issue 05: good night
Gericault De La Rose, Sleeping Aswang (2021). Prop wings, rhinestone gloves, bedazzled breast cups, prosthetic face mask, synthetic wig, and pillows. 3 x 3 x 4 feet. Exhibition view: Survey 2, Chicago Artists Coalition (19 March–28 April 2021). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Coda Kalma.
How do you undemonise women’s bodies? How can you hold restful spaces for representation? What happens when intersectional identities come into play? These are some of the questions that emerged from Sleeping Aswang, a durational performance by artist Gericault De La Rose. The performance was originally presented on 19 March 2021 as part of the group exhibition Survey 2 at the Chicago Artists Coalition, which featured new works by HATCH 2019–2020 artist residents, and was curated by the cohort’s curatorial residents: Juelle Daley, Stephanie Koch, and me.
In 2021, many experienced the feeling of time disappearing, creating a warped sense of reality devoid of all things linear and thrusting them into a state of stasis, quietude, and self-interrogation. Survey 2 was conceptualised as a collection of artworks birthed under these circumstances to rearticulate the fluidity of time and accept impermanence. The exhibition asked the HATCH resident artists to reflect on the distinct ways in which they relate to time, and how it is possible to manifest the connection between process and object, both enduring and ephemeral.1
Sleeping Aswang represents a critical historical revision to the colonial relationship between the United States and the Philippines. Through the lens of her trans Asian-American identity, De La Rose took on the appearance of a Manananggal, connecting this mythical creature used by Spanish colonisers to demonise women in the Philippines to the perception of queer and trans bodies as threatening in contemporary society.
In this durational performance, the artist slept in the gallery space dressed as a beautified Manananggal, assuming a non-threatening and vulnerable state. In a quiet act of self-affirmation and reclamation of space, De La Rose questioned the ways in which institutions historically exploit queer bodies of colour. Her performative resistance held space for the despised queer body, reposed in slumber. Afterwards, she left behind props from the performance—residues of its presence—as an installation in the exhibition space.
After the performance, as part of the exhibition programming, De La Rose and I decided to unpack the experience in a conversation that was filmed and distributed online. That conversation, transcribed here, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fabiola Tosi: I’m really happy that we took this time to talk about your performance. There is a lot that we can unpack here, especially right now. Before we go into the actual discussion, maybe we can revisit the concept around the exhibition. Why don't we start from how you got to this idea of Sleeping Aswang?
Gericault De La Rose: Sleeping Aswang came from my interest in Philippinx mythology and drag, and ways in which I can combine my drag and fine art practices. I had already dressed as a Manananggal for a drag performance, so I thought, why not incorporate this mythology into something more conceptual and refined? I was thinking about the demonisation of queer people and women in the Philippines, and how it stems from internalised Spanish colonisation.
There are modes of objectification and fetishisation that come with the intersection of being a trans woman, so that was where my head was at when I was conceptualising this piece. I was also thinking about institutional critique and how other performance artists have talked about it—I’m thinking about Rafa Esparza,2 and then I'm also thinking about Sleeping Hermaphroditus,3 another art historical reference in this piece. The Manananggal separates itself from its lower half and it's essentially a flying torso.
FT: Can you talk a little bit more about the mythology around it? I'm assuming not everyone will know about the history of these figures.
GDLR: The Manananggal is an Aswang from Philippinx mythology. Aswang is just a general term for monsters, but the Manananggal is specifically a vampire-like creature. By day, it is a beautiful woman; by night, it turns into a demon that eats unborn children. The really interesting part of it is the fact that it is a flying torso and it's detached from its reproductive organs. It is bare-chested sometimes and is stigmatised and demonised as a powerful woman—that’s ;how I interpret it.
There are more Aswangs in the Philippines, but I was focusing on this specific myth, given the history of the demonisation of women I'm trying to render: this myth, this stereotype, this kind of objectification turned into something harmless and vulnerable and also beautiful. I'm doing a Manananggal, but make it drag, make it beautiful, make it kind of ornate. Honestly I wish I had more control of the lighting because it would have been rustier.
FT: More dramatic.
GDLR: Yes, that's the kind of mood that I go for. People also thought I wasn’t a real person. I would toss and turn in the gallery, and people were like “WTF, is that real? Is that a real person?” It was really funny, I enjoyed a lot of the reactions. Vulnerability is something I have been thinking a lot about too, because of the history of spectacle—like the human zoos in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair4—that is embedded in perceptions of both the Filipinx-American and queer community. Now, a lot of the stable economies queer communities can participate in—cam shows, sex work, drag shows, stripping—are demonised and at the fringes of society. So I wanted to have this performance in which I could do nothing, but also say a lot of things.
Rest is something that is really important, because of how society tells me—and people like me—that I have to constantly labour to prove myself worthy, that rest is something secondary and not a priority. A lot of cultures, especially American and Asian cultures, consider burnout as a badge of honour, and I am trying to challenge that. I am trying to sleep in slumber, I am resting.
A lot of it is because I am literally tired of the discrimination, acts of violence, and murders that constantly happen to members of my community. I conceptualised this piece a long time before the most recent anti-Asian crimes started happening,5 and it was a coincidence that the week that I did this piece the Atlanta shooting happened.6 So I went into it with a lot of thoughts about how this over-sexualisation and fetishisation of Asian women is still a huge problem, and how it has manifested. The performance is meant to counteract that.
FT: When we first started talking about the performance, those episodes had not happened yet, but we had already talked about how this act of sleeping in the gallery was an act of reclaiming the possibility to sleep and feel safe in a public space, which, again, is not a given for everyone in our society. So what does it mean for you to be sleeping and also be vulnerable in the gallery?
GDLR: I was thinking about performance art in general, the politics of participation and audience engagement, and where the boundary is. I am here, sleeping, I am putting forward a lot of trust. Of course there is the layer of it being by appointment only, but people still came really close, observed me. It was really interesting.
FT: Especially the fact that, as you said, not everyone immediately thought you were a real person. I feel like that's also a byproduct of this time: assuming that if someone is in a public space—of course you are masked and everything—there is nobody else besides them. It’s the assumption that this is not a real person, this is not a real body; it cannot be, that is a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic.
GRLD: There are definitely parallels to that. Like, what does it mean for me to, I don't know, dress up? There's this act of literally putting myself on a pedestal but also conceptually not. It is this weird, awkward space that I'm occupying like a divine or mythological creature by inserting my own body in it. And I'm on a pedestal too. It's a really interesting way to navigate human beings—trying to deconstruct what it means to be a monster. It’s a very interesting place to be.
FT: The pedestal is also an interesting element, because if you think symbolically about the idea of a pedestal it feels like a point of elevation, but here it also becomes the repository of all the remnants of the performance.7 And I feel like this goes back to an idea that is present in your performances all the time—of ethnography and what it means to show certain elements in an anthropological museum context. The pedestal in a different context becomes not elevation but something else; it’s a false idea of elevation. Sometimes ethnographic institutions act as if they were elevating cultures when it is appropriation.
GDLR: It's not elevating; it’s making a spectacle of them. And the idea of spectacle is where it becomes problematic—when it's also forced. Objects in ethnographic museums once had utility. You see baskets, you see cups, you see musical instruments and sewing utensils—objects that are meant to be used. This is a society literally propped up and made to evoke this type of spectacle.
It is very reminiscent of the human zoos, and a lot of the World's Fairs. That's where the problematics come in and that's where I want to challenge what an artefact should be. As we said before, after a performance I like to leave behind artefacts that had a purpose during the performance but also are meant to be displayed afterwards. I really like the suggestion you had when we were talking about how I should install these objects. I was thinking of propping them up and having this powerful stand to hang the objects on, but then having everything resting and laid down had this kind of peacefulness to it. There’s not a lot of power to be evoked. There’s this neutral flatness to it.
FT: I guess we were using the term neutrality not in a negative sense, but in the sense of taking away that idea of monstrosity that is over-imposed on those figures, removing their ;scariness. Instead of having the body attached to a structure and looking alive, you notice that they are all just props. It neutralises the fear element.
GDLR: That's a good way to talk about the act of slumber of the beast: it neutralises the monstrous myth, the demonic myth.
FT: I want to talk a little bit about this idea of the demonisation of women's bodies, how it relates to attacks on the Asian community—specifically Asian women—and how the intersectionality of identities makes it even more difficult and problematic.
I was just thinking about how this idea of the demonisation of women's bodies is historically rooted in Christian, patriarchal, Western culture. If you think about Western literature and art, the female body is often made the centre of desire and sexualisation. But at the same time, religion considers it the sinful symbol of lust and sexuality. We could talk about this in so many differen ways, but in the end a woman’s body is always—and still today—considered the centre of sexual desire and the demonisation of that same desire. How does this kind of demonisation and the identity of an Asian woman intersect in problematic ways?
GDLR: I feel like I want to start with what you just described in the culture of objectification of women and lust. It always puts the crime on the woman instead of the responsibility on the men who kill and assault them. We live in a rape culture where a lot of these attitudes towards women’s bodies are countered by arguments that women shouldn't dress a certain way, or they shouldn't do certain things, all to prevent being assaulted. There’s never a conversation on how men should not turn around and look at women in a sexual way. Why are you sexualising women?
FT: And it's even the language that we use when we say “violence against women” that represents a passive way of indicating that the problem is within women. It is never “violence OF MEN against women.” We are taking the men out of the conversation and we are putting the focus and shame indirectly onto women.
GDLR: Our society doesn't hold men accountable. Point-blank. Period. And that's at the cost of the women that die every day at the hands of men’s violence. And then let's talk about the intersection of Asian women too. With our military occupation, and US soldiers going to Asian countries like Vietnam or Korea or the Philippines, certain stereotypes evolved: Asian women being submissive—they'll gladly be a sex worker for you to relieve your stress from being in the army, they're small and docile and are just so agreeable and so hospitable.
Those stereotypes compounded with white supremacy in the Atlanta shootings, where they were targeting not just Asian women but also massage parlours, because they suggest this stereotype of offering "extra services.” Not to knock on sex work at all, but again that is the kind of stereotype that lets people believe that if someone is a sex worker they can do anything to them.
The ramifications of US imperialism still exist within these countries. I would like to mention Jennifer Laude, a trans woman in the Philippines who was killed by a US soldier. Recently that soldier was found innocent of all charges,8 and Jennifer Laude has still received no justice. That says to the world that trans women are not deserving of the same rights and recognition as women in general, that we are disposable, that we are simply objects.
That really came into play when I was conceptualising this piece as well. How do I make people understand that I am also deserving of respect, deserving of human rights and basic human decency? That’s where I'm coming from.
FT: I feel like it's such a complex topic, that it's hard to tackle it from just one side. I often think about people who say—and I've heard this repeated over and over again recently—that feminism should not be a thing anymore. Or that it’s just something from the ’70s.
A few weeks ago I was listening to a speech from a female Italian journalist who was saying that when she was younger, in the ’70s, women had to fight for their rights, and us young women now should be thankful because we were “given” those rights.9 She went on, arguing that it's true that we will have to fight for an equality that still does not exist, but we have an easier life now.
That's a very common narrative, to think that women’s struggle today is less than what it was in the ’70s. I do think it's different, for sure, but I don't think it is any less. The moment in which we say that we have some rights, we have some equality, and we should be thankful for that, is when we start losing focus. We are not there yet—we don’t have equality—we still need feminist voices in our lives, in the lives of young kids and teenagers. We can’t sell them a world in which feminism doesn’t need to exist anymore.
GDLR: It's gaslighting to say “you got crumbs and we don't need feminism anymore.” But also I want to point out that when we talk about women's rights in the feminist movement, a lot of them stopped at white women, and you don't see a lot the same rights given to women of colour until much later.
When you take race and also sexual orientation and queerness into consideration, you see that trans women don't have any rights. A lot of black women still are not considered on the same level as white women, same thing with Asian women across the world. There’s still violence against women everywhere.
The idea that in our little country that is developed or whatever, women have rights now and they don't have to fight for them anymore doesn’t consider the world in its interconnected entirety. What happens on a global level filters into actions against societies that exist within Western countries.
I think we should also shift the idea of fighting for equality into fighting for liberation. I’m not fighting to be equal to a man and for the possibility of using his privilege to oppress others. I’m fighting to completely abolish all types of hierarchies. I want rights, but I also want everyone to have rights and not be constantly exploited because of where they live or who they are. Liberation: that's what I’m fighting for.
FT: That's a beautiful concept. And again, considering how much of the feminist process is based on gaining independence from the male figure, I think the concept of liberation suits it and summarises it perfectly. What you were just saying about having to consider all the different identities and the issues that come on top of just being women, that's extremely important. And I think that fighting with intersectionality in mind should be the characteristic of the feminist movement today, versus what we have seen historically happening.
GDLR: I've been thinking about this too: what is the point of art? What is the point in this action? What am I doing as an artist by taking on these demonstrative performances? Do my actions really help change the material conditions of the people that I'm trying to advocate for? That’s something that is really on my mind when I go on with these performances. And my thing is, I don't know.
I hope it doesn't sound like a cop-out, but why is the responsibility of changing the world put on the people who are most susceptible to the violence of it? Why is the responsibility of improving a society placed so heavily on an artist when in reality it should be the policy-makers that pressure for change in the material conditions of the least privileged among us. It should come from the people to the people.
My role as an artist is to direct attention to these conditions and these problems, and to advocate action and direction to the people who should be making these changes.
2 Rafa Esparza is a multi-disciplinary contemporary artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. His work is mainly inspired by his direct relationship with colonisation, analysed through personal and historical narratives. In 2019, Esparza performed bust: indestructible columns in Washington, DC. For this performance, his lower body was enclosed in a pedestal, showing only his bust. The artist then chiselled his way out for hours, as a commentary on governmental structures and white supremacy. For more information, see Raquel Gutiérrez, “Performing Across from the White House, Artist Rafa Esparza Chips Away at the Myths of Democracy,” ARTnews, 27 September 2019.
3 Sleeping Hermaphroditus is an ancient marble sculpture by an unknown artist, discovered in the early 17th century. The statue now lies on a marble mattress sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1620, and is part of the Louvre collection in Paris. For more information, see “statue; Hermaphrodite endormi,” Louvre Collections, accessed 15 November 2021.
4 The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was an international exhibition hosted in Missouri, meant to promote products and industry while also providing entertainment. Among the many displays, one of the “living exhibits” recreated Filipinx villages. The 47-acre area housed more than 1,000 Filipinx from different tribes. “Human Zoos: A Shocking History of Shame and Exploitation,” CBC, accessed 15 November 2021.
6 In March 2021, following the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States, a series of shootings was reported in the Atlanta area at three spa and massage parlours. Eight people were killed, six of whom were of Asian descent. For more information, read Annika Kim Constantino, “Atlanta spa shooter who targeted Asian women pleads guilty to four of eight murders,” CNBC, 27 July 2021.
7 At the end of the performance Sleeping Aswang on 19 March 2021, the artist created an installation with the props representing the Manananggal. The installation remained on display for the duration of the exhibition. The props were laid on the existing pedestal and included: prop wings, rhinestone gloves, bedazzled breast cups, a prosthetic face mask, and a synthetic wig.
8 Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton was originally convicted for the murder of Jennifer Laude with a ten-year sentence. He was then released in 2020 for good behaviour and pardoned by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. “Jennifer Laude case: Duterte pardons US marine over transgender killing,” BBC, 8 September 2020.
9 Barbara Palombelli is an Italian journalist and TV host. She delivered the described monologue at the 2021 edition of the Italian song contest Sanremo. “Il monologo di Barbara Palombelli sulle donne,” RaiPlay, 5 March 2021.