Aaron Webster. Matthew Shepard. The murders that cut short the lives of these gay men have been seared into the collective memory of Canadians and Americans.
On November 17, 2001, the 41-year-old Webster was fatally beaten by four attackers near a cruising area of Stanley Park. This happened just three years after the murder of Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was 21 when he was beaten and left tied to a remote fence post on the night of October 6, 1998, succumbing to head injuries six days later. These were heinous, incomprehensible acts of violence, motivated by fear and ignorance. And as an ongoing project by local artist Mary Taylor makes shockingly clear, they were not isolated events.
Over the past six and a half years, Taylor has painstakingly tracked the murders of homosexuals and transgendered individuals in North America, incorporating their horrific stories into Homophobia Kills, a disturbing, yet compelling, multimedia artwork on show at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre.
The piece is being presented, along with 25 others, in Gender Twist, a juried show that opens Thursday (July 24) and runs until August 10 as part of the Pride in Art Festival 2008. (The festival, which runs the same dates, also offers theatre, music, and social events, including an August 3 celebration of Oscar Wilde and an August 7 retrospective of work by local composer Rodney Sharman; for info, visit www.prideinart.ca/.)
Taylor’s work consists of four perforated metal panels on which are hung replicas of murder weapons, cast in black plastic from real objects. To these items are affixed laminated “murder tags” the size of business cards; each card represents a victim killed with that weapon, and lists in point form, where possible, the deceased’s name and age, the location and method of their killing, the names and ages of the perpetrators, the charges laid, and the outcome of the murder trial.
Projected onto the wall in between the panels are chilling words and phrases uttered by the alleged or convicted murderers, culled from court documents: “Jesus does not want these people in heaven”; “I swear, if it’s a man, I’ll kill him”; “I’m not a homo. That’s why I killed him”; “Gay people deserve to die”; “You turned my sister gay.”
The effect is shocking, but also clinical; the black objects—which range from a hammer, rock, and pistol to a dog collar and syringe—are coolly arranged in an orderly, aesthetically pleasing fashion.
“A lot of my work has an attraction-repulsion dynamic,” concedes Taylor, 46, a surprisingly upbeat blonde, during a visit to her large East Side studio. “With art, you need the viewer to engage and move towards it. The weapons, they’re very pretty, they’re very sexy, they’re a very high buff.”¦People will come up, especially young guys—”˜Oh, cool! Guns!’—and it will suck them into the piece.”¦And then there’s the words ”˜Oh, my God, I can’t believe someone said that!’ But they did.”
To date, Taylor says, she has spent thousands of hours researching more than 250 victims, about 70 of whom are represented in the work’s current form. Viewers are invited to interact with the piece, to read the tags, touch the objects, and ponder the stories of such victims as Diane Whipple, a 33-year-old lacrosse coach in San Francisco who was mauled to death by dogs in 2001; Adam Bishop, an 18-year-old in Philadelphia who was killed by his 14-year-old brother in 2002; and Steen Fenrich, a 19-year-old African-American man living in New York who was dismembered by his stepfather, and whose remains, when found, included a bleached skull scrawled with the words gay nigger number one.
As the work continues to grow, observes Taylor, “The tags start to tell a story.”¦In the murder of lesbians, there tends to be more use of knives and ropes, because they [the attackers] want to physically engage. They want to get close.”¦They don’t want to really touch the gay men; baseball bats and clubs and hammers and boy things, gender-based kinds of tools, were used to kill men.”
Public reaction to the work, which was shown in 2004 as a student project at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has ranged from anger to tears and, unbelievably, laughter, Taylor says.
“The whole litany of emotions has come out of it.”¦The interaction of the viewer with the piece and of different viewers with each other is the most interesting.” As for her own experience, Taylor reflects: “It’s been emotional over the years working on it, because it’s personal. I know people who have been beaten within an inch of their life.”
Homophobia Kills will expand as time goes on, a memorial to the victims whose only crime was that they were, or were alleged to be, gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transsexual.
“I feel quite close to each victim,” Taylor says, “but then there’s this moment of closure as I finish one victim, and I make the weapon and I make their tag and I put it up, and then I feel like I did something, right? Like, ”˜You’re there and you won’t be forgotten.’ ”