Hiding and disguising are essential tropes in queer history and identity. “Passing”, or the need to alter oneself in a way that keeps you safe from harm, was and in many cases still is central for queer survival. However, this strategy of assimilating normative patterns in order to fit specific social rubrics also triggers the drive behind the pleasure of (self-) performing that became associated with queer culture. Like the iconic ballroom walks or drag culture in general, these staging patterns are appropriated and turned up on their heads—a flamboyant disguise, a fabulous camouflage, a celebration of shape-shifting.
The starting point for the exhibition “The Burnt Letters of Victoria”, curated by Muriel Meyer and Paula Kommoss at the Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim, is a secret or a rumour. Letters of a princess—that may or may not have contained a testimony of queer desire and forbidden love—were burnt and made into ashes by the writer herself. This is no mere fairytale, as Victoria zu Bentheim (1887–1961) was indeed a princess, and a rebellious one. In 1912, together with her sister Elisabeth and with the support of their aunt Emma (Queen of the Netherlands), they insisted on taking the school-leaving examinations (Abitur) even though unprecedented in those days. A year after, Victoria moved to Berlin and began studying architecture at the Royal Technical College in Berlin (today TU Berlin) under special permission of the Kaiser himself, becoming one of the first women that ever set foot in these classrooms.
Perhaps it is the old swamp gasses that converge below the streets of Berlin that are to blame, as Victoria zu Bentheim, like so many who come to this fleshly city in their mid-twenties, found herself exploring and moulding her own self and sexuality no less the industrial materials of her newly acquired profession: “[…] In doing so she was swept up, being lavished with kisses like wisps of dewy flower petals from all angles as it seemed every woman in the room was waiting for this very thing. So, she succumbed, smothered in their scents & hair & fabrics, powders & lubricating tongues; finally learning the exact choreography of this most unorthodox form of love-making.”
Jordan/Martin Hell’s V for Victoria (2022) is a surrealist, absurdist novella imagining the adventure the young princesses could have had at the turn of the century, from which the above quote is taken. In Hell’s story, parts of which were beautifully read on the opening night, Victoria and her sister Elisabeth, who went on to study painting, are, in fact, witches, trying to deal with their inner powers while navigating a world controlled by men. On the wall of the Kunstverein, Hell presents Oh, to Be a Painter! (2022), a needled kind of object with a collection of essays by Virginia Woolf under the same title tied to the handle, turning the object into a kind of mythical sword charged with the powers of feminist resistance and critical thinking. Tanya V. Abelson also presents a fantastic object—The Ship of Dreams (2022), a massive sculpture resembling the outline of a high-heel shoe with a kind of sleeping bag/cocoon growing on top of it. One can only imagine the butterfly which will emerge from the cocoon—elegant, gorgeous, with some make-up smears and a bit of attitude.
Inside the main exhibition space, several quilts by Philipp Gufler are hanging from the ceiling, bringing together texts and images from the artist's research into queer history. In one of the pieces, Quilt #15 (Die Freundin – das Ideale Freundschaftsblatt) (2016), covers from the German magazine Freundin are re-printed. It was published between 1924 and 1933 in the days of the Weimar Republic and is considered to be Germany’s first lesbian magazine.
Quilt #26 (Lana Kaiser) (2018) is dedicated to Lana Kaiser, the German signer who took the country by storm in her appearance in the TV show Deutschland sucht den Superstar in 2002 when she still identified as a man under the name of Daniel Küblböck. Already then, at 17, she presented herself as openly bisexual with an androgynous appearance. A hauntingly moving film, Lana Kaiser (2020), also by Gufler is screened between the hanging textile works, weaving together scenes from the star’s televised appearances. Lana lived a complex life in the embracing and burning spotlight. A few years ago, in 2018, after changing her name to Lana and beginning to take hormones, she boarded a cruise ship and went missing at sea. Gufler’s film celebrates and grieves the unfolding of her personal story on public TV, weaving together fragments of appearances that portray her beautifully complex persona.
Francois Pisapia and Pauli Scharlach collaborated in creating Die Ausreißerin (The Runaway) (2020), especially for the exhibition: a photographic collage expanding across the Kunstverein's ten meters long wall, featuring Scharlach in the role of an undercover detective/runaway bride/secret agent of some sort. She wanders around the strip on the backdrop made of pastoral images of suburban white heteronormative fantasies—green loans, picket fences, smiling blond children. The filmic qualities of the work evolve sequentially as one moves across the wall, encountering repetitions and glitches. Scharlach’s cutout figure is contrasted on this background, emphasising her displacement as she explores small-town realities through her performative otherness. Who is she? They ask. What is she planning? And what is she wearing???
Pisapia also performed a collection from his slide-show readings on the opening night. Not unlike the Die Ausreißerin (The Runaway) sequence, Pisapia’s reading rearranges the visual material and re-exposes it in new lights. Against the backdrop of found images depicting fantasies of belonging, plotting and security, Pisapia, in his reading and together with Scharlach in their collage work, intervenes with these imaginaries and superimposes them with gentle, humorous and transgressive interruptions. Or do these interventions, in fact, reveal the things that were there all along? Is the picket-fenced existence the perverse one? Pisapia’s bewitching voice guides us through a meditation on socialisation and control, recolouring the known imagery presented through a poetic and misfit wanderer’s gaze: “Fenced-up plots of asphalt. Dried up moats, body size. Put this heavy heart out to dry”.
We will never know what happened to Victoria during her roaring Berlin days or what lustful secret encounters she experienced during her long life. The letters were burnt, the history erased. However, the burning fire that destroys is also the life-giving one––the drama enhancing, lust and magic evoking hot hot mess. The exhibition that now runs in Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim is a celebration of that life, which, as so often is the case with queer and other persecuted peoples, is inherently infused with lamentation.
The Burnt Letters of Victoria
Tanya V. Abelson, Philipp Gufler, Jordan/Martin Hell, François Pisapia & Pauli Scharlach.
Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim