Enter the space of the performance of identity staged by photography through Ralph Gibson’s Open Book, Top Hat, and exit behind Larry Clark’s anonymous figure in Acid, Lower East Side. On this stage you will encounter the drag of identity in which performances of gender, ethnicity, and age are as everyday as they are exceptional or theatrical. Clothing, gesture, expression, and pose here make up the body as image, calling into question our vision of difference as grounded in the truth of the surface of the body.
In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Judith Butler takes the ground out from under the body as the stable material basis of identity. Gender, she famously argues, is performative. Take off the top hat of performance and the magic trick of everyday life is that the substance of the person vanishes along with it. As she writes, “there is no gender identity behind the expression of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” To drag identity out as “performative” is to show up everyday life as a runway on which we are compelled to “work it.” It is to make the norms that “work” us in our compulsory negotiations of the conventions that govern our appearance as subjects in the world as telling as a wig—and just as put on.
Circulating as a performative force in the world, the drag of identity and identification draws us into the space of the photograph as a stage of encounter that also turns the spotlight on us. Dragging back the curtain is not the exposure of a truth beneath the surface of the photographic image but the revelation that the effect of realness is also a drag.