BY Raphael Gygax in Features | 25 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

Mirror, mirror ...

Since the 1970s, Manon has used staged identities – and glamour – to devise new strategies for femininity

BY Raphael Gygax in Features | 25 MAY 12

La dame au crâne rasé, 1977–78, photography series

In 1968, Jean Aurel directed the glamorous Nouvelle Vague film Manon 70 based on Antoine-François Prévost’s novella Manon Lescaut (1731), one of the earliest literary imaginings of a femme fatale. In the lead role as an indomitable, free-thinking but also extravagant and immoral Manon: Catherine Deneuve. For the soundtrack Serge Gainsbourg wrote a key chanson which addresses the ambivalent relationship between love and hate for Manon and which plays masterfully on the homophony between her name and the French ‘Mais non’ (but no): ‘Manon, non tu ne sais sûrement pas à quel point je haïs ce que tu es […] Perverse Manon, perfide Manon, cruelle Manon, je dois avoir perdu la raison, je t’aime Manon.’1 Manon stood for self-empowerment and sexual freedom, for a life outside social conventions – regardless of the consequences.

Das lachsfarbene Boudoir, 1974, Installation view, 2006

In 1971, Sissi Zöbeli and Ursula Rodel founded the fashion label Thema Selection in a squat on Venedigstrasse in Zurich. The artist Walter Pfeiffer – who also acted as chronicler to this young Zurich creative scene – captured the moment in a photograph which shows the founders as well as two conspicuous yet central figures: a man in sunglasses and a woman with a headscarf. The woman looks directly into the camera – self-confident but slightly disconnected from her surroundings – and calls herself Manon. At this point, she is married to Urs Lüthi, whose androgynously staged self-portraits are making him a name as one of Switzerland’s rising young artists. Some of these pictures were made in collaboration with Manon, who performs a mirroring function as in Manon as a Self-Portrait (Like a Bird) (1971). Manon had not yet made her exhibition debut as an artist (she worked, among other things, as a model, stylist and graphic designer and briefly ran her own fashion boutique in 1972). But she was known in the Zurich art world as a fascinating, sphinx-like figure and is often described as such by people who met her at the time during openings and at nightlife haunts. With hindsight, this mode of self-presentation – putting herself on display – can already be understood as an artistic strategy. The strategy – in which character and work coincide – has remained a basic constant of her art. It’s equally possible to read this form of ‘permanent performance’ or ‘life performance’ as a reaction to a social and topographic context. At the time, Zurich was still far from being the cosmopolitan city it is today. The longing for increased openness and liberalization was reflected across Europe in a generation of artists who began using the surfaces of their own bodies as a means of self-stylization, so that a ‘glamorous’ moment – in the original sense of ‘magic’ or ‘enchantment’ – erupted into the everyday world and became a declaration of war against the bourgeois middle class. These artists – think of David Bowie or The Cockettes – used glamour as a strategic category in their aesthetic practice. There was a resurgence of this movement, with figures such as Leigh Bowery in the 1980s and also in the early days of rave culture.

La dame au crâne rasé, 1977–78, photography series

In 1974, Manon was invited to do a solo exhibition at Galerie Li Tobler in Zurich, where she showed the environment Das lachsfarbene Boudoir (The salmon coloured boudoir, 1974), which was to become one of her main works and which has been reconstructed several times in recent years for various exhibitions. The environment – an octagonal wooden pavilion, open only on one side – is a replica of Manon’s bedroom at the time. Transferring a private space into the public sphere can be read not only as a continuation of the gesture of showing and performing but also as a provocation of the male-dominated art world. In this scenario with its baroque array of props, souvenir photographs and insignia, the viewer can read the room both as a feminine topography and as an architectural embodiment of the artist herself. Opened up in this way, the boudoir – the epitome of a feminine architecture (designed by men) – is the motto of the 1968 generation ‘the personal is poli­tical’ made manifest. Issues of identity and self-portrayal were also addressed by Manon in her performance Manon Presents Man (1976), in which she displayed seven men as a tableau vivant in a Zurich shop, inspired by the brothel display windows of Hamburg and Amsterdam. Besides focusing attention on men as objects of desire (clothed and put on display according to the artist’s instructions), this set-up also turns each man into a mirror image of Manon’s artistic persona – a persona that is the sum of these stereotypes, which have names like ‘Steppenwolf’ (a bearded guy in a leather coat), ‘SS Bösch’ (in leather), ‘Dorian Gray von Castelberg’ (a dandy) or ‘Juicy Lucy’ (the transvestite). A boy named ‘The Great Blondino’ wears a t-shirt that says ‘Manomania’, signalling the triumph of the Manon brand. The fact that this was pure self-mythologization is illustrated by an article in the biggest-selling Swiss tabloid Blick titled ‘Manon shows live men and says: this is art!’

Borderline, 2007, photography series

In 1977 she published On Manon ’74–77, a cross between a catalogue of works and an artist’s book. In the foreword she describes the project as a ‘record of the last three years of my life’. For this publication in particular (a second edition appeared in 2001), the artist assembled a collage of personal photographs, film stills, promotional material and her art works into a body of work; the publication still offers a representative impression of the total art work that is Manon. The collapse of theatricality is an immanent component, just as extravagance, exaggeration and excess belong to the repertoire of the kind of glamour recorded on the pages. And this collapse is clearly announced: ‘With my final live show […] I drew a line under my work as an “image artist” (this label is not of my own invention). […] I will create a new MANON. As a logical consequence, I will make different works. In a different place.’

This different place was Paris, her residence until 1980. Manon dramatized her departure from Zurich with the performance The Artist is Present (1977), executed together with 16 extras who she turned into copies of herself. Identically dressed in raincoats, hats and sunglasses and with identical makeup, these series of self-transformations appeared at various locations – a final documentary photograph shows one of the 17 Manons on a train, bidding the others farewell. This multiplication of an image created by the artist herself can also be read as a deconstruction of that image, while calling into question the cult of genius and authenticity surrounding the figure of the artist. Consider the performance of the same name presented by Marina Abramovic´ as part of her 2010 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art where she invited people to be like a silent audience to a high priestess. As announced, Manon’s departure from Zurich brought a shift in her work towards a deeper engagement with staged photographic self-portraits – a format unlike performance since the public is largely excluded from its creation. This practice continues to shape Manon’s artistic activity today. The series entitled La dame au crâne rasé (The lady with the shaved head, 1977-78) – made in cooperation with the architect Thierry Würth – originally included at least 158 photographs but later was reduced to 36). The series revolves around the shorn Manon who stages herself with her trademark radical artificiality against the atmospheric backdrop of Paris in many different roles: as a fallen angel on the rooftops, as a divine creature, but also as a classicist sculpture fitting seamlessly into the stone architecture. The strategy of using one’s own body to create multiple images and different simulacra is seen in the work of a number of artists in the second half of the 1970s – from Cindy Sherman to Hannah Wilke and Lynn Hershman, to name the most prominent examples. According to Roland Barthes’s definition, a simulacrum reconstructs its object via selection and recombination, thus creating it afresh. The result is a ‘world which resembles the primary one, not in order to copy it but to render it intelligible’.2 And if one follows Craig Owens, whose essay on Posing (1992) discusses masquerade as a feminist strategy, then self-performance and masquerade (how Manon’s shaved head might also be read) are using the female body to override certain codes of objectification.

Einst war sie Miss Rimini, 2003, photography series

More photographic works in the same vein followed until the early 1980s; at that point, Manon stopped making art until 1990. It seems to make sense that artistic projects using one’s own body to address the affects and effects of glamour will always be tainted with the disappointment of an unkept promise – an admission of incompleteness and transience. And the body of work with which Manon returned in the 1990s certainly suggests this admission. Take Damenzimmer (Ladies’ Room, 1990), an installation marked by its strongly theatrical lighting: 18 jewellery boxes on black plinths are given auras of light in a black-walled room while each of the silk-lined boxes is dedicated to a woman close to Manon’s heart, from Coco Chanel to Virginia Woolf. This work finds Manon expanding her viewpoint to include a historical dimension and beginning to address themes like transitoriness and memory. Around the same time, towards the end of the 1990s, she took a historical look at her early work, viewing it beyond the narrow confines of a single, hermetically sealed geographical context. As her work received new, international attention from a younger generation of curators, critics and artists, Manon responded to the historicization of her own oeuvre with a certain lightness, as reflected in a series like Einst war sie Miss Rimini (She was once Miss Rimini, 2003). This work is based on the figure of a fictional former Miss Rimini, for whom, decades later, Manon acts out a whole range of biographical sequels in photographic portraits which range from an aging diva to a cancer patient – speculations on what her life might look like today. Evidently, these bio­graphies can be viewed as further foils for the figure of Manon herself, whose career path crosses that of Miss Rimini at various points. Questions of self-mythologization also play a central role in her most recent work, Hotel Dolores (2009–10) which is set in the architecture of dilapidated former spa hotels in Baden Baden and consists of over 170 photographs. Within this cartography of interiors tinged with nostalgia, Manon positions props from earlier performances and installations, as well as photographs of earlier works. This interweaving of different times and stories not only results in a certain morbid beauty, but also can be read as a meditation on loss and transience – thus as yet another self-portrait. While the viewer acts as an archaeologist, excavating another stratum of the ‘Manon site’, Manon herself is already adding the next layer. And in the background Gainsbourg sings: ‘Je t’aurais déjà perdue Manon …’3
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

1 ‘Manon, you surely don’t know how much I hate what you are [...] perverse Manon, perfidious Manon, cruel Manon, I must have lost my mind, I love you Manon.’
2 Roland Barthes, The Structuralist Activity (1963), in Critical Essays, Chicago, 1972, p. 215
3 ‘[I thought] I’d already lost you, Manon …’

Raphael Gygax is an art historian and critic. He lives in Zurich, where he has worked at the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art since 2003.