Eliel Jones

July 25, 2023
W139, Amsterdam
April 22–June 18, 2023

In light of the ongoing conservative backlash against legislative advances for trans rights in Spain, the UK, and Germany, trans visibility remains paradoxically both a requirement for survival and the greatest threat to trans people’s safety. In a first for the artist-run space W139, which for its forty-four years has focused on the production and presentation of new work, a recent exhibition combined historical and contemporary artworks to create a dialogue between past and present experiences of bodily and gender autonomy. “Substitutes” brought together artists who have subjected their bodies to abstractions, disguises, and transformations to find ways to be both present and absent, visible and invisible. At stake is a desire to refuse the logics that demand proof or validity of one’s existence, and to fight back against requirements that are deemed necessary for the recognizing of unruly bodies as legitimate.

Johannes Büttner’s sculptures of loaves of bread pierced with flesh-tunnel holes were hung on the wall and propped on shelves at the entrance and in the gallery’s reading room. Recalling the literal and symbolic body of Christ, the works invoke St. Thomas the Apostle’s insistence on probing Christ’s flesh—not satisfied with seeing and smelling his wounds—to satisfy his own doubts. It’s a way of relating the reality of others’ experience to acts of consumption, demands of proof of suffering, and death.

Philipp Gufler (also the exhibition’s curator) provoked another type of bodily recognition in the visitor. In Quindo Violett hell, PV 55_Rebschwarz_Nickeltitangelb (2022), mirrors painted with silkscreen prints implicated the visitor’s body in the act of seeing and being seen through various colour reflections. This play on the body—mine/yours/ours—recurred throughout the show, in ways that depoliticized legible representations of the single body whilst politicizing its multiple obscured presences. Through Gufler’s Body/Text (2023), a large circular structure of a hanging textile work installed in the middle of the exhibition, outlines of bodies silkscreened onto the sheer fabric could be seen standing, sitting, and lying on other artworks. The work featured eighty-four unclothed and non-binary bodies taken from painted figures in Elisàr von Kupffer’s Die Klarwelt der Seligen [The Clear World of the Blissful] (1923–30), a panoramic tableau depicting a queer utopia where bodies and nature seem at one with each other.

The idea for a “natural” way of life was central to Kupffer’s work and religion, Klarismus [Clarity], which was founded in reaction to the rapid industrialization and modernization of the early twentieth century. Though his paintings in the exhibition were clearly fuelled by homoerotic (and potentially also narcissistic) desire, Gufler’s own figures are not sexually or racially portrayed. Instead, their outlines are transparent and surrounded by sentences that act as both statements and spells, questioning the dependence of individual identity on any ideological, social, or political system.

Pushing against the ways in which trans and functionally diverse bodies have been considered as “other” and “freak,” works by Lorenza Böttner explored a desire for self-determination. Böttner refused to use prosthetic arms after the double amputations that were performed on her body when she was eight due to an accidental electric shock, and though she changed her name and declared an openly trans fem position, she also decided against undergoing gender affirming surgery to avoid further time in hospital. Böttner’s paintings, drawings, and performance documentation included here (such as an untitled 1981 painting of an empty chair covered in various fabrics and clothes, seemingly introducing Böttner’s body as a ghostly spectre) reveal her use of art as a means of exploring and reasserting how she wanted to be seen and unseen.

Across the exhibition, the visitor is presented with artists who seek to break free from the forces of control that attempt to capture and present their bodies as normative. Opposite Böttner’s work, Rabe perplexum’s paintings of anthropomorphic ravens allude to the artist’s use of bird-like costumes in their day-to-day life and performances, in a playful refusal of heteronormative gender categorizations. By critically and aesthetically probing these acts of concealment and revealing of the body, “Substitutes” avoided appropriating trans and queer narratives or reducing them to questions of visibility and representation. Instead, it historicized the presence and relations of these bodies in time without relying on oversimplified versions of their truths, providing a powerful resistance against culture wars that wish to relegate these lives to the diminished status of an inconvenient “new” phenomenon.

Eliel Jones is the incoming Curator of Performance and Time-based Media at KANAL – Centre Pompidou, a new modern and contemporary art museum due to open in Brussels in 2025.

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July 25, 2023

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