BY Burkhard Meltzer in Reviews | 05 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116

Renate Lorenz & Pauline Boudry

Les Complices, Zurich, Switzerland

BY Burkhard Meltzer in Reviews | 05 JUN 08

Renate Lorenz & Pauline Boudry, Normal Work (2007), DVD still

The 19th-century British diarist Arthur Munby was fond of working women, especially when heavy physical labour had given them a pronounced masculine appearance. On his extensive travels around Britain, he took photographic portraits of many such women. Munby explored his preferences not only in these private sociological studies, but also in a sadomasochist love affair with his maidservant Hannah Cullwick, whom he secretly married after a 20-year relationship in 1873. In her free time, Cullwick, sometimes accompanied by Munby, would visit photographic studios to pose as a labourer, a black slave or a bourgeois lady.

While researching the representation of gender roles, Berlin-based artists Renate Lorenz and Pauline Boudry happened upon an archive of images and writings by this 19th century couple, from which they adopted a number of motifs to form the basis of their Zurich show. A room devoted to the ‘Cullwick and Munby Collection’ presented some of the original images in a museum-like setting; with selected framed works documenting this historical attempt to broach the boundaries of gender and status via staged photography.

For Cullwick, slipping into the part of the exotic Other while continuing to embody a number of roles in her working and private life doesn’t seem to have been a problem. In spite of her altered social status after marrying Munby, Cullwick insisted on continuing to work for him and on being paid a wage for doing so. In today’s terms, Cullwick’s hobby of staging photographic scenes and her way of life, both departing from what would have been generally accepted gender roles, could be described as queer. At the same time, taken together, the diaries and photographic material she left behind vividly conjure up the working conditions of a Victorian domestic servant. In one image, her dirty hands push up the short sleeves of her dress further still, revealing her muscular arms to the photographer. The leather strap she wears around her wrist, her ‘slave band’ as she called it, symbolizes her role in the relationship with Munby.

A century and a half later, Boudry and Lorenz’s 13-minute colour DVD Normal Work (2007) invites viewers to a public rehearsal of Cullwick’s staged scenarios. The projection is framed by theatre curtains. Against a series of backdrops, including a Romantic landscape and a 19th-century bourgeois salon, an actor (credited as Werner Hirsch, though it remains unclear whether this in turn might be the pseudonym of a drag performer) recreates four of Cullwick’s poses, directed from off-screen by a clearly audible female voice. As he constantly checks his posture in a mirror and varies the identity of his figure, there are brief pauses and strange uncertainties in his performance. From the comfort of the ‘auditorium’, viewers are able to follow the laborious rehearsals and ultimate control required to create these still images: a serving girl in Victorian dress steps in front of a landscape; she slowly pushes up the sleeve of her smock, showing off her well-developed muscles; looking proudly into the camera, she smiles contentedly. Visibly marked by the way she earns her living, the maid presents her body to the camera as attractive, desirable, almost auto-erotic.

Ultimately, the uncertain relationship between the mirror, the director and the performer prevents the latter from becoming a mere object of historical scenery and costumes. Instead, by choosing to film a portrayal of a rehearsal, Boudry and Lorenz force a constant repositioning of the characters in relation to wage labour, sexuality and social role, successfully linking the visual fantasies of a historical worker with the working process of contemporary artistic production. As the film starts, the performer walks across the set in modern street clothes and personally puts the finishing touches to various details on a woodland backdrop. In the second scene, he re-enacts a historical performance against this background, while in the third, an S&M photograph (Del LaGrace Volcano’s Daddy Boy Dykes, 1991) suddenly appears in its place. In the final scene, he – still in the attire of a Victorian woman – starts to speak of the various other jobs he will have to do in the coming weeks to finance his participation in Boudry and Lorenz’s film project. Speaking in English with a strong German accent, he explains that he actually has a master’s degree, and earns his living as a part-time university lecturer, assistant librarian and furniture packer.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell