Nina Arsenault: Transcending the Transsexual Identity

 Nina Arsenault: Transcending the Transsexual Identity
by Peter Berton

To describe Toronto’s Nina Arsenault as a ‘transsexual artist’ is akin to calling Chateau Lafite Rothschild a ‘Bordeaux wine’. Although both descriptions are technically accurate, they are woefully inadequate understatements.

In Nina’s case, she has taken her male-to-female transition as the starting point of an multidisciplinary artistic career that has won her iconic status. In doing so, she has transcended that transition to learn far more about herself and the world than she expected.

Sex Life Canada recently caught up with the very busy and alluring Nina Arsenault:

SLC: Please tell us briefly about yourself.

Nina: I'm a multi-disciplinary artist who does live theatre, photography, video art, performance art, writing and public speaking. That might sound like a lot of disciplines, but I am really asking an ongoing series of questions about the body, gender and sexuality.

I use whichever means of expressing each exploration is most appropriate. Sometimes I use documentation, and sometimes I create more tightly crafted aesthetic works. I'm interested in the objectification of women's bodies and what it means to embody different Femininities like
the muse, the whore, the mistress, the actress and the object --without shame.

The cultural battle that defines, hierarchicalizes, rarifies, and eroticizes the Feminine has been an obsession that has historically dominated painting, sculpture, film, hieroglyphs, fashion photography, pop music videos, pornography and ubiquitous celebrity culture. As a woman, as an artist and as a transsexual, I think of it as my duty to contribute, continue, deconstruct, celebrate and subvert this lineage in the most vibrant and visceral possible ways I can.

SLC: To describe you as merely a tgirl as akin to describing Andy Warhol as a painter. How do you characterize all that you do?

Nina: I'm a woman. I'm an artist. My life and art are very interwoven.

SLC: How central has your gender transformation been to your art?

Nina: I already see the pieces that deal with cosmetic procedures and my gender transformation in a larger body of works about many different kinds of transformations – spiritual transformations, ageing, new relationships with my cultural landscape, new mind and heart expanding ideas of what a woman can really be. Some of these pieces haven't been shown publicly yet, but that is how I see it all fitting together from my perspective.

SLC: What metaphorical lessons have you learned on this journey?

Nina: Pursuing a quest for beauty has led to the inevitable conclusion that beauty is an illusion, albeit an extremely seductive and compelling one. Following the passion to be beautiful and the pleasures it could bring me, sometimes quite ruthlessly, accepting my great vanity, ultimately leaves me at a very unexpected spiritual place -- pursuing inner harmony -- through ascetic dedication to my ongoing artistic work, meditation and daily exercises.

I think that is the way the Universe works. You pursue your passions and obsessions and if you walk your path with a big heart and an open mind you will eventually have experiences that enlighten you psychologically and spiritually. You will find the light inside the shadow. You face your demons and hopefully conquer them ...or learn to integrate them.

SLC: Is it fair to say that you have become a tgirl icon in Toronto? After all, federal Liberal leader Bob Rae thought it wise to be photographed next to you!

Nina: I don't think that is for me to say or not, and it's not good for me to sit around and wonder if I am an icon. Creating new artistic works and deepening my relationship to those that are in repertoire is where my attention needs to be.

SLC: So what drives you now?

Nina: I'm particularly interested in feminist art and queer art which has blood, guts, sex, complications, paradoxes, and unresolved pieces. It should be difficult to digest. That is how the audience is honoured.

I'm not interested in work that is polite or work that is "nice." My work deals a lot with beauty, and I don't think it serves women to present the topic simply.

In life, I believe in being civilized and not committing acts of social violence to others – including discrimination, exclusion, and even gossip. I believe in nurturing others unfolding, whatever form that might take. But, for me, good art, like good sex is not "nice." Art and theatre should be the forum where we, as women, as queers, and as people, are revealed to be mythic.

Our lives and our emotional landscapes are expansive, contradictory and sadomasochistic. If you want things to be casual and polite, you can stay at home and watch a sit com.

SLC: What is life like for you; is the male to female transition still central, or now just a part of your life?

Nina: I rarely think of myself as transsexual anymore. I think about it when I am doing my plays and telling the stories. I recognize that I still face a lot of discrimination in culture, but I never know if it is because I'm trans, plastic, because I present unconventionally, or any number of reasons.

I was talking to [filmmaker and pornographer] Bruce LaBruce about this recently. I was saying I need to find a new way of articulating my identity. The word 'transsexual' doesn't work for me anymore.

Most transsexuals I know have very limited heteronormative ideals of what a woman should be and are trying to emulate that. Sky Gilbert has also been writing about this on his blog (www.skygilbert.blogspot.com).

Despite the advances of women's rights, culture still has a minimizing idea of what a woman can and should be – how sexual she can be, how flamboyant, how original, how intelligent and opinionated, how spiritual – and there is a increasing normatizing trend in culture that is putting women into smaller boxes as the pressure to fit in, incorporate into appropriate professional
behaviour and pair with a socially acceptable partner is extreme.

Women face these continuing pressures and transsexual women doubly so. So, I was using the term queer transsexual for a while. But even the politics of queerness are being renegotiated.

In the early nineties, queerness was a punk movement. Queers didn't fit in, and most of them couldn't if they tried.

Then in the late nineties, queer became "alterna-queer"; an alternative gay identity which was gay, but rejected certain aspects of gay culture like the circuit party scene.

Lately, I meet totally straight-acting gay men with corporate jobs, long term monogamous relationships and Conservative politics, and they identify as queer because they have a kinky yet completely private sex life. So, for me, the idea of applying the politics of queerness to being an unconventional transsexual doesn't make sense anymore. Bruce told me I should just start calling myself a heretic.

SLC: One last question: Did you expect to arrive at this philosophical position in your journey?

Nina: Yes and no. On one hand I have experienced everything I dreamed of.

I wanted to be respected as an artist. I wanted to do theatre, video and photographic works. I wanted to be recognized as an intellectual. I dreamed of being a whore, and I loved doing that. I used to dream of being a tranny nightlife star, and thrilled in that part of my life. I was hungry for lots of glamour and got to experience that. I've had the chance to work with many of the artists
I always dreamed of; including Fides Krucker, a phenomenal woman who does ground breaking voice/ breath/ body work to train performers of many disciplines.

However, none of it unfolded the way I expected it to. It all surprised me and in some ways has felt like a dream. Not right away, but in the future I would like to spend a long period of time in a nunnery or in some kind of monastic spiritual life. I am sure it will be an unconventional arrangement.

Note: You can learn more about Nina Arsenault at ninaarsenault.com. Her’s hit one- woman-show, ‘The Silicone Diaries’, plays in Vancouver February 14-25, 2012 at The East Vancouver Cultural Centre (www.thecultch.com). Box Office: 604-251-1363 or boxoffice@thecultch.com