most like to travel to?
One where Jason Molina is still alive.
words PATRICK DRISCALL photos RHIANNON LOWE / LUCY HOWSON
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