Michelle Handelman: These Unruly and Ungovernable Selves

28 May 2020 – 17 Jun 2020

Regular hours

11:00 – 18:00
11:00 – 18:00
11:00 – 18:00
11:00 – 18:00
11:00 – 18:00

signs and symbols

New York
New York, United States


Save Event: Michelle Handelman: These Unruly and Ungovernable Selves

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signs and symbols is pleased to present These Unruly and Ungovernable Selves, a video exhibition by Michelle Handelman as part of the gallery’s series of online-only solo presentations of video works.


signs and symbols is pleased to present These Unruly and Ungovernable Selves, a video exhibition by Michelle Handelman as part of the gallery’s series of online-only solo presentations of video works.  

These Unruly and Ungovernable Selves is a new video work by Michelle Handelman that recontextualizes characters from her previous works into a hypnotic visual essay about the transfiguring of interiority during periods of isolation and fear. These Unruly and Ungovernable Selves takes as its starting point the current coronavirus pandemic and filters it through Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project and his idea that "the threshold must be carefully distinguished from the boundary." Handelman's characters, who have already struggled with existential questions of belonging and fear in her projects Dorian, A Cinematic Perfume, Irma Vep, The Last Breath and Hustlers & Empires, are collaged with found images and texts to take on a new form as they cross the threshold into a multiverse that (struggles with) and denies containment.

Handelman writes: “While in lockdown I’ve been thinking about spaces of containment and agency, the agitated state where inertia rubs up against desire, the fear of an unseen invader. When we find ourselves cut off from all that forms our identity, then who are we? And how do we transfigure interiority during periods of isolation and fear. As my dear friend and trans activist Zackary Drucker says, “When you hit a wall, when all you see are walls, shift your plane of gravity and make it the floor.”

“For the past twenty years, I’ve built worlds of queer dystopias populated with characters that continue to live, to struggle, and communicate, outside my control. So, as I’ve been checking in with old friends, I wanted to check in with them to see how they’re surviving isolation, because somewhere behind the mythical curtain these characters speak to one another, in a dimension beyond the threshold.

For These Unruly and Ungovernable Selves, I selected characters from Dorian, A Cinematic Perfume (2009/12), Irma Vep, The Last Breath (2013/15) and Hustlers & Empires (2018/20) all lengthy, multiscreen narratives that look at transgression as both a form of transcendence and survival. I’ve put them in a new world of found text and images I’ve been devouring since the start of the pandemic.

“I’ve been thinking about theorist Jill Casid’s writings on the necrocene, and my own thoughts on how bioterrorism may not only be an intentional release of viruses (bacteria or germs), but it may also be what lives inside, our own fear that late stage capitalism uses to destroy us. Casid writes, “May none of us rest as we live our dying. May we not forget but actually do the work of reckoning with the still uncounted, of the crimes of the endless war we are still in.” I am so tired right now. But this “moment of a pause” is really a deflection before we escalate the battle against what Casid calls, “heteropatriarchal racist capitalism.”

“With These Unruly and Ungovernable Selves, I wanted to make a piece that speaks to the discomfort of unknowing. What is the difference between the threshold and the boundary? Once boredom becomes a choice, the space to transcend fear and make new meaning appears. When I checked in on my characters I really wanted to see that they were free, outside the threshold, breaking up into molecules and dancing with stars. But they all told me that they still need more time– they’re still struggling with containment.”

*Please note that Handelman’s video will be viewable online at www.signsandsymbols.art from Thursday, May 28 at 6pm until Wednesday, June 10 at 6pm. Following the end of the exhibition, the video will only be accessible via private link and password. We trust that given our current circumstances, everyone will act in good faith and good will, understanding that these are primary artworks by our artists that are collected and which would otherwise be password protected.

michelle handelman uses video, text and performance to make hypnotic moving image installations that push against the boundaries of gender, race and sexuality, investigating philosophical questions of existence about the things we collectively fear and deny: sex, death, chaos. She is a 2019 Creative Capital Awardee and the recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work has been shown widely in such venues as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Pompidou Centre, Paris; ICA, London; Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum; PERFORMA, Guangzhou 53 Art Museum, China; PARTICIPANT, INC, NYC; Lincoln Center; REDCAT, The Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, and The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art. Recent shows include Hustlers & Empires, a commission with SFMOMA (2018), ​ Irma Vep, The Last Breath​, featuring Zackary Drucker  (TRANSPARENT) and Flawless Sabrina (THE QUEEN); Marking Time: 50 Years of Video Art​, curated by Michael Rush, Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum (2015); and ​Irreverent​, curated by Jennifer Tyburzcy, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York (2015). Her work Beware The Lily Law​, a moving image installation on transgender inmates, has been on permanent display at the Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia since 2011 and was featured in the upcoming exhibition ​Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the American Justice System​, curated by Risa Puleo, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2019).

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Mitra Khorasheh

Exhibiting artists

Michelle Handelman


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