Disability is iconic. Used across the ages as the narrative device in nearly-universal storytelling. Disfigurement to represent evil. Weakened mobility to represent spiritual or mental purity and innocence. Blindness for ignorance or psychic perception. Disability as a punishment for sin, as a catalyst for the saving of an abled bodied person’s soul from the clutches of ungrateful self-pity. As evidence of God and ‘his’ miracles when it is healed. Disability-as-teacher as an entire town learns compassion or kindness. Disability as a source of unqualified inspiration. Bad representation hurts. But it also betrays the weak imagination that creates it. The image itself, retains an innate integrity, waiting for something stronger and clearer to charge it.
Recently, Jenna began texting me art. First, a painting with electric splashes of colour, then a sketch, a watercolour, digital work, more sketches. Each one by the hand of a different artist and in a different style of art, commissioned carefully and directed with deft nuance by Jenna. While they were all vastly different pieces from each other, different moods, vibes, meanings, they all had one thing in common —it was all me.
There was me as a badass, me refracting into a beam of light, me as a cyborg. There were also a series of what ifs. What if the wheels of your chair were *actually* crowns? what if you were *actually* a mermaid? What if your chair really *did* grow flowers from it’s spokes? Fantasies and visions that I had intimated in my instagram feed, turned literal.
I recognized my selfies as the inspiration for some of them. But others were only the familiar contours of my face and body rendered in entirely unique visions. Me in alien territory as I posted yesterday, me in a comic book fantasy world, me in this piece by@dlo168.
What had been a sassy selfie of me in my underwear with roses stuck in my spokes and a casual caption-dream of my chair sprouting flowers became an image of me, in the exact same pose, caught mid-ascent, still tangled in the clutches of underworld tentacles, sprouting flowers like a Persephone myth on wheels.
Jenna’s offerings were a gift to me, tokens of friendship and love. But they were also an homage to the icon that spoke to Jenna’s fantasies and desires for representation.
The main responsibility of an icon is to represent things. An icon is a conductor, like a cascade of electrical impulses through a metal framework. We use symbols to concretize conceptual things in a tangible way. The power of an icon is to be cohesive on the one hand and allow for the nearly endless variations of interpretation of what they symbolize on the other hand. The strength and weakness of iconography is the same: An icon represents whatever is projected onto it.
As a sex icon, I symbolize sexiness. But that is not a fixed concept. We all experience and define sexiness so uniquely that it renders sex appeal a reflective surface. We see what we project (which is often what we’ve internalized). It can be empowering. It can be oppressive. A wheelchair may be an easy, visual way to invoke the sentiments of feebleness, or innocence, or confinement, but wheelchairs are just chairs on wheels. They have no feelings.
Jenna picked the selfies, she chose the artists, she directed them to bring her visions to life. I was simply the muse at the center of it. The honoured recipient of the end result. The point of reference in a world that usually forces us to reverse engineer our sense of self from a narrow, idealized standard. The power of art, is the power of fantasy. Whatever we choose to project — onto disability, it’s symbols, our bodies — they will reflect. So what if, the wheelchair, the sexicon who uses it — disability in general — were all an aspect of the idealized self?
When she sent me this piece Jenna wrote: “Art is malleable. More so than the selfie. “How do you want me,” the sexicon whispers to Erin Clark. Jenna listens nearby, fixated at the ethereal conversation.”