‘Female Executioner’ translates the 1884 work, ‘Monsieur Venus: A Materialist Novel’, into compact visual sequences theatrically staged across the sparse Gasworks gallery. The book, written by French author Rachilde, tells the story of a complicated romance between noblewoman Raoule de Vénérande and poor florist Jacques Silvert. Raoul finds Jacques malleable and moulds him in her likeness, Raoul becomes her mistress and eventually her wife. Interlaced with brutality and love, the story blurs the lines of gender, class and sexuality. Transfeminine artist Jamie Crewe takes issue with the cruelty depicted in the gender swapping of Rachilde’s characters and uses video, print and sculpture to rehabilitate some of the most vicious scenes.
Upon entering the first room, an off-white wax mould hangs aggressively close to the entrance, practically hitting the viewer in the face. The mould, featuring a bouquet of chrysanthemums, baby’s-breath and daisies, combines the first and last meeting of Raoule and Jacques from flower shop to mannequin. Just beyond the hanging sculpture, a small grouping of the wax replicas rest against a blank white wall. The transformation of Jacques fills the space between the original and the replicas, he is the wax itself.
Positioned in the centre wall of the room, a video screens every half hour. In this piece, Jacques (played by Adam Benmakhlouf) cheerfully drives to a small cobbled home where Raoule (played by Charlotte Percival) gleefully greets him, dressed in a tight green dress and rhinestone choker. A group of friends welcome Jacques into the home and invite him to take a seat as Raoule begins to dress his face with heavy make-up. The friends smile and make Jacques tea as Raoule transforms him into Mistress Silvert. While the scene plays out, transcriptions from ‘Monsieur Venus’ run along the bottom of the screen in neon font. Raoule finishes her masterpiece with a small tiara and a black lace veil over the Mistress’s face. Jacques leaves the house as Mistress Silvert and enters into the dark evening alone.
Opposite the screening is a sky-blue room with two half opened doors. The last chapter of Rachilde’s novel hangs on the entrance like a warning for what lies inside. The washed-out brushstrokes of the grey-blue walls glow from the track-lighting directed away from the figure lying in the corner. A pile of cardboard boxes marked ‘fragile’ are covered by a draping sheet of rubber. Two eyes and eyebrows are drawn towards the top of the sculpture while on either side absent fingernails are painted in with nail polish. This figure is the final form of Jacques.
In the room, which feels like something between a dream and a morgue, Crewe leaves traces of herself meekly tucked behind a door. A scrolling parchment-coloured paper clings to the back of the glass where Crewe scribes personal confessions of her struggles with gender identity. “What femininity can you afford?” among other phrases are written in red paint with a knife. She describes practices that allow her to show hints of her femininity like wearing like nail polish or drawing in her eyebrows. Through these signals, Crewe attaches Jacques to herself and redefines Jacques’ life as a mistress.