‘Transformer: Aspects of Travesty’ was a ‘re-proposition’ of the exhibition of the same name organized by Jean-Christoph Ammann at the Kunstmuseum Lucerne in 1974. The original catalogue included texts on and by Brian Eno, Mick Jagger, The New York Dolls and David Bowie, alongside a profusion of photographs: by Urs Luthi of himself in feminized and aged personae, by Katharina Sieverding of herself in photo booths and by Walter Pfeiffer of a heavily made-up ephebe. Mostly European and born in the 1930s and ’40s, these artists could all broadly be said to use strategies of self-presentation (clothing, make-up, expression, gesture) to manipulate norms of identity, producing what Ammann called the ‘ambivalent image’.
Not included in the original catalogue, however, was a list of works. This general scarcity of documentation makes ‘Transformer’ a wilful choice for re-staging, although as a key point of reference for two recent surveys – ‘Glam! The Performance of Style’ at Tate Liverpool and ‘Painting After Performance’ at Tate Modern, London (both 2013) – it’s also a timely one. Whilst the show attempted a form of continuity by including at least one work from each of the 12 artists featured in 1974, the impossibility of a precise re-creation was taken as an opportunity for play (even, perhaps, travesty). A floor lamp, for example, which had spotlighted a work by Urs Luthi in 1974, shone instead on a piece by Luciano Castelli, hung next to Luthi’s You are not the only one who is lonely (1974) – given the low profile of the majority of the ‘Transformer’ artists in the UK, an almost ironic nod to the vagaries of recognition.
‘Transformer’ took its title from Lou Reed’s 1972 LP, but another album, released almost concurrently with the original exhibition’s opening, and more responsive to the contemporary socio-economic situation, is a more apt comparison: Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, with its dystopian milieu of ‘vicious hoods, with Bowie knives and furs on’. The projection of this combination of glamour and threat seemed the purpose of Jürgen Klauke’s photographic self-portrait (Transformer, 1974), in which the artist sports red leather trousers, heels, a crimson fur stole and white face paint, offering his behind to the camera while jutting out the large grey fabric penises strapped across his chest. Both penetrator and penetratee, Klauke presents an ‘ambivalent’ figure, but not one who deconstructs gender norms, much less transcends them. Instead, he seems to revel in the capacity of the sartorial look to menace – a performance, like that described by The New York Dolls’ Andrew Johanssen in the catalogue, in which ‘provocation becomes that much more provocative, aggression becomes more aggressive, the masculine side all the more masculine and the feminine side all the more feminine’.
In this light, it’s as a conduit for either generalized revolt or intensified self-expression, rather than as a route towards a specifically feminist or queer politics, that ‘travesty’ seems to appeal to the artists included in the re-staged ‘Transformer’. (It should be noted that as well as including only one woman, the show’s artists are mostly heterosexual.) The former course was taken up by The Cockettes’ 1972 film Elevator Women in Revolt: positioning debauchery pretty literally as an assault on some vaguely conceived ‘establishment’ values and iconography, its protagonists, played by women and men in drag, quote Marx before raping their exploitative boss, who ejaculates over a copy of a Whistler portrait of his mother. On the other hand, a more private, libidinally invested process of self-discovery was at work in Castelli’s luscious ‘Spiegelsaal’ (Hall of Mirrors, 1973) series of photographic self-portraits, or Luigi Ontani’s softly coloured series depicting himself as a ‘Shy Onaninst from the Forest’ (1960). Meanwhile, the presence of Pierre Molinier’s extraordinary images of himself and others in women’s underwear, already lauded by André Breton two decades before ‘Transformer’, was a reminder of the surrealist genealogy of drag performance. His collages’ profusion of legs, arms and buttocks recall Hans Bellmer’s iconic poupées (dolls) made in the mid-1930s, as well looking forward to Cindy Sherman’s disassembled mannequins of the 1980s.
Just as this restaging tried to make a strength of a potential weakness by eschewing historical responsibility for deliberate discontinuity, the works in ‘Transformer’ were marked by the economy of means with which self-transformation could be approached: a smudge of lipstick and the sucking in of cheeks for Luthi; for Molinier, his wife’s underwear, a few props and his attic; for Tony Morgan, some false eyelashes and a prolonged spell of staring in the mirror, which apparently unleashed his shamanic alter ago, Herman Fame, in 1972. Castelli’s painfully honest My room (1973), showed only tights strung across a flaking radiator, a poster tacked to the wall above it, some heels discarded about the floor. At a time when some strands of ‘performance’ become ever more elaborate, immersive and expensive (Ontani, who once graced the cover of RoseLee Goldberg’s 1979 book Performance Art, has since been replaced by Matthew Barney), Castelli’s image spoke movingly of the conditions of bareness and necessity out of which an art of travesty can emerge, and suggested too how the DIY aspect of this moment, its politics and its economic environment, might link up. As the title of a 1973–74 work by Alex Silber had it: If you can no longer emigrate, you become your own journey.