Transformer: Aspects of Travesty is currently on display @ Richard Saltoun gallery in London. Curated by Giulia Casalini of the non-profit organisation CUNTtemporary,
it commemorates the 40th anniversary of a groundbreaking 1974 show of the same name, curated by Jean–Christophe Amman and examining the aesthetics of desire and sexuality through travesty & drag performance. We asked Giulia some questions:
Hi Giulia, your exhibition is a re-proposition of a show from 1974. How relevant are the questions it asked at that moment still today? Has time and popular culture turned identity transgression into a gimmick or is it still a political and aesthetic act?
Identity transgression is far from being fully understood – and maybe this is the reason why 2013 had an amount of blockbuster exhibitions (Tate Liverpool with Glam!, V&A with David Bowie is, to mention a few) that portray art from around the same period and themes as Transformer. This interest is also – in my opinion – a cultural factor: our contemporary economic and political conditions are probably closer to the early ‘70s than we think. In the ‘60s (parallel to the hippie movement), there were community-based and guerrilla art practices aimed at reaching a utopian ideal of society and art. At the beginning of the ‘70s, instead, the general state of crisis and the disillusionment towards these utopias (increased also by the fact that the Vietnam war was still on) made artists turn inwards rather than towards the society. In the attempt to change society, another type of “revolution” was then happening within the self. The “Transformer Art” (as RoseLee Goldberg calls it) took apparently “less engaged” forms, which were more aestheticized or theatrical, developed around the image of the artist/performer.
A parallel could be drawn with our present time. A few years ago, we had the rise of movements like Occupy and other revolutionary groups (like the Arab Spring of late 2010), based on the ideals of democracy, community and equality. About a year ago, there was a boom of politicised videos (many of them lo-fi and taken from real life street protests), community art and guerrilla actions, which were struggling to re-define society by criticising its political and economic apparatuses. This was particularly visible during the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012, where Occupy was invited to stay inside the main building during the entire length of the exhibition.
It seems that today this type of politically and socially engaged art has progressively been abandoned and that a more aesthetic and de-politicised practise, aimed at constructing one’s style or identity, is instead being practised by emerging artists. No more utopia – but “realness” and everyday dreams.
I would say that transgressing one’s identity is always a political act. Identity transgression is enacted first and foremost for the self (e.g. some people feel more in tune with their self and “free” when they’re in their extravagant outfits), and then for the public. Identity-bending, in a sense, always precipitates a “successful” act: the performer is the object and the subject of that transformation and not the audience with its judgments and opinions. Transforming oneself is an act of the ego, and this is why it is not easily understood by the viewers who are only presented with the final outcome. Sometimes they are fascinated, other times they are scared, sceptical or revolted by the image of that transformation – because the essence of it is hiding behind its masquerade and rarely revealed.
What was the public and critical response to the original show and how did it affect the artists’ careers?
The original show was an incredible event. All the people I have spoken to, who lived it in first person have some great memories. It was a great time for Luzerne (and art in Switzerland in general) and that “shocking” exhibition definitely marked an era. The event had a huge success among the media and the public, who still remember that show nostalgically. Transformer had a huge impact not just for Switzerland but also for continental Europe: France, Germany, Austria and Italy in particular.
During this exhibition, all the artists experienced the “golden moment” of their careers. By the end of the show, some disappeared while others instead continued to produce major artworks for the following few years while their careers boomed.
How easy was it to convince the artists, 40 years later, to show their works again?
Some cases, where the living artists were involved, were easy to convince. However, the original exhibition had left everybody with such strong feelings and memories that some were not as enthusiastic to re-stage it. Some of the people that I contacted when organising the exhibition were afraid of the labels that have been associated to their work and to the exhibition overall (i.e. an exhibition on transvestism and gender issues) or – coming from a “Prada disappointment”, regarding the acclaimed and criticised re-make of When Attitudes Become Form (on display during last year’s Venice Biennale at Fondazione Prada. The original show “Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form” was curated by Harald Szeemann at the Bern Kunsthalle in 1969 and celebrated for its innovative take on exhibition practice., Ed.) – they were not enthusiastic about the idea of restaging a show made in 1974. The curator of the original show, Jean-Christophe Amman, does not want to talk much about it either.
I can, nevertheless, understand the problem that was raised as the more I researched the exhibition, the more complex it became. First and foremost, its original title in German was Transformer: Aspekte der Travestie, which means “Travesty”, and not “Transvestism”. This point of departure is crucial for analysing the body of work present in this show as a perspective that departs from the one of travesty and that articulates other topics like those of masquerade, ambiguity, fashion, politics, music, affects, sexuality, eroticism and so on. The way to convince those who were more sceptical about the show was, in fact, down to calling attention towards the curatorial complexity.
You’re 25 years old. If you were to re-stage “Transformer” with artists of your generation, which works would you include and why?
I would just provide a list of names – but that in any way can be associated to the artists present in the original exhibition. As you will see, as well, there are many more women (in the original show there was just one).
For the artists who photograph scenes of drag scene and ambiguous people from real life (as Walter Pfeiffer or Andrew Sherwood) I would recommend Samuel Liebert, Martin C De Waal and Cathal O’Brien.
For a more poetic approach (as in Alex Silber) we have Adam Christenssen.
For a more closeted-intimate approach (as in Luigi Ontani) we have Helena Goldwater and Romina De Novellis.
For one that plays the image and its double (as in Urs Luthi or Katharina Sieverding) we have Daniela Comani and Maria Teresa Gavazzi.
For a more theatrical approach, which stages the body and at times abstracts it (as in Klauke’s works) we have Agne Raceviciute.
For dealing with the limits of the body and its always-changing sexual features and skills (as in Pierre Molinier) we have Narcissister and Rose Wood.
For using the masque as a tool to freely express alternative subjectivities and thoughts, which could sometimes be identified as “madness” (as in Tony Morgan), we have Jenkin Van Zyl and Mette Sterre.
For the staging of a body in drag as an expressively powerful statement, shifting between the aesthetic and the political (as in Luciano Castelli and The Cockettes) we have Ruben Montini, A Man To Pet, Sink the Pink and the Yeast London Cabaret.
Finally, for bridging the underground practices within the popular scene and for the effort of living through their body the myths of other more famous people (as in Andy Warhol’s superstars) we have Jonny Woo, Dickie Beau and Rachel Maclean.
Thanks for the interview, Giulia and congratulation on the great show!
Transformer: Aspects of Travesty runs at Richard Saltoun till February 28th and is accompanied by a series of events, to include screenings, talks and performances. The gallery is opened Mon-Fri from 10am to 6pm, but it is closed during the weekend.
The exhibition includes works from Luciano Castelli, Jürgen Klauke, Urs Lüthi, Pierre Molinier, Tony Morgan, Luigi Ontani, Walter Pfeiffer, Andrew Sherwood, Katharina Sieverding, Werner Alex Meyer (alias Alex Silber), The Cockettes and Andy Warhol.