Beyond the Body
For junior Zai Rutter 19 PH, conversations about identity and image-making are elevated through language and literature.
As Photography major Zai Rutter 19 PH prepares for a reading-intensive independent study this spring, issues of identity, language and authenticity are top of mind. Here he responds to questions about his experiences at RISD since transferring from another art school last year.
Can you tell me a little about your work?
Most recently I’ve been thinking about how exhaustion and communal trauma affects queer intimacy. I’ve also been attracted to something that I learned from the artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed—the idea of the “stuttered narrative.” She does a really good job of laying everything down with her work so you’re able to… understand exactly where she’s coming from. I think that’s especially empowering when it comes to topics where people lack vocabulary or access or don’t know the full history.
I’m still trying to understand if it means what I think it means, but for me the idea offers some freedom. In the trans community there’s often the experience of being asked for a timeline for the process of transition, which can do some harm, in a way. By understanding, and essentially questioning the need for this timeline, we can gain control of our histories, our future and our present. So the stuttered narrative is about embracing the moment where things kind of fall apart in the story and that becomes a way of attaining freedom.
How did you decide to major in Photography?
For me it was never a question, though it has taken me a long time to understand exactly why I’m drawn to it. If we’re going way, way back, my grandfather first taught me how to use a camera. But ultimately what I enjoy doing is the thinking part. I really love the writing and the reading and, of course, the listening… that’s mostly what photography is. I think 80% of my work is writing. For every new piece of work I make I seem to have, like, 25 pages of typing to go along with it.
What is it about landscape photography that interests you?
When I was working on my landscape series [last year] I was refusing—for the moments that I could anyway—to focus on myself and on the body in general. Looking back now, I understand more of what I was trying to do. I think I’m always trying to create a lens… to visualize the self that isn’t confined to the body.
Do you look to any other artists or writers besides Rasheed?
I love Deana Lawson MFA 04 PH. I struggle with finding the artist that I’m totally in love with, but I’m getting there. I’m reading José Esteban Muñoz, who’s a queer theorist. His book Disidentifications is starting to have a strong place in the work I’m doing.
What has surprised you most about RISD?
In the queer community—where I come from—we have a shared history and when we speak we understand each other. I think what’s surprised me most is realizing that as much as I’m creating now, I also have to teach… well, not teach exactly, but I realize I have to move back a couple steps in order for my peers to be able to speak about that history with me.
In art you move from one thing to another and work is never independent of its past. So I’ve been thinking about how to have these conversations. How do I simultaneously gauge my expectations of others and where do I step in and guide the dialogue? Do I demand that my peers know as much about my community and its history as I know about theirs? How do we move forward?
What’s the biggest factor in your growth?
The faculty. In my department they’re really incredible people. The most valuable thing you have is your time and repeatedly professors make time outside of class—take hours and hours to talk with me and answer my 2 am emails, just things like that. They make an investment—and that’s so meaningful.
This semester I’m doing an Independent Study Project [ISP] with [Assistant Professor of History and Theory of Photography] Jung Joon Lee. I’m planning to dive into this whole idea of language and vocabulary [because] you can’t talk about a certain experience when there are no precise words to describe it. And, if I’m being honest, I personally struggle with finding those words at times.
Do you have any advice for students who might be considering RISD?
The most important thing is to not come in thinking you have an answer to everything. Remember to ask questions and try to be as real as you can about how unsure you are because that’s a really good place to learn from. You’ve got to be okay with realizing you’re not quite where you want to be yet—otherwise, why go to school?
—interview by Lauren Maas / images by Zai Rutter 19 PH and Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH
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