I recently visited the International Archive for the Women’s Movement in Amsterdam. In my break, I found a single toilet cubicle, marked with the following pictogram:
This confused me – which only goes to show how seriously we take these symbols. Women’s movement? Were women expected to look for a different loo?
I moved on. Suddenly, the WC door showed a different picture:
Another moment of confusion. Had I misread the picto the first time around?
And then: but of course, a tilt card (a lenticular print, or ‘hologram’). Both images were really there, but which one I saw depended on my standpoint.
A common description of postmodernist art is that it contains an ontological flickering (‘onto-‘ from the Greek word for ‘being’). This means that you are presented with multiple realities; a story in which the protagonist moves in two different worlds, for instance. Only, whereas in non-postmodernist art, one of these worlds usually turns out to be a dream-world from which the protagonist wakes up, in postmodernist art, both worlds are equally real. The Neverending Story would be a classic example.
I could enter the loo a woman, and come out a man. Or vice versa. Or perhaps more accurately: as long as I was inside, I would always be both woman and man. A little like Schrödinger’s cat, but a cat which remains both dead and alive even after someone has opened the door to check.
The archive in Amsterdam therefore presented me with a wonderful ontological opportunity. (And no: no one opened the door to check. This had been firmly locked from the inside.) And I had the pleasure of being postmodernist for a brief while.
Luckily, after these few minutes I did not much mind to give up being female and male, and to just be me again.
* Or that which is often presented to us as a third option: disabled. Which raises a whole number of additional issues.
More on ontological flicker: Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987). Years ago, I used his (her?) ideas in an essay on postmodernist children’s literature, which included Michael Ende’s Neverending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte).