With her brown mohawk and boyish clothes, photographer Mary Coble gets called “sir” a lot in restaurants. And when she goes into a bathroom, other women sometimes tell her she’s in the wrong place.
So when Coble decided to deal with gender labels in “Asphyxiation of Genderfication: Blurring Boundaries,” her new photo and video exhibition at George Washington University’s Dimock Gallery, it was almost a given she would turn the camera on herself. But not as just another self-portraitist: In the well-worn tradition of endurance artists Gina Pane and Marina Abramovic, “Asphyxiation” shows Coble being branded, and bled, and duct-taped before a live audience.
“You get in a zone,” says Coble, a 25-year-old GW grad student in photography. “You don’t think about it hurting….You think about your end goal: what it means to you, what it could mean to other people.”
The other people Coble’s camera often focuses on are D.C.’s drag kings, who she says were a revelation to her after a rural North Carolina childhood amid tobacco and hog farmers. One part of “Asphyxiation” features 35 photo portraits by Coble that lay bare the infrastructure of the drag kingdom—the binding of breasts with duct tape or ace bandages, the stuffing of the crotch with a soft pack.
“I finally found this community…of not just drag kings but transgendered people…who like to fuck with gender, basically,” says Coble, who adds that she identifies as a woman. “It was very freeing.”
Coble felt free enough last year to try recording her own intentional disfigurations. For Labels That Heal, inspired by photographer Catherine Opie’s untitled 1993 self-portrait showing two stick-figure women scratched into her back, Coble invited a tattoo-artist friend to inscribe “GIRL” on her upper back and “BOY” on her lower. Then she photographed the healing scars every day for two months.
“Maybe I could put on a shirt that said “boy” or “girl” on it—but that wasn’t enough for me,” Coble says solemnly. “I wanted the physical experience.”
During her initial attempt at Binding Ritual, Daily Routine, Coble summoned a handful of her closest friends to her Capitol Hill apartment in December and asked them to watch as she stood, fully naked, in front of a black curtain, and repeatedly applied duct tape to her breasts and then ripped it off, all while videotaping both the procedure and her audience’s reaction.
“I didn’t give them any parameters except ‘Don’t stop me,’” says Coble, who adds that she halted after 30 minutes when her partner, Barbara Watkins, fainted. In March, though, Coble reassembled the group and repeated the procedure for a full hour. In “Asphyxiation,” that event is documented on two facing monitors; the only sound is that of Coble ripping the duct tape. By the end of the hour, her breasts are beet-red and bleeding in places.
“I’m not trying to assume I know what it feels like to be transgendered,” Coble says, evading a question about whether female-to-male trannies use duct tape to bind themselves in everyday life. “I wanted my physical pain to be a metaphor for the mental or physical pain of transgendered individuals having to go through this every day.”
As for the pain Coble caused her audience—some of whom started crying during the performance—she says she’s empathetic, but still ready for more. Maybe even eager.
“You can see the little droplets of blood,” she chuckles about Labels That Heal. “It’s pretty cool.” —Bidisha Banerjee
“Asphyxiation of Genderfication: Blurring Boundaries” is on view to Friday, April 30, at the George Washington University’s Dimock Gallery, Lower Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. For more information, call (202) 994-1525.