“For me, the artist’s role is to follow their obsessions. If you work from that point, people will always encounter something meaningful.” Nina Arsenault, 2012.
Late nights, I would stay up and huddle in close to the tiny television set in my bedroom. I’d turn the volume down to just one bar, forcing my ears to adjust to the near inaudible sounds of Showcase’s after dark programming. The arts and culture channel that inexplicably got packaged into my parents’ basic cable plan ran hours of queer tv shows and films after nine or ten at night, seven days a week. It’s no joke that this provided for me, a queer trans kid in a small Ontario city in the late 90s and early 2000s, a thorough education. The films of Gregg Araki and François Ozon established my taste alongside the—for me—almost utopian promise of the drama Queer as Folk. But one show in particular unlocked something deep within me. KinK.
From 2001 to 2006, this pre-reality TV docuseries followed the lives of leatherpeople, sex workers, and transsexuals in different Canadian cities each season. The second season introduced me to Nina. There had been trans people on the show before, some of whom would later become friends and contemporaries of mine—like the artist Sybil Lamb—but Nina Arsenault was something different. She was beautiful, plastic, and surprisingly vanilla compared to all of the kinksters on the show. In between scenes of Robin Black getting whipped by his dominatrix girlfriend, Nina was simply out here, dressed like Paris Hilton and living her life. While I am certain that I grew up on a steady diet of the transsexuals of ‘90s daytime talk shows, this nighttime glimpse of Nina had a profound effect on who I started to become.
I caught Nina in moments of revelation over the years. As I got my hands on hormones when I dropped out of high school, Nina would show up on Global’s experimental soap opera Train48 while my mother and I ate dinner pointedly not discussing my emergent transsexuality. When I moved to Toronto, I found her again in the pages of Fab magazine, where just a year or two later I would first be published myself. It’s like I was always trying to catch up to this idea-as-a-woman, her shimmering presence always a step out of reach.
Nina had not simply transitioned from male to female, as she explained a number of times she had taken a step back from the view that her body was personal and spent a decade re-approaching her body as a site of sculpture. First she went to mainstream trans surgeons, but they would only go so far. Inspired by the work of French artist ORLAN, Nina traveled frequently to Guadalajara. A certain doctor notorious among the girls had far less qualms. “Realness” was not the aim, Nina longed to touch God herself through the knife.
Throughout her career, as both a sex worker and a performance artist, Nina was approached by many as a purely aesthetic object. Famously, Mattel reached out to ask her to play Barbie for an anniversary event, assuming she was a drag queen—an experience she later documented in her play I Was Barbie, which she described as “a pilgrimage into the pink plastic temple of patriarchy.” In more rarified circles, she was perhaps sometimes granted the status of objet d’art and muse. The Royal Ontario Museum once hired her to slink around their exhibits nude, intricately decorated in jewellery atop a pointillism draw across the canvas of her skin. But Nina constantly pushed back against this objectification, even as she turned her own body into a medium. There are stakes in being seen, in being seen as a thing, as Nina testified in one performance, “I believe we can be witnessed to death.”
Most grandly, Nina seized the gaze turned on her in her play The Silicone Diaries. It is not just a chronicle of the extensive surgical processes she had undertaken on nearly every inch of her body, but a breaking of the illusion—the mannequin has come to life, looking you right in the eye. It would perhaps be a shock, both to her clients and television audiences, that Nina held two Masters degrees in theatre, that she spent most of her time reading feminist theory (Nina: “People say, ‘wouldn’t it be great if people treated you like a normal woman?’ I say, ‘No, actually. No.’”), that she was aware of the ways their eyes sought to strip her of her soul.
Having addressed her audience’s obsession with her corporeal form, Nina turned toward the flight of the spirit. From 2011-2015, her work moved inward. I cannot remember where exactly we first met around this time—a party? A performance? A panel? Perhaps it was earlier, when we’d both partied at Peter Gatien’s failed nightclub CiRCA in 2008. Following in the footsteps of Mirha-Soleil Ross and Nina herself, I had emerged onto the scene as an often (too-)brash activist and confrontational performance artist. And though we inhabited the same artistic milieu in Toronto, Nina to me was always something ephemeral, a faerie who could only ever be seen out of the corner of one’s eye.
But I know for certain that it was during her endurance performance 40 Days + 40 Nights: Towards a Spiritual Experience, presented as part of the 2012 Summerworks Festival, that we became friends. The performance involved Nina spending weeks attempting to induce a spiritual experience through a variety of extremes—days spent without light, without sounds; gruelling hours self-flagellating atop an exercise bike; little food intake—before a final eleven days spent living in a pop-up gallery on Queen Street West, across the road from the Drake Hotel. I was spellbound. I made a pilgrimage to the gallery for five of the night-long performances, sitting for hours watching her move through an intricate series of spiritual postures. I took no photos—it felt too holy. The walls, covered in Qabalistic symbols, blood, and collaborative portraits with Bruce LaBruce, served as a backdrop to performances that were at once both ascetic and baroque.
Part of what I found so moving about this experience was that Nina had given up the idea of being beautiful—a difficult thing for any transsexual but unthinkable for one of the high plastics like Nina who had spent more than six figures pursuing a conceptual level of beauty that nature could never countenance. She appeared without her signature wigs, doused herself in talcum powder, smeared her lipstick, embraced the grotesquerie of being a spirit trapped within the flesh. I learned more about art from those five nights than any other experience I had before or since.
2013 was an intense year. Everything felt possible. We didn’t know yet that we were on the precipice of a “transgender tipping point,” but something was in the air. Nina had heralded the year with a December 2012 performance at Videofag, OPHELIA/MACHINE, which had mesmerised me and the butch I took on a date to go see it. Sex work, for a brief moment, was decriminalized across the country. It seemed that liberation and a porous, expansive, creative future were pounding on the door. My lover had not yet died.
I remember running into Nina everywhere that year. On the street. In one of her rare appearances in the club. We performed on the same bill at Mighty Real—alongside Kiwi superstar Judy Virago, Cliks frontman Lucas Silveira, and fellow KinK icon Lexi. I remember at that performance she was utterly radiant and I poured blood out of my mouth. And though everything felt iridescent and possible in those days, so too around us people were dying. I attended funeral after funeral—suicides, the overdose epidemic, and the general neglect claiming so many of our trans friends and acquaintances, alongside what we know now was also an active serial killer in the Village. At my work, I spent my days struggling to stay above water as I provided suicide interventions to transsexuals who’d been utterly failed by the world around them, not once but a million times.
“Maybe I was so isolated and alienated from everyone that I missed my own revolution,” Nina later told a 2015 TEDx audience of that period. “But we were en vogue. We were in Vogue.”
I invited Nina over for dinner. My home, like my life, was a mess. But—after calling me from The Occult Shop down the street, unable to work out how to enter my building—Nina showed up in an exquisitely fitted leather blazer and skirt. She told me that most of her clothing had had to be made specially for her body, and in this way her pumped proportions were always uncannily striking.
Picture it: two lightly eating disordered transsexuals pushing around pasta on their plates, a game of chicken to see who would be first to give up. Instead of dining, we discussed performance art, Nina’s relationship with her patron, and the works of Aleister Crowley. We shared a keen interest not just in feminist theory but in spiritual and esoteric texts, and she was delighted to find that I had an extensive library of both. I remember she spent a long time pouring over my books, eventually selecting a copy of Crowley’s Book of Lies (essentially, his collection of shitpost jokes). I urged her to borrow it or even just take it, and at first she agreed, but eventually put it back before she left. It was a funny little interaction that I’ve often puzzled over in the ensuing eight years. Enigmatic as always.
All yesterday we laboured under the belief that Nina Arsenault had passed away. It is, for many reasons, too easy for us to believe she had left this plane, and easier still to write a “well-intended, but crass” obituary before we have even confirmed the rumours. I don’t want to talk about the specifics of what has happened to Nina and the ways she has been failed by us all. Anyone who knows her—and I certainly couldn’t rightfully claim to be very close to her myself—knows at least a little of what has happened over the last six years or so. It’s a frequent topic of discussion among the girls in that city, at least those of my cohort still standing, that Toronto fails trans women. That it extracts all of the vitality and creative force from us and then discards us. I fled the city after my lover died, and have rarely made the return. But I’ve never stopped asking after Nina, messaging her, trying to find a way to help. The girls only have the girls, at the end of the day, and we have a duty to each other. Nina had again become that gossamer idea-as-a-woman just out of reach whose trail I longed to follow.
Nina’s work, especially her later work, is numinous and moving. She should rightfully be engaged not just for her sculptural body, but for the profound spiritual and intellectual paradigms she has worked through (something I wrote about only a few months ago). Nina deserves to be situated in a lineage of queer and feminist performance from Marina Abramovic to ORLAN, Vaginal Davis to Zackary Drucker (I remember, suddenly, attending Drucker’s screenings in Toronto with Nina, in 2011? 2012?), Ron Athey to Anohni.
It is with immense relief that we hear Nina is confirmed to remain among the not yet raptured. Like many of us, I hope this serves as a wake up call to the community, that we so nearly lost one of the most talented artists of our generation. People are now discussing ways to help her find stability and thrive, and I will share and contribute to them when they are available.
Still, there will never be enough words for Nina Arsenault. Let this be not a eulogy, but a love letter, a hymn to a living Goddess encased in flesh and silicone.