Exploring what drag does best

The Fabric Workshop and Museum presents John Jarboe: The Rose Garden

3 minute read
A large dressing room installation with white walls washed in blue light and huge projections of Jarboe’s face.
A dressing-room installation surrounding John Jarboe’s short film ‘Mother’s Closet,’ part of her ‘Rose Garden’ project. (Photo by Christopher Ash.)

It’s clear upon entering John Jarboe: The Rose Garden at the Fabric Workshop and Museum that this isn’t an exhibition you can breeze through, but one that takes time to digest. After I reserved a time slot with my friend, we took the back elevator up to the second floor, where we sat down with three other visitors and got a video orientation from the creator, John Jarboe (she/her), a drag artist and founder of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret.

After the video introduction, we entered the exhibition itself, an entire floor of the museum divided into different spaces, many of them taking the form of a domestic room within the typical American home. The installations contain a series of short films with original songs. It all begins in a kitchen, where we fittingly learn of the cannibalistic theme.

Serious playfulness

This is the latest incarnation of Jarboe’s Rose project, which was born in a residency at the Guggenheim Museum and continued with a stage show that premiered during the 2022 Philly Fringe. This exhibition centers on a story of Jarboe’s coming out as trans, and how that led her family to reveal her lost twin, who she “ate” in the womb. And while “eating” isn’t quite literal (there are a variety of circumstances where a twin vanishes and is reabsorbed in utero), Jarboe’s unborn twin, whom she dubs Rose, serves as an important plot device that heightens the feeling of guilt and the stigma often attached to coming out.

As one might expect from a cabaret artist, a strength of the exhibition is in its ability to keep visitors entertained, often using various other genres and cultural references. In the middle of the exhibition, a bathroom installation containing a playful film-noir drama leads into a closet/dressing room, where a climactic rock opera erupts. The song, entitled “I Will Not Disobey Mom,” surprised me in how deeply it moved me, as it would resonate with anyone else who has ever been made to feel guilty for not conforming to the gender they were assigned at birth. In this way, The Rose Garden does what drag does best: interrogating our society’s rigid notions of gender with serious playfulness.

A huge undertaking

The exhibition empties out into the final space, dubbed the Green Room. In this room, there is a sing-along in the style of The Sound of Music. Afterward, guests are encouraged to rest, reflect, and spend time with books, refreshments, and a free clothing swap. This space is also the site for various programming throughout the exhibition’s duration (like TransWork Office Hours on the third Thursday of each month through September).

Comfy green-painted room with various antique furniture around a circular green & white rug showing entwined human fetuses.
A view of ‘The Rose Garden’ Green Room, which hosts the exhibition’s final film, ‘Dear Mom’ (inspired by ‘The Sound of Music’), as well as associated events. (Photo by Christopher Ash.)

Overall, The Rose Garden is a huge undertaking. Of course, this involves custom fabric made in the Fabric Workshop’s renowned facilities, but it also includes much more, including music, sculpture, performance, and film. The synthesis of these elements, with a multitude of projections and screens, gives the feeling of being within a movie.

Although the exhibition happens to be on view in June, this isn’t a superficial “Pride exhibition” without real stakes. The Rose Garden pushes boundaries and isn’t afraid to delve into heavy topics with an entirely unique, unconventional humor. Jarboe effortlessly demonstrates that artwork about queer identity can be insightful, poignant, and most importantly, healing.

What, When, Where

John Jarboe: The Rose Garden. Through September 29, 2024, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia. Suggested $5 donation; timed tickets required. (215) 561-8888 or fabricworkshopandmuseum.org.

What, When, Where

The Fabric Workshop and Museum is accessible to standard-size wheelchairs, but the main entrance does not have an automatic opener. For more info about access, visit the museum’s accessibility page.

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