Exhibition: Orlando

Mickalene Thomas (born 1971, Camden, NJ; active Brooklyn, NY), Untitled #2 (Orlando Series), Orlando, 2019. Archival pigment print. Styled by Paris Warren and produced by ROOT STUDIOS. Courtesy of the artist. ©Mickalene ThomasWhile the new building is under construction, the Museum plans to open a new photography-forward gallery space in downtown Princeton. Together with Art@Bainbridge, this temporary venue will play a vital role in welcoming the community and the campus to experience the transformative power of art.

The inaugural exhibition, Orlando, is curated by Tilda Swinton and is inspired by the themes of Virginia Woolf’s revolutionary and lyrical novel Orlando: A Biography (1928), which tells the story of a young aristocrat in Elizabethan England who lives for three centuries without aging and who mysteriously changes gender along the way. In 1992 the filmmaker Sally Potter released a now-classic adaptation of the book with Tilda Swinton in the starring role as Orlando. Since then, Woolf’s tale has continued to hold sway over Swinton, who describes the book’s ability “to change like a magic mirror. Where I once assumed it was a book about eternal youth, I now see it as a book about growing up, about learning to live.”

Sally Potter (born 1949, London; active London), Preproduction image for the film Orlando, 1988. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist. © Sally Potter “Woolf wrote Orlando,” Swinton noted, “in an attitude of celebration of the oscillating nature of existence. She believed the creative mind to be androgynous. I have come to see Orlando far less as being about gender than about the flexibility of the fully awake and sensate spirit.”

Swinton invited photographers with innovative and varied practices to create or gather work expressly inspired by Orlando. The resulting exhibition features more than fifty photographs by eleven artists—including portraits by Mickalene Thomas, layered images by Carmen Winant, and fragmented figural studies by Paul Mpagi Sepuya—and summons Woolf’s central themes of gender fluidity, creativity, curiosity, openness, and human possibility. In her Orlando-inspired portraits, Thomas draws on the portrayal of a muse-like relationship between Queen Elizabeth I (memorably played in Potter’s film by the pathbreaking performer Quentin Crisp) and Orlando, as well as on iconic nineteenth-century paintings by Édouard Manet and Paul Gauguin, to imagine gender-crossing heroines as muses for the twenty-first century. Jamal Nxedlana, fascinated by the intersections of fashion and street culture in Johannesburg, photographed the South African artistic duo Fela Gucci and Desire Marea styled in looks that transcend gender, race, and class binaries using uncategorized clothing, makeup, and hairstyles.

Jamal Nxedlana (born 1985, Durban, South Africa; active Johannesburg), FAKA Portrait, 2019. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist. © Jamal NxedlanaSally Potter’s own photographs also feature in the exhibition. The director spent several years in the 1980s trying unsuccessfully to finance an adaptation of Woolf’s novel. Then she had an idea to take photographs that looked as though the film had already been made. Costumes in hand, Potter and Swinton set out for Knole, the fourteenth-century estate in southeast England on which the writer Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover and the inspiration for Orlando, grew up. “There was an excited complicity between us, Potter recalled. “I held my loved and modest Nikon close to my eyes as it whirred and clocked, holding Tilda’s translucent face in my frame, watching her become—yes, there he was, and there she was, my Orlando.”

The works in the exhibition embody and extend the visionary spirit of the novel and film to explore, in Swinton’s words, “the wider territories of identity, of dream, of heredity, of consciousness, of memory, of history, of fantasy, of the limitations of mortality, of life itself.”

Orlando is organized by Aperture, New York, and guest curated by Tilda Swinton.

Orlando is made possible, in part, with the support of Slobodan Randjelović and Jon Stryker. Aperture also thanks ROOT STUDIOS for supporting the production of Mickalene Thomas’s work.

Support for the Museum’s new gallery space, inaugurated by Orlando, is made possible by the leadership support of Annette Merle-Smith and by Princeton University. Additional generous support is provided by John Diekman, Class of 1965, and Susan Diekman; William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher; J. Bryan King, Class of 1993; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Jim and Valerie McKinney; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; H. Vincent Poor, Graduate Class of 1977; and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts.