The photographer considers the complexities of gender and the transformation of the body, drawing on their Muy Thai training and study of the queer community
“What would it mean to just start over?” Elle Pérez reflects. “What would it mean to go somewhere else?” The New York-based artist has been ruminating on this sentiment. We’ve come to know Pérez primarily as a portraitist, one that constellates multiple aspects of queer life to evoke a utopia and honour the history of a community that sufferers mass erasure. In a new exhibition, titled Devotions, that recently opened at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburg and running until 22 August 2021, Pérez blends landscapes, still lifes and portraiture in a complex and personal exploration of intimacy and notions of transition. The body of work seeks out moments of transcendence in the alchemy of everyday life.
The exhibition has two beginnings. The first is rooted in Pérez’s Muay Thai training, a community they have been actively invested in since 2018. “I’m interested in the intimacy between maintained bodies,” Pérez explains. “With fighting, you’re always in a perpetual cycle of transformation. We’re always navigating new challenges. The act of becoming is a throughline in the work, mirroring what I’ve been experiencing with my body and hormones.” Pérez modulates testosterone, “to change the landscape of my mind – not modify my personal appearance.”
Their practice is rooted in the complexities of gender, queer life and the ever-changing nature of identity. “There is never an endpoint with the body or with a transition. There’s always a kind of maintenance of it. I’d been thinking about how these things could be metaphors for each other, and it opened up a possibility for new work.” Just as Pérez was about to begin shooting, the pandemic curtailed their efforts and rerouted the work in ways that most artists would find frustrating. Still, Pérez leaned into it with energy and possibility. “I like to be responsive. For me, that’s been a really productive space because I can learn something from the work, or it sends me in directions that I could have never anticipated. That gets really exciting.”
Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.