At the opening of ‘The Eighth Square – Gender, Life and Desire in Art Since 1960’, an emphasis was placed on the ‘historic nature’ of the exhibition. Including around 260 works by 80 artists, it is the first large survey in a major German art institution dedicated to what the press release diplomatically called ‘marginalized sexuality’, although off the record people are just calling it ‘the Ludwig’s queer show’. Full of images of proud, admittedly mostly white, German and American radicalized flesh, it was, by abrupt turns, fascinating and annoying, moving and heavy-handed.
Perhaps such an undertaking couldn’t have been otherwise. With this topic there are always going to be irresolvable issues about every definition used, about inclusions and omissions (noted with sadness, shining through absence) and about the mutual misunderstandings that occur when subcultures appear tamed for the mainstream. The foyer set the scene, with Peter Knoch’s cute doll’s house memorial bar (Stonewall Inn, 2006), Michaela Melián’s weird spinning silver tables (Convention, 1999–2000/2006), Jack Pierson’s black streamer performance corner (Black Jackie, 1991/2006) and then, towering above the reception desk like profane stained glass, a Gilbert and George (Drunk with God, 1983). The show’s abstract title was a reference to the square on the chessboard where a dogged pawn transforms into a powerful queen (but that’s only if s/he/it makes it to the end of the board without being captured). The subtitle cast a net so large that arguably all art since 1960 might have been included. But plenty else was on offer: a programme of talks and films, an accompanying novella, free to every ticket holder, by Thomas Meinecke (Feldforschung, Field Research, 2006) and a soundtrack, in case you preferred to view the show wired for sound.
Curators Frank Wagner and Julie Friedrich’s floor plan had ten open-ended sections: ‘prelude’, ‘establishing identity through de-sign’, ‘sexy machismo’, ‘accursed worlds’, ‘trans-sexuality’, ‘female to male to female’, ‘friendships’, ‘AIDS, outsiders, discrimination’, ‘portrait and identity’ and ‘places of desire’. The works were hung on and around artist Eran Schaerf’s cubicles, partitions and white fabric; the intention seemed to be to force a kind of one-on-one, truncated viewing with no possibility of easy summations. The other distinctive feature of this institutional ‘first time’ was the way it sprawled flagrantly beyond the confines of the host’s temporary exhibition hall into the massive stairwell over various levels. This caused a jolly kind of confusion and clash with the permanent collection: a spread of paintings by Kasimir Malevich near a booth showing slides of Jack Smith in costume (Moses, 1974), Gerhard Richter’s sombre men in grey looking across to Piotr Nathan’s unhinged toilet doors Neue-Romantik-Schriften zu den Leidenschaften des 20. Jahrhunderts: die Jungs (New Romantic Writings on the Passions of the 20th Century: The Boys, 1993).
Within the exhibition, discursive mixing, not matching, continued. Sprinkled iconoclastically throughout were works (not always the most salient ones) by big names as a kind of ballast, including among many others: Andy Warhol, Pierre Molinier, Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Claude Cahun, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney and Cy Twombly and moving on to Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Gober, General Idea, Nan Goldin and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In between were the real show-stoppers: Peter Hujar’s photographs (tough and romantic, such as Man Leaning against Tree, 1981) and his friend Paul Thek, whose Icarus arm Untitled (Technological Reliquaries) (1967), though amputated, still soars. Overall there was a nagging impression that lesbians and radical feminism in all its variety and schisms, though visible, were comparatively under-represented. Catherine Opie’s photographs and Nicole Eisenman’s sexy, ironic, biting suite of drawings, including Lesbian Recruitment Booth (1993), commanded the gap. Other stand-out contemporaries included Henrik Olesen’s text and image knowledge construction booth, Lack of Information (2001), and Zoe Leonard and Cheryl Dunye’s fake biography of a black cabaret artist, The Fae Richards Photo Archive (Details) (1996).
While in reactionary times we must be grateful for this ground-softening show, and conscious of the achievement it undoubtedly represents, it could have been stricter, more didactic, less flirtatious and consumable, in particular with respect to the political importance of community, and could have taken on board even more radically its own definitional power. It was worrying to imagine the straight couple gawking like virgins at Jochen Flinzer’s embroidered drawings (‘Pants down Sailor!’ Tom of Finland, 1998) or the titillated teenage boys (their jeans hanging low on their arse cheeks and their own sexual natures still a matter of secrecy and negotiation) whose faces were reflected in Bruce Nauman’s orgy neon Seven Figures (1985), all having the idea of queer confirmed as sexually exotic and essentially irrelevant to them. Of course, I write this knowing that, when you are thirsty, it is dumb to complain that the full glass you are belatedly offered has lipstick on the rim.