This Queer World: Ursula Le Guin, art and sci-fi

The pioneering sci-fi of Ursula K Le Guin is the prompt for an ambitious new exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts; we talk to its curators, Eoin Dara and Kim McAleese

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 11 Dec 2019
  • Flora Moscovici, Le temps entre les pierres, 2019

This month a show that’s been years in the making opens in Dundee. Titled Seized by the Left Hand, it takes as its starting point the work of pioneering and visionary sci-fi writer Ursula K Le Guin. As a poignant context for this project, it was during the years of enthusiastic planning and ideas sharing between the curators Eoin Dara and Kim McAleese that Le Guin died. 

“The whole idea was to have her open the show, or do a reading during the run. If anything, her passing [brought increased interest in her work] as it always does, in a really brutal way, that attention is given to a female writer," say the curators. "It helped galvanise us to give the project the shape and speak about the artists we were interested in, who may or may not be connected to Le Guin’s writings explicitly but may have something interesting to say about the ideas that are thrown up.”

What has emerged from the years of development by Dara and McAleese? An ambitious international group exhibition and programme of events with a title that is taken from one Le Guin’s best known novels, The Left Hand of Darkness. In The Left Hand of Darkness, there is an intergalactic meeting of cultures. The novel begins with an arrival of a human character onto a planet whose climate is in permanent winter. Those who live there are not conventionally gendered, and are described as being covered in fur. As the narrative continues, the protagonist Genly Ai is drawn into complex political tensions, as well a relationship with one of the people there, drawing out insights into the operations of gender across all social and political relations.

For McAleese, this book was fundamental to gaining a detailed insight into the insidious operations of gender privilege. “It really helped me to understand the power dynamics when we’re talking about gender, how they completely govern our international world politics and how historically they have been so controlling.” For McAleese, the book was integral in “thinking about a different world in which politics are different, or things are shifting and how that really affects power structures and responsibilities. To be honest, it just made me completely think about gender in a remarkably different way."

Le Guin’s books often touch on political or ethical questions. While Le Guin was careful to maintain the agency of the story as her greatest priority, themes like gender in The Left Hand of Darkness, or the concept of anarchism (in the excellent 1974 utopian sci fi novel The Dispossessed) are made unapologetically apparent. Nevertheless, she describes her regret in making one particular novel from 1972 (The Word for World is Forest) too prosaic in its political intention. In the introduction to this work, she cautions against “the lure of the pulpit”, something she found particularly dangerous as a sci-fi writer “who deals more directly than most novelists with ideas, whose metaphors are shaped by or embody ideas, and who therefore is always in danger of inextricably confusing ideas with opinions.”

"Ursula K Le Guin made me think about gender in a remarkably different way" – Kim McAleese

It’s obvious in her own candid introductions to her works that Le Guin held herself to an exacting standard, and she was first to admit to her own mistakes. Dara speaks with respect about how Le Guin “unlike her contemporaries, updated her politics throughout her life, and revisited the idea of gender as it appears in the book. She wanted to have these conversations about her failings as a writer. And the show itself is designed to accommodate this kind of self-criticality. “It’s not intended to be some reverential fan worshipping of a text. The artist Tuesday Smillie is including exquisite painted work. However, she’s also including writing, a takedown of the book from a contemporary trans perspective.” In this, the artist proposes that “the presentation of gender is still deeply problematic.”

It was also not a prerequisite for any of the artists to have heard of, be interested in or to have read any works by Le Guin. The curators describe sending the book out to the artists, but without any sense of expectation that it would inform their contributions. The artists have been selected for many different reasons, a selection process intended to be faithful to wide-reaching interests that Le Guin’s work was able to address intelligently throughout her output. 

The show thus spans a film based in Skye, which constructs a 'queer fantasy' there. There is also a second outing for Promised Lands by Emma Wolukau Wanambwa (this work was featured last month when it was in Edinburgh at the Collective Gallery). Making a setting for all the works, the Paris-based painter Flora Moscovici will spend a couple of weeks painting the walls of the gallery, evoking or connecting to an idea of Gethen – the world in which The Left Hand of Darkness is set and which translates to 'winter.'

As a means of further complicating the literary beginnings of the show, Seized by the Left Hand exists across the gallery works, as well as a publication and series of performances and events. Dara and McAleese describe their intention to open a space for voices to come and have the opportunity to share radical ways of thinking. They mention one example, Harry Josephine Giles, who has written a “manifesto demanding wages for people who are transitioning." Giles highlights the fraught and unsafe reality for trans people after the postponement of the Gender Reform Act. Thinking of the myriad responses that have been assembled around Seized by the Left Hand, they are excited that while the project emerges from the wide-ranging thoughts of Le Guin, in many ways Le Guin’s work can be aligned with contemporary politics and forms of activism that Le Guin “wouldn’t have had an understanding of in Portland 50 years ago,” when The Left Hand of Darkness was first written.

Speaking of the intention of the show, Dara explains, “I think we’re really in an interesting moment right now and it’s been brought down upon us because of various intersecting crises, that we’re in because we haven’t been able to resist in the right ways up until now. Things like science-fiction and radical acts of imagination are deeply productive means through which to try and make sense of the world right now, because the world does not make sense anymore. We’re weirdly already in this queer space that’s not of our making.

"A lot of what Kim and I feed off in our respective practices, and the work we do together which is often bent in the most queer ways, is to learn from and champion artists, writers and performers that are engaged in that act of trying to craft alternative spaces or build different kinds of community and solidarity, that are moving into a place where we care for one another better, and have a space where there’s a multitude of politics, positions and identities that can sit and wallow together in difference as opposed to fit comfortably into any specific category.” 

Seized by the Left Hand opens in DCA 13 Dec, events from 6pm; exhibition continues until 22 Mar