The discussion of identity is seemingly eternal. Identity issues stretch beyond age, nationality, gender, sexuality and also the commonly observed existential crisis in the postmodernist age. Hegel’s philosophical interpretation of the sub-conscious could help unveil the complex layers of the meaning of identity though, as he suggested that our existence is affirmed through others' gaze.
In his book, What about Me? (2012), the Belgian clinical psychologist, Paul Verhaeghe, furthered this, fusing Hegel's theory with Freud's concepts of Eros (life instinct) and Thanatos (death drive) to define identity as the power struggle between assimilating social norms whilst also differentiating from it to establish distance.
In layman terms, either falling apart completely or merging indistinctively with mainstream values amplifies the sense of insecurity that challenges our perception of self-identity.
Our identities have become even harder to cement today as social expectations in contemporary times are in constant flux. There are less definite meanings on fixed terms, shattering the solid cornerstone of collective norms and liberating the extent and the depth of related discussions. Yet some optimism is looming as we see diversity being celebrated with a growing awareness of equality. Rainbow flags hanging outside properties are a recurring scene, and have become an emblem of freedom.
While the Tate Britain elaborated on the term 'queer' in the introduction of its current exhibition, Queer British Art 1861-1967, as 'to avoid imposing more specific identity labels', the representational letter 'Q' is evolving to be better interpreted as the more neutral 'questioning' within the ferment of the times. However, the solemn and almost suffocating atmosphere that lingers in the rooms of the show implies that the road had been turbulent and intricate.
This exhibition is not just a light-hearted social media check-in. Rather, it is a tribute to the martyrs whose audacity and tenacity have liberated the pluralistic desires that we almost take for granted today.
The majority of the exhibited works are paintings and photographs, which confront desire, elusive sexuality, and gender identity explicitly, in fitting with the work of the period. The most popular approach was the overt depiction of characters engaged in queer experiences, such as Oscar Wilde.
Occasionally, the ambiguity of sexual desire was shrouded in the eccentric paintings of ancient Greece and the European Renaissance, or in staged theatrical photography.
The loose chronology of the exhibition is accompanied by an explicit change of lighting from a poignantly dark tinge to glowing warmth, running parallel with an increasingly narrative artistic expression. The exhibition gradually progresses to the metaphorical illustrations of feminist
interiors in the works of Ethel Sauds, and the more audacious self-portrait by Laura Knight. In this she depicts herself as a life-drawing artist at a time when female artists were banned from such act, challenging openly both gender norms and social restrictions.
Yet, one cannot help but imagine that this preferred upfront approach was in fact a retreat from the mental exhaustion of the artists who suffered real-life oppression. While the academy started accepting radical works like these at a relatively early age - dating back to the1850s - the show does not leave out the searing predicament of most queer artists, whose freedom and fame were sacrificed by the accusation of sexual obscenity.
Queer British Art 1861-1967 is an exhibition that is much more than aesthetic portraiture. The real gems of the show lie in the stories these pieces tell, and the resilience of the community they symbolise. Spanning across eight rooms, the show can be easily navigated in a handful of hours. Yet the commitment it leaves us with is much longer lasting - to carry on the passage of the thorny rose, and to make whatever is seen as 'queer' no longer ‘queer’.