Transformer: Aspects of Travesty

This review of Transformer: Aspects of Travesty appeared in Art Monthly issue 373, February 2014.

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In a radio spot produced for the 1972 album Transformer, RCA records was keen to push Lou Reed as New York’s authentic poet of the streets. Between choice LP audio clips, a gravel-voiced, all-American MC hyped the record with a mix of straight talk and awkward hip-lingo: ‘In the midst of all the make believe madness, the mock depravity and the pseudo sexual anarchists,’ he intoned, ‘Lou Reed is the real thing.’ Of course, the ‘real’ couldn’t have been further from the record’s core; with a cast of hustlers, hangers-on, drug addicts and drag queens, Reed’s tales of the underground were about pageantry, illusion and the allure of being or becoming that which you were not. What was criticised at the time – and celebrated since – was the fact Reed and the album were caught in a transitional hinterland, somewhere between the theatrical androgyny of British glam rock and the macho, homosocial romanticism of American rock ‘n’ roll. But by planting its flag at the border between gendered pop genres, Transformer was best placed to articulate a narrative of sexual liminality that exported a complex, maybe even paradoxical vision of transvestism and drag – streetwise yet vulnerable, glamorous yet macho – to Europe and the rest of the world.

Two years later in 1974, Swiss curator and art historian Jean-Christophe Ammann responded. Influenced by themes in Reed’s album he borrowed its title and staged ‘Transformer: Aspects of Travesty’, a group exhibition exploring transvestism and genderqueer presentation through the work of predominantly young male European artists. Now, at Richard Saltoun’s modest West End gallery, London-based curator Giulia Casalini has restaged ‘Transformer’ with a compact and compelling display.

Much noise is being made about the current trend in restaging historically important exhibitions, a tendency hailed as either a celebration of excellence or a symptom of curatorial stagnation. But between Casalini’s project and the present heavyweight champion of rehangs ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ there is a clear difference. Revisiting Harald Szeemann’s work was, rightly or wrongly, about reinforcing a canon of exhibition-making that supports a patriarchal, centre-margin, Euro-American narrative of contemporary art history. ‘Transformer’, on the other hand, is essentially about the casualties of such canons, the bodies that orthodox art-historical narratives continue to push out of the picture. Reinstalling the exhibition again gives voice and representational power to those artists who were once on the fringe. It also allows for a restatement of their liberatory message that non-normative sexual subject-positions are both desirable and attainable.

The central idea driving Ammann’s original selection of work for display was metamorphoses or, rather, a state of indefinite being in which a subject’s identity shifts, almost holographically, between two fixed points – male and female. Each of the artists addresses this possibility of gender ambiguity and sexual indeterminacy through the use, and subsequent documentation, of their own bodies as sites. As such, ‘Transformer’ is full of photography, from single portraits to post-conceptual grid arrangements of images in series. Within this mix the most effective expressions of sexual liminality come from photographs that have been subject to some form of manipulation. The Czech born Katharina Sieverding, the only woman in the show, superimposes an image of her male partner’s face on to her own in Transformer 2 A and Transformer 2 B, both 1974. Trying to discern who is who in the blurry doubled portraits cleverly renders sexual liminality a retinal, physiological affair. The second batch of manipulated images come from the tragic figure of Piere Molinier, a French affiliate of Surrealism who committed suicide in 1976. Molinier’s images look, at first glance, like a cache of monochrome Victorian pornographic prints, but move closer and the naked, multi-limbed androgynes in auto-erotic positions are creations of photomontage. Seduction and desire are teased into play in a number of portraits. Swiss artist Walter Pfeiffer’s Untitled (Carloh Joh Series), all 1973, are starkly alluring photographs of a transgender model, pouting into the lens. Urs Lüthi, another Swiss, homes in on a kind of haunted, literary beauty. Black-and-white images see him exploring his ‘feminine other’, a bookish cross between a young Antonin Artaud and Marlene Dietrich. But the star of the show is Luciano Castelli. In various photographs he uses his slender and muscular body to form poses offering a tantilisingly contradictory vision of sexual subjectivity. In the nine large photographs that make up Spiegelssal, 1973, Castelli contorts his body against a mirror in a way that displays the powerful potential of his torso and limbs, and the wanton suggestiveness of his beautiful, rouge-lipped face. Here, Castelli accesses that unique condition particular to work dealing with transgender representation that I call – without any reference to Clement Greenberg – the push and pull dynamic. As a so-called heterosexual male I can feel my gaze problematised when looking at the work. In Freudian terms Castelli’s Spiegelssal freezes, in a composed image, a figure ripe for sexual idealisation. But my desire flickers between seeing that figure as subject and object, as that which society says I should want (a sexually active, available woman) and that which society says I should want to be (an in-shape man). It is a dynamic similarly articulated, albeit inflected in different ways, in the more recent work of artists interested in transgender representation like Wu Tsang, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, or Ursula Mayer. This brings us to ‘Transformer’s’ enduring major flaw: the lack of female artists.

Because transvestism and drag are frequently framed as a man’s game they are, at times, in danger of restaging reductive and essentialist feminine ideals, gender and behavioural norms that various women’s movements are fighting to decentre. Indeed, the vamp, femme fatale, Madonna and whore are all present throughout the exhibition in various guises. One way Casalini could have addressed this is by including contemporary works that critique the transgender gender bias or explore the detrimental ways patriarchy can dictate the history of queer culture. However, the main purpose of restaging ‘Transformer’ is as an exercise in socio-cultural compare and contrast, a process about recognising the difference between how transvestism and transgender activity was viewed then and is viewed now. Casalini’s laudable project reminds us that incredibly, due to a kind of serendipitous state of convergence in the late 1960s to mid 1970s, non-normative sexuality was a way of being that briefly found favour in popular culture. Since then pop stars – from David Bowie to the vacant New Romantics – have moved on to other ‘looks’, and transvestism, drag and queer representations have slid into a depoliticised existence in British mainstream media, made palatable and safe through ooh-I-say double entendre. Crucially, what lifts ‘Transformer’ out of nostalgia, or what British writer Simon Reynolds describes as a wider culture of ‘retromania’, is that its subject matter is still active. It shows us that as far as achieving not just equal civil and sexual rights, but an ideological shift that rejects the continued framing of non-normative lifestyles as deviant, transgressive and shameful, there is still a lot of work to be done.

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