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Issue 232

Two Exhibitions in Berlin Showcase Queer Beauty in All its Forms

'Queering Photography’ at C/O Berlin and ‘Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer’ at Schwules Museum explore representations of identity, gender, disability and sexuality

BY Kevin Brazil in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 18 NOV 22

For many years now, I’ve collected old photographs that I’ve found for sale at street markets and in junk shops. Portraits of people, stuffed in cardboard boxes, costing 50 cents or a euro. They’re the kind of photographs in which people look back at you from a world that is at once singularly specific (a child in a sailor suit standing on a balcony) and utterly mysterious (who is that child and why are they there?). This is what is seductive about people in photographs shorn of all context: they give just enough for us to fantasize whole worlds, because their own world is one we will never know.

Anonymous, Mrs Kerr Schlatter Sallars and Bentzinger, ca. 1910, photograph. Courtesy: Sebastien Lifshitz

‘Queerness in Photography’, an exhibition of three related photographic collections staged at C/O Berlin, opens with rooms and rooms of such images: 19th and 20th century European and American prints, taken from the French director and art collector Sébastien Lifshitz’s extensive archive of vernacular photographs. In curating a selection of portraits that show queerness in photography, this part of the show is caught in a perhaps unavoidable contradiction. To choose portraits of people presumed to be queering our norms of gender and sexuality from a larger photographic archive requires making the assumption that they have internalized binaries – male and female, heterosexual and homosexual – and are transgressing them in their presentation as crossdressers or female impersonators. In some photographs, this is clearly taking place. In one grid of anonymous images, arranged like a comic strip, a person arrives in a studio wearing a woman’s coat and hat and, in a sequence of exposures, changes into a man’s suit. Here, subject and photographer are playing with binaries – to question them, to make fun of them and, ultimately, to gain some relief from them.

‘Queerness in Photography’, 2022–23, exhibition view, C/O Berlin. Courtesy: the artists and C/O Berlin. Photograph: David von Becker

But, for many other images on display, we can deduce very little about how these people understand themselves. Who is to say, for example, that a full-length profile portrait of someone dressed in a 1920s ball gown, their sharp jaw turned over their shoulder, their muscular forearm sheathed in a white glove, is a man dressed as a woman, a crossdresser, trans or even queer at all? What makes these amateur images so captivating is not only that they show a history of queer representation in photography, but also that they remind us how little we should assume about how anyone relates to ideologies of sex and gender. After all: what do we really know about anyone from just looking at them?

Anonymous, Guilda, ca. 1950. Courtesy: Sébastien Lifshitz

A second section consisting of photographs taken by members of Casa Susanna, a former holiday camp in upstate New York run by Susanna and Marie Valenti, presents a world in which we not only know who these people understood themselves to be but also what they wanted to use photography in order to become. As an extract from Lifshitz’s film documentary, Casa Susanna (2022), tells us, in the 1950s and ’60s, the camp offered a place where men – often accompanied by their wives – could safely dress up as women, whether as transvestites or crossdressers, and a place where trans women could meet to share knowledge, care and support.

Anonymous and undated photograph taken at Casa Susanna. Courtesy: Cindy Sherman

And, as so many of the photographs on display show, where they could come together and look gorgeous. Whether it is in elegant gowns or simple tailored dresses, what the photographs from Casa Susanna share with those in the earlier rooms is that they show people using photography to produce a beautiful image of themselves. This isn’t just the beauty of the Hollywood diva, her hair sculpted into a Marcel wave, nor the charm of the rogue in stained overalls and leather pumps. These photographs show people wanting to look beautiful in ordinary life: at a potluck dinner, at Christmas, out for a country walk. The same can be said of the selection of photographs on the top two floors, curated by the actress Tilda Swinton, in which artists respond to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928). Including works such as Mickalene Thomas’s Orlando Series (2019), this exhibition within an exhibition shows artists transgressing norms of gender and sexuality by embracing norms of beauty.  

Mickalene Thomas, Untitled, 1919, colour photograph. Courtesy: the artist

A concurrent exhibition at the Schwules Museum, on the other hand, raises questions about the ideals of beauty that have historically been embraced by queer people, demonstrating how contemporary artists are pushing at the limits of artistic media in order to change what it means to perceive beauty, pleasure and joy. ‘Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer’ opens with reproductions of Greek statues, such as the Venus de Milo (c.150–25 BCE), to illustrate the norms of physical beauty which have contributed to the stigmatization of other bodies for millennia. They are part of the ideological infrastructure that enables some bodies and disables others, deems some desirable and others dispensable.

‘Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer’, 2022-23, exhibition view, Schwules Museum, Berlin. Courtesy: the artists and Schwules Museum. Photograph: Patricia Sevilla Ciordia/Schwules Museum

‘Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer’ is Germany’s first international exhibition exploring the intersections of queerness and disability, and the archival materials on display engage with the specific resonances this relationship has in Berlin today. Hundreds of thousands of disabled people were forcibly sterilized and killed in the gas chambers of the Third Reich and, while that might seem part of Germany’s past, a Nazi propaganda flyer illustrating how much the care of a disabled person costs the ‘average worker’ in taxes is not so different as many might like to think from the political sloganeering of the contemporary far right. One of the most valuable contributions of this show is the way it foregrounds the distinctive history of queer disability art and activism that developed in Germany as a response to these conditions. It presents photographic portraits of artists and poets including Gunter Trube, who established the first organization for queer d/Deaf people in West Germany in 1985, and Mattais Vernaldi, who founded Hartoda in 1978 in the DDR as a commune for people with disabilities. For both, the right to queer sexual pleasure was always a core aspect of their struggle for self-determination. The dance performances of Raimund Hoghe, who for many years worked as a choreographer with Pina Bausch, are shown here in video recordings in which, he explains, he made his own body ‘the story’. For Hoghe, who had scoliosis, his own specific way of moving in pieces such as Swan Lake (2008) was how he pursued his ‘fight for beauty – the real beauty of people’.

Joey Solomon, Self Portrait with Robert Andy Coombs in My Dorm Room, 2019, detail. © Joey Solomon, Manhattan, New York

This use of queer and crip experience as the starting point for a wider transformation of aesthetic norms is shared by some of the most compelling contemporary works on display. RA Walden’s installation xây ithra: a pledge (2021) includes booklets summarizing a language the artist developed in collaboration with the linguist Margaret Ransdell-Green in response to the restrictive ableism of the English language. ‘Yala’, for instance, simultaneously means ‘body, home and the planet earth’, refusing to make perceptual distinctions that destroy the planet as much as produce hierarchies of beauty and desire. Similarly, in the video piece In my language (2007), Mel Baggs posits that it is the failure of non-autistic people to learn the artist’s perceptual language – a ‘constant conversation with every aspect of my environment’, translated here into the medium of recorded sound and image – that makes them non-communicative rather than the other way around. Baggs’s work is a reminder that other aesthetic languages don’t need to be invented: they already exist. As he concludes: ‘Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible.’

‘Queerness in Photography’, is on view at C/O Berlin until 18 January 2023. ‘Queering the Crip, Cripping the Queer’ is on view at Schwules Museum, Berlin, until 30 January 2023.

Main image: Anonymous, Bambi and the Cross-Dressers Band of The Carrousel of Paris (detail), 1958, photograph. Courtesy: Sébastien Lifshitz

Kevin Brazil is a writer and critic based in London, UK. His book, What Ever Happened to Queer Happiness was published by Influx Press in 2022.