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What a 6-Foot Bear-Bison Furry Can Teach Us About Gender Identity

An interview with Nayland Blake, the artist behind ‘Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon’

It’s the opening night of “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” and the New Museum feels like every house party I’ve ever been to in New York City. Lesbian poets block the stairwell. Gay male groupies block the open bar. Trans DJs block the gender-neutral bathroom. And if you decide to take the elevator, you might run into a 6-foot bear-bison hybrid named Gnomen. Inside the Gnomen suit is artist Nayland Blake.

Even in an art star orgy of iridescent lycra and dirty hair, Nayland stands out. Well, they (both Nayland and Gnomen prefer gender-neutral pronouns) don’t actually really stand out: They are, in fact, completely obscured. But if you’re a friend of Nayland, you know that when you see an anthropomorphic animal with a floppy gray mohawk plodding through a modern art museum, it’s a good bet Nayland is contained within.

I’ve known Nayland for several years through the queer kink scene, but it wasn’t until I went to one of their art openings that I discovered their rich history as a performance and installation artist. Nayland has always struck me as someone who could have a side career as a leather bar extra. They’re a classic Daddy: chest-length salt-and-pepper beard, tattoos, spectacles and a taste for pipe tobacco.

Since the mid-1980s, Nayland has been creating multimedia NSFW works with memorable names like “Gorge,” “Free!Love!Tool!Box!” and “The Guys We Would Fuck.” Their art combines high concepts with the ecstasy of raunch. They’ve been featured in the 1991 Whitney Biennial and SFMOMA, and they’re currently the chair of the International Center for Photography/Bard MFA program.

In maybe their best-known piece, “Starting Over,” they wore a different animal suit — a bunny costume weighed down with 140 pounds of dried beans representing their lover at the time. As the bunny, Nayland tap-danced to literal exhaustion, illustrating both the levity and the masochistic burden of love.

Nayland’s performance tonight is called “Crossing Object (Inside Gnomen).” Clad in their Gnomen suit, they walk the New Museum halls assisted by a handler, offering up ribbons for attendees to attach their secrets to the suit. They wear a custom green plaid vest, and in the grand tradition of cartoon characters, no pants. Their mouth is open in a growl or smile, their eyes a friendly brown. Gnomen is Nayland’s “fursona,” a concept originating in the furry community to define one’s animal avatar.

By the end of the night, their brown fur is covered in bright pink, neon orange and sky-blue ribbons containing the secrets of queer NYC. Nayland removes the suit and hangs it in one of the installation rooms, where it remains lit by a lurid pink glow. Gnomen is both a thing of comfort, but also the manifestation of an identity. The “fursona” comes alive within the museum, so seeing the Gnomen suit hung up like a trophy in a lodge disturbs me.

The exhibit closes on Sunday, and yet, even four months later, I still found myself thinking about Gnomen. And so, I recently caught up with Nayland to discuss the blurred lines between his art and his sex life; a queer orgy he hosted as “Safety Skunk”; and why small children seem less intimidated by Gnomen than anyone else.

How did you develop Gnomen’s identity and how much do you know about them?
I met Gnomen about four and a half years ago. I was curious about folks who were part of the furry fandom and wanted to explore it further. A friend gave me some guidance around various furry sites; after being on there for a while, parts of Gnomen’s personality began to make sense, and I got a clear image of what their appearance and attitudes would be. At that point, I began drawing them myself and also commissioning other artists to make art of them. Gnomen allows me to inhabit possibilities that are difficult for me: They’re shorter than me for example — and fatter. Their genitals can change. They can be turned into a stuffed animal or a rubber flotation device.

Is your Gnomen persona related to your personal fantasy life, or were they designed expressly for this art project?
I think of Gnomen and my other fursonas as distinct from previous work I made when I wore bunny suits or made drawings of animals. Gnomen isn’t a costume, but more of a body that I can feel is co-extensive with my own. As for personality: Gnomen is finicky and bossy with more of a sense of their own dignity, which makes them a good foil for debasement and mockery. All of these are aspects that have revealed themselves to me through the process of asking other people to make work with the character.

How about some of your other fursonas? For instance, you and I have been at private play parties together where you’re running around in a dinosaur costume.
The short answer is that for me, there isn’t a difference: Almost as long as I’ve been making art, it’s been part of the continuum of my sexual expression and vice versa. The only difference is the venue. In practice however, there are types of interactions I can expect at a play party that I can’t expect in a museum. But you’d also be surprised at how often people have confided to me in the midst of one of my performances that they find the situation “hot.” So there’s a strong libidinal component in our experience of art that we rarely get the chance to acknowledge. Part of my public performance work is about giving people the chance to experience and admit that.

So what’s the difference between wearing a full-body costume at an art museum and doing it at a kinky play party?
For the New Museum show, Gnomen is riding the elevators, with a tray full of badges and ribbons. There’s a sign saying: “Pick up a button, tell your secret to the button, pin the button on Gnomen.” The idea is that by the end of the show, Gnomen will be wearing the evidence of all these secrets, all of these intimacies in the form of the ribbons. So the interaction is very structured, which allows people to feel safe in following the rules in public. In a private play party, you have the chance for more in-depth negotiation, and thus, improvisation.

Also at private play parties, wearing an animal suit can be my way of cutting the super seriousness atmosphere of the “scene.” Last summer I hosted a queer orgy, and did so as “Safety Skunk,” which allowed me to outline the rules of conduct for the party in a way that was still also playful.

What kind of interactions have you experienced at the New Museum so far, and what kind of interactions are you hoping will happen but haven’t yet?
After spending time in the suit I realized it isn’t practical for me to move around all that much — I have low visibility and need to have someone spotting me during the performance — so I’ve stayed mostly in the museum’s large elevator. This has a few benefits: First, as I arrive at each floor, there’s a big reveal as the doors open, making it more theatrical. It also forces people to interact with me more as they get in and out, but they also have the chance to act like this is business as usual and just pretend that they’re totally cool with sharing the space with a big, hairy, ribbon-covered animal.

Reactions have been varied. Some people are excited to get close to Gnomen; others have something like a phobia where they can’t even look at Gnomen. Children up to 2 years old seem to like it the most, and after that age, they get shy and uncertain. Most times, women are the ones to initiate contact. Most men hide out. One thing that I enjoy the most is that most of the folks who work security at the museum enjoy Gnomen being there and are waving hello and being supportive.

The two things I hear most often are “I don’t have any secrets” and “I don’t want to hurt you” — when they need to pin the buttons on me. In both cases, people are saying it more for the benefit of those around them, which is interesting to me. I’m seeing the way people are responding to a request for intimacy by performing.

How do people react differently to the Gnomen suit when it’s hung up in the gallery as opposed to you when you’re wearing it? When I saw it hung up, it reminded me of the taxidermy bears in certain kinds of rustic lodges or bars; your presence felt there but not there simultaneously.
I don’t have much of a sense of how people are reacting when I’m not there, but I imagine that it’s much like the way I reacted to the display of armor or costumes at the Metropolitan Museum in New York when I went as a child: By trying it on with my mind and by playing mental dress-up. One thing that’s changed over the course of the show is that Gnomen is covered with more than 600 secrets, so they’re looking more festive and burdened at the same time. I don’t think I have to be present for Gnomen to be active as a possibility, in the same way that I don’t have to be watching a Daffy Duck cartoon to think about what Daffy might do in a specific situation. In truth, Nayland is as absent inside the suit as outside: People can’t speak to me as Nayland when I wear it.

What does it mean that Gnomen can change sex and gender at will? Is there a way to tell? How is this related to your own genderqueer identity? Is it a sort of supernatural affirmation? Or fantasy fulfillment? Is this none of my business?
Working with and experiencing Gnomen has been a way for me to articulate and understand the shifting nature of my own gender identifications. So yes, being inside of Gnomen has meant that there are moments when I feel those things shift, but I think the most important part is that Gnomen stands for me as a figure of having the body and pleasures that I want. In the time that I’ve been involved with kink, I’ve learned to experience sensation and connection in very different ways, to listen to the possibilities of my body. Gnomen and my other fursonas are my attempt to visualize those sensations on my own terms.

The New York Times referred to Gnomen as “trans-species” self-portraiture. Does that feel right to you?
I don’t know about “trans-species,” but Gnomen does allow me to be the fabulous monster I always felt like. After years of being told that my body and behaviors were somehow wrong, the furry community has allowed me to revel in and reinvent that body and those behaviors. For me, sex has always been a way to evade and explode strictures and definitions.