Transformer: Aspects of Travesty
Richard Saltoun Gallery, London
13 December 2013 - 28 February 2014
Review by Beverley Knowles
Since they moved to 111 Great Titchfield Street, Richard Saltoun’s gallery have been making a name for themselves with a programme of powerful, zeitgeisty and often gender politicked shows. The 40th anniversary re-staging of ‘Transformer: Aspects of Travesty’ is their latest triumph.
The original 1974 touring show - which was a cult hit in Switzerland, Germany and Austria but, perhaps unsurprisingly, had no presence at all in Harold Wilson’s Britain - played with the transgression of mostly male gendered identity, largely, but not always, through the medium of drag.
In Saltoun’s ‘Transformer’ all the same artists are present, but not necessarily the same works and 40 years after its original showing it cannot be asking all the same questions either. Re-staged or otherwise, exhibitions must be a product of their own time or they will fail to come alive. Heavily tied in with the glam rock, hippie era the aesthetic here feels very time specific, but the issues raised are every bit as relevant today, in our post-Butler age, as they were then.
At first one’s attention is snared on the dramatic beauty of Luciano Castelli’s sequinned cross-dressing. Silver stilettos, bare torso, ruby lips, a sexuality that is powerfully seductive, self-objectifying and heart-breakingly vulnerable all at the same time. There’s a tragic pathos to the images of Castelli writhing alone ‘On Ueli’s Bed’, highlighted by the sight of the self-timer trailing out of the picture frame.
Jurgen Klauke’s shots of himself are far more disturbing and confrontational. In ‘Umarmung [Embrace]’ (1973/4), a pair of prosthetic cocks are strapped to his chest, the place where one of them should be swaddled in red leather and bandage. His face is turned to us accusingly, as though this were all our fault, which of course it is, for succumbing to the construct as though it were the truth. Some of us can live the lie, others cannot.
Also playing a large part is Pierre Molinier, whose work seems less interested in gender politics and more in the arguably related field of deconstructing bourgeois morality. Portraits of bizarrely contorted, semi-clad, multi-limbed women and others of Molinier’s torso sodomising itself with a dildo attached to the back of a stiletto don’t do it for me. But perhaps that speaks of my own boundaries and prejudices as much as anything else, ergo indirectly validating the work.
Some of the most touching photographs here are the double portraits of Urs Luthi and David Weiss (pre-dating Weiss’s 1978 first meeting with Peter Fischli) in endearing, almost Morecombe and Wise-esque representations of male friendship. The two of them on bicycles, front wheels overlapping; one piggy-backing the other; hovering back to back above the ground supporting each other in a gesture of mutual trust. Subtly they go beyond the stereotypes of what a male/male relationship might entail.
Katharina Sieverding is the only woman artist in the show. Rightly or wrongly I can’t help reading this as a sign that even whilst gross taboos and assumptions were being so boldly transgressed in the search for a deeper beauty, other gendered boundaries remained firmly in place.
According to curator Giulia Casalini few of the artists in the exhibition are (or were) gay. Shy of didacticism I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about that, but at the very least let it be a warning against crass interpretations of the significance of looking beyond gender binaries. As Urs Luthi says in a self-portrait image that appears in the original Transformer catalogue: THIS IS ABOUT YOU.