With a body double, an artist reflects on life as a trans-deaf influencer
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With a body double, an artist reflects on life as a trans-deaf influencer
A photo provided by Annie Forrest shows the artist Chella Man, right, in their performance piece “Autonomy,” in which they mime performing two surgeries that defined their experience as a deaf and trans teenager. Man, a 25-year-old model and actor, has turned to performance and sculpture to understand their identity. (Annie Forrest via The New York Times)

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- A spotlight dimmed as artist Chella Man signaled to a section of the audience where their parents were seated in all-white costumes. In a haunting approach, the parents tiptoed toward an eerily lifelike replica of their child’s body and carefully transferred the silicone doppelgänger to an operating table. There, as part of the performance piece “Autonomy,” Man performed two surgeries that had helped define their experience as a deaf and trans teenager.

Poking and prodding the silicone dummy, Man mimed installing cochlear implants in both ears — similar to the ones that turned them into a self-described “cyborg.” Then they traced the scars of top surgery, asking their father to sew a line through the chest tissue that helped Man, 25, embody their transmasculine, genderqueer identity.

What fuels this desire to share such intimate moments with the public? “I could never imagine my future because I never thought I would still be around,” Man said in an interview, discussing the role social media played in their professional upbringing.

“I have finally decided to live,” Man said.

The artist acknowledged that the political environment had intensified as lawmakers targeted gender-affirming care and trans people faced significant hardships. In 2017, when Man became an internet star through a Condé Nast deal to document their transition online in a magazine column, they were a teenager producing videos about their first testosterone shot and ways to present as more masculine.

Over the past few years, Man has embodied those experiences in “Autonomy,” a performance in May and an installation in a group exhibition that opened Friday at the Jewish Museum. (Props from the show at Performance Space New York, including the artist’s silicone replica, will be on display at the museum.)

Liz Munsell, the curator who helped organize the exhibition, called “Overflow, Afterglow: New Work in Chromatic Figuration,” said Man’s artwork would be one of the first times the institution displayed a nude, trans body.

“This is an extremely vulnerable piece for Man to be putting out in the world at this time,” Munsell said. “They are so boldly open. Not shy or ashamed.”

Months ago inside a cold Brooklyn studio, Man lay naked and incredibly still inside a clay cast used to create that eerily lifelike replica.

“To make a hyperrealistic body, there is a tremendous amount of structural engineering that comes into play,” said Samantha Shawzin, an artist and silicone technician who worked with Man. “It almost looks like a Frankenstein. There are separate molds of the head, hands and feet that we later put together. Then we sculpt away the seam lines, detailing the pores and wrinkles.”

Man said the idea for “Autonomy” began in earnest after an encounter with a silicone replica while filming the TV show “Titans,” in which they played a superhero capable of possessing the bodies of others. The props department helped connect Man with fabricators, whose initial quotes were about $30,000. Man took modeling jobs to make the budget and has starred in campaigns for brands including Calvin Klein and Hugo Boss.

That kind of reach is largely thanks to the decision Man made as a teenager to share their transition with the public. In 2017, an editor at Condé Nast, Phillip Picardi, signed the artist to write a regular column, which helped Man become an influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers and lucrative endorsement deals.

“I don’t know if I would have done it the exact same way today,” Picardi, now chief strategy officer at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said. “I would give a different kind of care at this moment to a young person like Man who was still in school and willing to engage in these personal topics.”

The risk was ultimately worth it for Man, who called the experience “overwhelming” but stood behind the diaristic articles and videos they produced about overcoming mental health issues and gender dysphoria. “I shared so much at that age without knowing if I would live well into my 20s,” Man said. “It still feels like my calling.”

Dozens of the drawings Man produced in that period were recently part of the artist’s first solo show in New York. There were nearly 50 artworks and sales were modest, according to Hannah Traore, whose gallery hosted the exhibition. Prices ranged between $675 and $2,100.

“But in terms of defining success, it was actually more about seeing all the different communities that Chella is a part of,” Traore added. “My dance teacher from Toronto came to see the show. He had transitioned in the past two years and burst into tears when he saw the work.”

With “Autonomy,” their new work at the Jewish Museum, Man is hoping to provoke similar feelings of catharsis and empathy.

“It feels like a chapter is closing in my life right now,” they said. “I will be celebrating, but also grieving through the different frameworks of identity that I have discovered and discarded along the way.”

‘Overflow, Afterglow: New Work in Chromatic Figuration’

Through Sept. 15. Jewish Museum, Manhattan; (212) 423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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