Seems cozy, right? Take a closer look — these GIFs actually depict a complicated queer anxiety
Going home to Barbados can be a complex experience for Alex Gibson, and his GIFs ripple with tension
Imagine you're home safe in bed, snuggling under the covers. Life couldn't be cozier, except for one soggy detail: there's water everywhere, and it's steadily engulfing your mattress.
On this week's CBC Arts: Exhibitionists, we'll be airing work by Alex Gibson, a Vancouver-based artist who's been replaying that scene over and over in a series of experimental animations, dreamy tableaux where men — sometimes alone, sometimes with a male partner — languish in half-submerged bedrooms and other intimate spaces.
Water, water everywhere
They're images that ripple with tension: restful scenes interrupted by inevitable disaster. And they're images that literally ripple, too. Gibson's GIFs are minimally animated. The figures don't move, but there's the sense that you're looking at a still image that's quaking — or "boiling," to use the industry term.
"I've been using water to represent a kind of anxiety, like queer anxiety," he explains. Born and raised in the Barbados, the artist moved to Vancouver right out of high school to attend Emily Carr University — and as a gay man, he says that going back to the Caribbean can feel a lot like one of these pictures. There's a paradoxical mix of comfort and discomfort that comes with being home.
What's it all about?
"Barbados, and the Caribbean in general, is a pretty homophobic and transphobic place," he says. "For me, going home when I do, I'm excited to be in that environment and see my family — but it's also like, I have to wear a different mask, essentially, and present myself differently and act differently. So it is a place that does create a lot of anxiety for me, even though I love it."
His decision to make animated images is one way that Gibson is trying to capture that complicated experience. "I was thinking about it conceptually," he explains. It takes multiple frames to make an animated GIF. "It's almost like a layering up of armour," he says. "I feel like that's something queer people have to do sometimes as a means of self-preservation. You're almost presenting these different layers of yourself to society depending on certain situations that you're in, to better protect yourself in a way."
But at the same time, he's drawing completely unguarded, intimate moments — men naked and at rest, or at home with a lover. "It's continually perpetuating queerness," he says of the work. "These layers, and these images, they're looping and being repeated to the viewer."
And to take that idea one step further, most of the GIFs are like pictures within pictures. He's thrown in references to queer male artists including David Hockney, Félix González Torres and David Wojnarowicz, for example. In one GIF, Hockney's "Portrait of an Artist" hangs on a bedroom wall. Another GIF features a couple mimicking a pose from the same artist's "The Beginning."
"It's this perpetual, ongoing queerness happening," he explains. "And that was something I found really interesting when I was making them."
Take a look.
Stream CBC Arts: Exhibitionists or catch it on CBC Television, Friday nights at 11:30 p.m. (midnight NT) and Sundays at 3:30 p.m. (4 NT).