Claye Bowler: ‘I want to put trans people on the map in sculpture’ | Sculpture

CLaye Bowler is wearing a version of what he wanted his body to look like. The latex cast is called Fine I’ll do it myself ii and has undergone something akin to top surgery – a procedure for transgender men and non-binary people in which breast tissue is removed. It is one of the most startling works to feature in Top, Bowler’s solo exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

The cast, Bowler says, has been therapeutic for him, “in trying to understand transition and how I wanted to look”. As with much of Bowler’s work, the choice of material was crucial. it was made using cotton thread and braided suture thread; the reality of surgery woven into the work itself. Here, the cast has the potential to turn into a mirror, art imitating life.

Over Zoom from the boardroom at the Henry Moore Institute – where Bowler is the first out trans artist to have a solo show – he describes Top as being “five years’ worth of work,” but, more importantly, “five years’ worth of thinking as well”. This thinking follows a thread of how sculpture relates to the body, and being able to create something that isn’t easily available. Making casts and giving them top surgery was motivated by Bowler’s desire to be able to look at the finished piece and say, “That’s me.” In fact, seeing himself in the work came before the work existing in an art context at all. As Bowler himself puts it: “It didn’t feel like art to exhibit.”

Bowler installing Top at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and the Henry Moore Institute

In the aftermath of getting top surgery himself – privately, in the wake of dealing with an NHS waiting list that was exacerbated by Covid – Bowler says that the work in Top has shifted into the context of “the archives”, a way of considering the history and visibility of both sculpture, and queerness. Bowler says that he’s challenging Yorkshire’s impressive sculptural history and hopes that Top is able to show that “queers are everywhere … I want it to put trans people on the map in sculpture”.

The increased visibility that comes from a solo show at the Henry Moore is something that can be a double-edged sword. the exhibition hascreated a backlash – there’s apparently “a Mumsnet thread” about it – but Bowler’s concern is about where that backlash will go; he admits that while he’s getting personally “stickas part of the show”, the abuse won’t all necessarily be aimed at him. It’s the spectre of this backlash – and the ignorance that so often informs it – that Top is responding to.

Bowler says there’s no specific thing that gives the work a particularly political agenda: instead it offers information for both trans and cis viewers, giving them the chance to “look at this thing that exists that you either brush over or that you don’t want to exist”. Ball presents “the whole process of surgery”, the ways in which Bowler worked through and figured out these feelings.

“It’s a solo show in that it’s all about me,” he says, laughing. “Someone said I was a self-obsessed prick … and I agree!”

This focus on the self is important for Bowler, though. It comes from a desire not to try to talk for other trans people, emphasizing the differences in lived experience for trans men compared with trans women, or white trans people compared with people of colour. He wonders aloud if, as “one white transmasc”, he’s able to change the narrative or not.

Even if the narrative isn’t changing, Bowler is. He says that his practice has always changed as his relationship to gender has; from moving away from textiles because it felt “dysphoric”, to openly pondering the question of what comes next in the wake of Topboth the exhibition and the surgery. Bowler wants to avoid being “typecast” as someone who makes work about dysphoria, hoping to widen the definitions of what makes art queer, and inspire others to tell their own stories.

As Bowler muses on the future of his art, he wants to offer a note of gratitude to the past as well, and the people that have made a show like Top possible. “There have been trans members of staff on front of house or trans workers that have helped change the institution,” he says. “I’m really grateful for them – for creating a space that’s welcoming enough for me.”

Claye Bowler: Top is at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until 15 January.

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