September 04, 2003

The Silver Man Performs by the Sea

The whole Gay and Lesbian Retirement Community thing has been taking all my time, dear journal. I’ll keep you informed as my research on the subject progresses. Meanwhile, I’m changing the subject back to me as an artist...

During the 1950’s I also went to Rehoboth Beach and performed in foil on many occasions. One day in late summer 1956, was the most memorable for me. The photographs created that day record the large waves generated by a tropical storm far out in the Atlantic. I built a pyramid complex in the sand, making four large step pyramids, and several smaller ones as well. Some of these had columns on top, and I used soup cans to mold the columns. Each of the large pyramids was about four feet tall, and they were oriented on an axis that went from North to South along the beach with ramps leading from one to another. I donned my foil suit and asked nearby sun-bathers to take photographs. Several refused, but amazingly, two agreed and were enthusiastic photographers. They followed my directions carefully, though they avoided expressing curiosity as to the purpose of my foil performance. We shot the photographs from several different directions, capturing large crashing waves in the background and the temple complex with me seated in the foreground. Two little boys had many questions, but their mother told them to stop bothering me. I also met a group of young men from Washington D.C. because of this performance. They had marked their beach territory with antique silk scarves that flew from bamboo poles. They wanted to know all the particulars concerning my performance, and they suggested that I should visit them in Washington D.C.

I did not bring Rebecca or the children to the beach for these performances because I knew they would be embarrassed by the attention the silver man sometimes attracted. Once again, it is the adult Ruth who has decided in retrospect that these performances are upsetting. And, she doesn’t care to know why I did the performances.

The silver man photographs demonstrate visually my limp-wristed performance and I hope to get them on line soon. In 1956, the foil man was a parody of feminine behavior, though ironically because of the reflective power of the foil he cannot be sexed. In these early years of the new millennium my performance of the foil man would be labeled by heterosexists (including gay persons with internalized homophobia) as “effeminate.” However, Judith Butler demonstrates the inadequacy of such cross-gendered labels in her books, Bodies That Matter, 1993, and Gender Trouble, 1990. She discusses the “performance” of sexuality and its limitations, and she claims that sexuality and gender are personal traits acquired from the culture in which one lives, the result of a process over which neither the individual nor society has much control. Rather, normative behaviors accumulate through a process described by Michele Foucault and others in which institutions and discourses acquire the power to prescribe normative human behaviors over time. Thus, according to Butler, feminine, or masculine behavior behavior, is like a surface patina acquired from the culture. Neither is necessarily the prerogative of either sex. Rather, they are prescriptions for behavior that is taught to one sex. If a person of the other sex adopts that prescription as his own, his behavior is seen as transgressive, or in this case “effeminate.” Of course, in 1954 I had not thought all this out so carefully. Judith Butler’s books did not exist. The silver man was to an extent an instinctual performance. I knew that he was made of shiny material and so he reflected back that with which he was surrounded. In a way he was not present, as I sometimes felt I was not present. It seemed to me that I played a part in my day to day life. I even had dreams in which I performed my family and work activities in various disguises. In one of these odd phantasms I was dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume with huge floppy ears that I kept straight with sticks held in both right and left hands.

The silver man is not a temporal being. He is my image/portrayal of a universal phantom, one who reflects the time, place, and culture in which he happens to be performing.

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