My intra-disciplinary practice draws on the materiality of performance, image, movement and mass to explore the boundaries of presence and absence, realism and abstraction, proximity and distance, and tangible and the ephemeral. Always interwoven with my personal history as a queer, transgender Argentine-American, I am interested in making work that addresses the complexities and contingencies of what we call identity, as my own is difficult to define and pin down.

This difficulty can be traced through a short genealogy of my name, which I changed almost precisely eight years ago. My great-grandfather, Antranik, was a Syrian-Armenian refugee. His son, my grandfather, was also named Antranik. Upon landing in Argentina, his name was translated to Andrés in an effort to assimilate to Spanish. My father was also named Andrés, but removed the accent and became Andres when he immigrated to the United States—another modification. Then I adopted his name, but dropped the “s” and transitioned into Andre--situating myself between the gendered Spanish names Andrés and Andrea. Unwittingly and only upon reflection, I realize now that my name looks more French and holds within it this the rhizomatic linguistic traces of the country that colonized my family. I begin with the intricacies of my family’s diaspora; our nominal modifications mark our nomadic movements across place, time, and power.

As such, I have come to realize that nominal representations can only offer so much. As I work through these networks, my art practice has been increasingly guided by Édouard Glissant’s theoretical writings on opacity to frame my work, where he argues that we can never fully understand another, and therefore, insists on relationality over categorical reductions of difference. I am interested in making work that challenges the way we see difference. Glissant’s demand for the right to opacity is a political position and, for me, also an artistic strategy. I am interested in making work that challenges the way we see difference. I deliberately obscure and complicate the simplification of seeing by making work that cannot be easily reduced. This results in a body of work that often requires pause, as it uses forms of obscuring and abstracting as a form of withdrawal to resist from visual registers that so often encourage the desire to know before relating.

I first explored these concepts of opacity in the diptych, Auto-Pecho i & ii (2013), a title translatable as self-chest. Here I painted silver-gelatin emulsion onto paper. I then digitally recorded and projected two videos of myself onto the silver gelatin: one video where I stand still and clothed, and another where I am unclothed and moving my chest moved frenetically. This bodily movement, when projected onto a surface designed to capture stillness, shows the effects of movement which refuse capture. This gesture resulted in an erasure and flattening of my own chest to match the one I now have thanks to top-surgery. Movement and opacity better a masculine presentation that resonated with my gender expression. I developed the images as one would a traditional B&W photograph, though because the emulsion was hand painted, it was imperfectly coated, resulting in drips and saturation of the emulsion in certain areas. This thickened texture prevented the emulsion to completely fix, resulting in the browning of the images when exposed to light over time. This work presses against the value of photography’s grayscale with these drips of brown.

¡que rico! i just need you in the reel (2014) investigates my family’s displacements by tracing the relationships between absence and presence through morphing the digital, virtual realm into a more material experience by constructing physical elements that house the virtual via installation. This temporary, site-responsive work, which resists institutionalization through its temporality, took form through the building of a darkroom; hand-painting the museum wall with light sensitive silver-gelatin emulsion, where I again exposed and developed the coated surfaces. The video source footage depicts myself eating ice-cream with a life-sized cut out of my recently deceased grandmother, in which I repeat the phrase ¡que rico!. Like in auto-pecho, the image began to brown with the dismantling of the darkroom. Mounted beneath the painted photograph rests a wooden mantel displaying a collection of offerings from chosen family, blending the virtual with the tangible, and biological with non-biological kinship. Though the work is difficult to read, a history hinting to my process remained marked on the wall. The objects resting on the mantel blocked light during the exposure and marked shadows on the wall; remnants of discolored photo chemicals dripped down the surface of wall; and beneath the piece are boxes displaying my test exposures. The struggle that is a part of both the creation and the reading of these images are, in part, the performance of its meaning.

Edward Said wrote about the contrapuntal as a palimpsest of two things at once; the exile who embodies a plurality of place. Similarly, I exist within a multiplicity of borders, though now I refer to my own gender. I use Said’s image of the exile as a way to frame my trans identity within the larger diasporic narrative of my family. This took form in my installation Backstrokes: a movement across name, place and time (2016). Here, I cast the backs of friends who have a relationship to moving across borders—either by way of immigration or through gender expression. I then abstracted their body molds and cast them in concrete. Gloria Anzaldúa speaks of the sea as a place with no borders. The ideation of this piece coincided with the urgency of both historical and current Syrian migrant patterns. In this work, the sea is a space of becoming, but also a space of trauma and one that haunts my own family history. The assemblage of these sculptural body casts created a map of displacement across the concrete gallery floor, each back resisting, making their own wave in a sea of many. Paradoxically, each wave makes visible, their own dorsal withdrawal from markers of identity—they are genderless, they have no color, no classification.. Instead, their singularity renders each back differently contorted and aligned. These sculptures were accompanied by a mural print of my grandfather swimming in the ocean, a photograph of my grandfather and great aunt, both of whom embody markers of queerness, a letter written by my father addressed to me and a letter I wrote addressed to my many collaborators. This work operates as a matrix of indexical of interconnected subjects.

 

As my art practice evolves, so too does my interest exploiting supposed binaries of presence/absence, blurring the lines between the archive and the living, serious and playful, the individual and the collective. Moving forward in my practice, I am interested in further drawing out the relationship between diaspora and the transgender body through my working with my family archive. Combining both my family album with living biological kinship, I am interested in creating a new body of work that rather than maintain an archive defined by trauma, works toward speculative interpretations of what an archive can do.

© 2018 Andre Keichian

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