Melbourne

Alex Cuffe, When the anaesthetic wore off the lights were so bright . . . the only thing they could offer was this washcloth . . . I woke up screaming . . . all they could offer was this washcloth . . . the first words I remember were addressed to a body of a different gender . . . I held the nurses hand smiling while my first words were to correct her . . . and all I have left is a washcloth that will never be clean, 2019, cotton cloth, hair dye, 17 3/4 × 13 3/4".

Alex Cuffe, When the anaesthetic wore off the lights were so bright . . . the only thing they could offer was this washcloth . . . I woke up screaming . . . all they could offer was this washcloth . . . the first words I remember were addressed to a body of a different gender . . . I held the nurses hand smiling while my first words were to correct her . . . and all I have left is a washcloth that will never be clean, 2019, cotton cloth, hair dye, 17 3/4 × 13 3/4".

Alex Cuffe

TCB Art Inc.

Crying selfies are frequently derided by those who cannot reconcile genuine grief with the broadcast culture of social media. For them, a crying selfie, like a “sleeping” selfie, reveals only its own disingenuity. Performative happiness is tolerable, but performative grief is suspect. Ambivalent to this binary pairing, “Love is the Length of her Hair” pivoted around an archive of crying selfies that Alex Cuffe has taken over the past five years, the period of time that encompasses her gender transition. She selected forty-three of these camera-phone photographs and had them digitally printed on cheap white T-shirts, which were displayed dangling from black-plastic coat hangers on a clothes rack in the gallery. Viewers were invited to thumb through the T-shirts and even purchase one such token of her sorrow.

As affect theorist Ann Cvetkovich has suggested, depression and related states of being need not necessarily be ascribed to an individual; they can also be productively framed as epidemics that impact and, in many instances, numb or neutralize entire communities. Indeed, depression may be figured as a broad physical and psychological response to local histories of violence and oppression stemming from forces such as racism or colonialism, manifesting as a “state of low-level chronic grief.” As a trans woman living under heteropatriarchy, Cuffe with her crying selfies makes this chronic grief visible, shareable, and consumable. The difference and repetition of the selfies testify to the continuity of her sadness through time. Her hair, which is such a charged marker of trans identity, being so closely connected to “passing,” grows and changes in style and color between each of the carefully framed shots, while the backdrops morph and the lighting shifts as across a sundial. In the accumulation of photographs on mass-produced T-shirts, Cuffe positions her grief as a public site. Like band T-shirts that act as flags for fans, her T-shirts harbor the potential for community formation against the sovereignty of individualism that governs aspects of mainstream social media use, and against the medico-pharmaceutical pathologization of depression.

But the AU$50 price tag per T-shirt, with all funds pledged to Indigenous Australian families affected by deaths in custody, short-circuits any simplistic recuperations of trauma into narratives of hope, positivity, or resilience that would symbolize the overcoming of oppression. Her grief is a form of practice, even a kind of vocation, and is comparable with earlier durational photographic series, such as Laurel Nakadate’s 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2010. The financial transaction draws Cuffe’s work into the orbit of network-based image projects that hinge on the commodification of the self, notably Amalia Ulman’s Instagram performance Excellences & Perfections, 2014. Cuffe’s work does not actively construct alternative identities like Ulman’s, but neither does it fix the contours of the self. The opposite is true.

While flicking through the T-shirts, we inhaled a substance released into the air of the gallery through a scented-oil diffuser: oxytocin, the hormone that induces trust and strengthens attachment between humans. It is often administered to people during labor to assist with aspects of childbirth. Beyond engendering relations, the very act of inhaling served to remind us that, at a brute material level, our bodies are already connected. We breathe each other in daily.

The exhibition also included a pair of what the artist called “burdened objects with all this emotional weight to them.” One was her wedding ring from an engagement that (the lengthy narrative-sketching artwork titles informed us) was abandoned two days before the marriage ceremony. The other was a washcloth from the hospital where the artist undertook gender-affirmation surgery in 2019. The once bleach-white cloth is imprinted with pastel peach stains; they read as foundation that has rubbed off a face, but the materials list indicated hair dye. This cloth offered a completely different registration of the self as compared with the rectangular-cropped selfies. Sweat, oil, makeup, tears—liquids that foreground the leakiness of the body and eventually exist independently in the world as particulate matter—are part of what writer Daisy Hildyard calls our second body, that which doesn’t stop at the skin but instead intermingles with all manner of micro and macro bodies through the consumption of plants, animals, energy, water, and air.