Art Imitates Life For Transgender Artists

Apr 7, 2014
Originally published on April 8, 2014 2:07 pm

The Whitney Biennial has been one of the art world’s hottest shows for new artists.

This year, artists Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker are grabbing attention with their photo series, “Relationship.”

The photos detail their developing relationship and their transitioning bodies, as each travels across the gender spectrum. Ernst is transitioning from female to male, while Drucker is transitioning from male to female.

Drucker and Ernst join Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss their work and its reception.

Interview Highlights: Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker

On chronicling their transformation

Drucker: “The amazing thing about being a human is that we are transformative material, and we change from one moment to the next. Being transgender is a more visible manifestation of that because we are literally changing the way we are presenting ourselves to the world.”

Ernst: “The photographs sort of chronicle this amazing crystallizing of an identity we had always longed for.”

On being a transgender couple

Ernst: “When we met and fell in love, our experience really transcended ideas about finite categories of sexual preference and identity, and gender identity, and it sort of just collapsed all that into meaningless boxes. And I think that there is something, hopefully, very powerful about that, that other people can relate to.”

“There’s really an incredible lesson to be learned about gender freedom for everybody. No one needs to be fixed in a particular box … There are limitless possibilities.”

Drucker: “Neither of us had these fixed ideas of who we saw ourselves paired with and we still have a kind of flexible conception of how we see ourselves in the world. The wave, the future, hopefully, is that none of us will be so defined by a label, or gender category, or who we decide to partner with.”

On not being tokenized as transgender artists

Drucker: “Being defined by one’s gender is always a little bit alienating. The work we make, the top layer is our trans identity, but there’s all these layers underneath it that are less explored or talked about.”

Ernst: “We are trying to make work for an audience for which we don’t have to explain the 101, didactic transgender thing. We are sort of jumping to the next level conversation and we’re trusting the audience can sort of keep up with us. And so far that’s actually been the case.”

“We are certainly not the first transgender artists to be included in the Whitney Biennial.”

Guests

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ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Since the 1930s, the Whitney Biennial in New York has been introducing artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Jackson Pollock. Catching attention this year: 30- and 31-year old Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker. They met cute, as the saying goes. Rhys was a young girl who saw Zackary in a bar and thought, if I ever did date boys, that's the kind of boy I'd date. Turns out Zackary was a young boy who didn't date girls.

They did become a couple not because they changed their minds but because they changed their genders. Over five years, Zackary transitioned from male to female, Rhys, from female to male. And that journey, which may not be for all ears, is the subject of their photo exhibit at the Whitney. Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker join us now from the NPR studios in New York. Zackary, you there?

ZACKARY DRUCKER: I'm here. Hi.

YOUNG: Hi. Rhys, you there as well?

RHYS ERNST: Hello.

YOUNG: Hello to you. So it strikes me that all couples transition, you know, as they become a couple. As extraordinary as some people might think what you did is, does it also apply to couplehood?

DRUCKER: I think the amazing thing about being a human is that we are transformative material and we change from one moment to the next, and that's a universal truth. Being transgender is a more visible sort of manifestation of that because we're literally changing the way that we present ourselves to the world. In the exhibition, there is one photograph that I think of as our perfect state of androgyny.

YOUNG: What's that? What does it look like?

DRUCKER: Well, it's a waist-up kind of nude photo of us lying in bed together.

ERNST: Oh, yeah. They're right at that X and that right in that intersection moment where we kind of - our bodies actually kind of look the same.

YOUNG: But over the course of time, you do - through hormone replacement therapy, Rhys, if I'm getting this correctly, you become more male.

ERNST: That's right.

YOUNG: And, Zackary, more female.

DRUCKER: Yes, ma'am.

YOUNG: What was happening to you as a couple as this was happening?

ERNST: Well, sadly, I hate to say this, but some of the stereotypes can be rooted in some reality. I think that testosterone does tend to make people a little bit more agro and edgy. And there were moments when Zackary's estrogen levels were making her a little bit emotional. And so there's a little bit of a teenage moment for both of us.

DRUCKER: Especially when you initiate hormone replacement therapy, your body is really being rewired. I mean, it feels like really haywire.

YOUNG: Well, and, Zackary, you were just speaking, that brings to question all sorts of things people think they know about why they fall in love.

ERNST: I think that that was what was really striking to us when we met and fell in love that our experience really transcended ideas about finite categories of sexual preference and identity and gender identity. And it sort of just collapsed all that into just meaningless boxes. And I think that there is something actually hopefully very powerful about that that other people can relate to.

And I think also that one of the great things about the transgender movement really getting momentum right now is that (unintelligent) people, meaning non-transgender people, there's really an incredible lesson to be learned about gender freedom for everybody. No one needs to be fixed into a particular box. You can find yourself in the middle of a spectrum or somewhere, you know, two ticks from the left to the right, and there's limitless possibilities.

DRUCKER: Neither of us have these sort of fixed ideas of who we saw ourselves paired with, and we still have a pretty flexible kind of conception of how we see ourselves and each other in the world. I think the way of the future, hopefully, is that none of us will be so defined by label or gender category or who we decide to partner with.

YOUNG: Well, it sounds both incredibly extraordinary and incredibly banal. We hear some of the pictures are as simple as one of you has a cold.

ERNST: Yep.

(LAUGHTER)

ERNST: The juicy details behind the transsexual love affair...

YOUNG: Yeah.

ERNST: ...the shopping and housekeeping and...

DRUCKER: One of the things I think that is often overlooked about a transgender experience is, most transgender people have this feeling of a schism early in life, usually as early as 3, 4 or 5. Some, you know, my earliest memories are of the sort of schism realizing that there was this sort of difference between how I felt about myself and how I was being treated or perceived by the outside world. When those two parts, you know, the way you feel inside and the way that you're perceived start coming into alignment, there's this kind of fascination. And I think the photographs sort of chronicle this amazing crystallizing of an identity that we'd always longed for.

YOUNG: You mean, over the course of the pictures like, you know, a butterfly or something, that person that you want to be perceived as is finally there in the pictures?

ERNST: Yeah.

YOUNG: We're speaking with Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst about their exhibit "Relationship" at the Whitney Biennial in New York. It tells of their duel gender transition in photos. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

So what else might we see in this photo exhibit? We understand there's at least one picture of you side by side getting hormone treatment together. What else?

ERNST: You know, one thing that I really love is - there's a lot of photographs of us around some of our places of origin, our families' homes. There's a photo of me with Zachary's adorable nephew, Kaias(ph). There is a photo of the two of us watching Tillamook Dairy Parade, which is the town where my mother grew up in Oregon. and we're sitting on matching sort of like camping chairs. That's in the banal couple category. The first picture of us ever taken is in the exhibition. It's an early photograph of us, about two weeks after we met. It's a photograph of us in the mirror.

DRUCKER: I think that, yeah, the photo exhibition just kind of had that a little bit of a line between what to us was day to day and sort of playing with banality as a sort of fun ingredient alongside the way in which we were approaching gender with looseness and play and fun.

YOUNG: Well, there's a film in addition to the pictures. It's called "She Gone Rogue." We understand the idea is to illuminate moments in the history of transgender women. Tell us about that.

ERNST: Rhys and I made this film, it stars legendary queens and trans women, and my own parents are in it. It's sort of...

YOUNG: Wait. Are your parents trans?

ERNST: No.

YOUNG: Oh, OK.

ERNST: I wish. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

ERNST: No. My - it's interesting because it sort of weaves in and out of quasi reality.

DRUCKER: I think gender is a journey and not a destination. And in our film "She Gone Rogue," we chose a sort of heroes journey as sort of a device to have Zackary's character meander through this dream world. And really, you know, it kind of speaks to this kind of metaphor of aging and a journey that we're all on and a journey in a trans body and what that looks like.

YOUNG: Well, what about your journey now? A lot of attention at the Whitney Biennial because the photos are great but also because of the story they tell. And yet, you've made it very clear - and we've spoken before speaking here - you don't want to be the transgender artists. But how do you avoid that since this topic is so now closely tied with your names and your project?

ZACHARY DRUCKER: We certainly don't want to be tokenized as the transgender artists. And, of course, being defined by one's gender is always a little bit alienating. The work we make, the top layer, is our trans identity, but there's all these layers underneath it that are maybe last kind of explored or talked about.

ERNST: We're trying to make work for an audience in which we don't have to explain the sort of didactic 101 transgender thing, an d we're sort of jumping to the next level conversation and hoping - we're trusting the audience, that they connection keep with us. And so far, that's actually been the case.

YOUNG: Well - and because of all the people who've gone before.

DRUCKER: That's right.

ERNST: We're certainly not the first transgender artists to be included in the Whitney Biennial. One of my archetypes and role models, Greer Lankton, was in the 1996 Biennial. She made marionettes and sculptures. We're really honored to follow in her footsteps.

DRUCKER: Yeah.

YOUNG: Yeah. That's Zachary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, artists behind the "Relationship" series exhibit on display at the Whitney Museum of American Arts Biennial. To see some of the pictures, go to hereandnow.org. Zachary, Rhys, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ERNST: Thank you, Robin.

DRUCKER: It's great to be with you.

YOUNG: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.