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Date: 2018-07-31 07:18:05
Le Chevalier d’Éon

Nil Yalter

Le Chevalier d’Éon

Born in 1938, Yalter moved to Paris in 1965. She was active in the women’s movement that materialized in France after May 1968. Le Chevalier d’Éon emerged from the artist’s relationship with a man who, while he was involved with her, decided that he would prefer to live his life as a woman. He gave Yalter a biography of Charles d’Éon de Beaumont (1728–1810), commonly known as the Chevalier d’Éon, a French diplomat, soldier, and spy whose gender was considered highly ambiguous by his contemporaries—he was rumored to be a woman in the earlier part of his life, then began to dress and present as female in his late forties while continuing to pursue “masculine” activities such as fencing. Yalter’s subject (whose identity she has not revealed) decided to transform himself into the chevalier in front of the camera, in a kind of heightened dramatization of gender transition, and asked her to document the process.

The video begins with a twinned shot of a man looking us straight in the eyes. He is masculine, wears glasses, has a slight double chin. Yalter was unable to create a split-screen effect with the equipment she had, so she used a mirror. This doubling is an iteration of the work’s key gesture: the fracturing and multiplication of the image, and, by extension, the self, across genders, across screens. As we contemplate the bespectacled man, a melodramatic orchestral composition by Domenico Scarlatti envelops us. Suddenly, the man before us is topless, and we see that he has breasts. He dons large teardrop earrings. His hair has grown longer—he is transforming before our eyes, one hairstyle melding into another, one gender into another. This is not a conventionally pretty woman, but we can tell from her movements that she aspires to be a Hollywood starlet, a Mia Farrow–type gamine perhaps. Yet there is a certain frankness to her androgyny, a seeming freedom and comfort with those details that don’t conform to normative standards of feminine beauty.

The woman puts on fishnet stockings. Now she looks austere, even matriarchal—a “Gertrude Stein kind of lady,” as Yalter put it, smart and sophisticated. She is posing for us—for Yalter. There is an unsettling ambiguity as to whose gaze is being courted here, an uncertainty as to how objectification, desire, and agency are intersecting. Is Yalter, a heterosexual woman, still enamored of this figure?

As soon as we ourselves begin to feel beguiled by the flirting subject, the image dissipates. The video is in fact structured as a series of dissolving vignettes. In the second chapter, our protagonist again appears as male. He is playing with a fur scarf—actually, devouring it. A TV screen sits next to him on a table, the scene we’ve just witnessed playing on it. Is this an act of self-examination or self-surveillance? In subsequent vignettes, the man begins to undress; he caresses the monitor. Images start to refract and double, proliferating rapidly. Now there are more than a dozen monitors, all spitting out the same image—of a vamping, androgynous siren—as if we were looking at a department-store display as the TVs are commandeered for a liberating, sensuous intervention.


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