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by Fiona McGovern

From “Transformer” to “Odarodle:”A brief history of exhibiting queer art in the German-speaking world

Exhibitions are formats of public display. They thematize the selection of objects, making them visible and accessible to a wider audience according to specific criteria. Exhibitions referring to or containing queer content therefore can be seen as an indicator of recent developments and changes in society in general, with notable aftershocks in the arts, in institutional politics and curatorial approaches. In the following text I will point out how history, visibility, theory, and public discourse about sexuality are inseparably intertwined by briefly sketching a—far from complete—history of queer-themed art exhibitions in the German-speaking world. This is a history that is still rather hidden, and that owes a lot to the developments in the US—both in regards to its gender and queer discourses and the artistic and curatorial reactions towards it. In 1995, the curator of In a Different Light: Visual Culture, Sexual Identity, Queer Practice at Berkeley Art Museum, Lawrence Rinder, for example, notes his co-curator Nayland Blake’s belief that “there had already been enough surveys of contemporary art by gay men and lesbians”—including his own show “Situation” in 1991.[1] Similar tendencies can actually be observed in Germany. But while Rinder and Blake in the catalogue for In a Different Light make an attempt to provide an historical overview of gay or queer-themed exhibitions, the writing of queer exhibition histories in Germany so far is mostly a product of curatorial revisions of single exhibition projects. With this in mind, I will focus on a selection of exhibitions from Austria, Germany and Switzerland that appear significant for their time, several of them having circulated among those countries.

Fig.1: Transformer. Aspekte der Travestie, Kunstmuseum Luzern, 1974, exhibition catalogue.

Queer before “queer”
“Transformer. Aspekte der Travestie” [Transformer: Aspects of Travesty] (fig. 1), curated by Jean-Christophe Amman at the Kunstmuseum Luzern in Switzerland in spring 1974 (and later shown in Graz and Bochum), today appears as one of the queer exhibitions avant la lettre.[2] Its title referred to the second solo album by Lou Reed from 1972, and indeed the then-current gender-bending trend in music (David Bowie, Brian Eno, Mick Jagger, New York Dolls) and experimental theatre (The Cockettes) from New York was the key influence for this show. Its main focus was the Swiss photographer Urs Lüthi, whose self-portraits in drag were placed in context with works by Jürgen Klauke, Pierre Molinier, Walter Pfeiffer, and Luigi Ontani, among others. Katharina Sieverding was the only woman included in the show. “Travesty,” here defined as the in-between of male and female, therefore was mainly considered from a cis-male perspective. According to Peter Gorsen, who had previously published extensively on women and sexuality in the arts and contributed an extensive essay to the catalogue, “travesty,” rather than transgender, was particularly “interesting for the arts,” because gender here is primarily understood superficially as a matter of appearance—it’s not about actually becoming the other gender.[3] It would take about another forty years until transgender eventually became “interesting for the arts,” but more on that later.

Whereas “Transformer” is not very well-known nor was it broadly commented upon by critics in its time, the exhibition “Eldorado. Homosexuelle Frauen und Männer in Berlin 1850-1950. Geschichte, Alltag und Kultur” [Eldorado: Homosexual Women and Men in Berlin 1850-1950. History, Everyday Life and Culture] at the Berlin Museum in 1984 made headlines across Europe.[4] One reason why this show was so remarkable is that it included both a lesbian and a gay section, at a time when both groups were at odds. Its goal was to represent queer life as an essential part of the city’s history, therefore making “visibility” one of its major issues. Not an art exhibition in the strict sense, “Eldorado” rather aimed for an overall depiction of gay and lesbian lives in Berlin, not shying away from what a current perspective might understand as mere cliché (the lesbian café, the gay cruising area). As it ended in the year 1950, it maintained a historical distance, but nonetheless caused protests even before its opening.[5] Today it is considered the founding exhibition of the Schwules Museum*, which came into being in 1985 and over the years has established itself as a unique place for the display of queer lives and art production until this date.[6]

Fig.2: Vollbild AIDS. Eine Kunstausstellung über Leben und Sterben, neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, Berlin, 1988, exhibition flyer. © neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst / RealismusStudio.

The AIDS-Pandemic: Exhibitions as Public Education
Not long after those early exhibitions, the climate changed. Especially in the US, HIV and AIDS had already become a major issue, and consequently also the topic of several art exhibitions. Due to the lack of direct action by the government, artists and curators alike felt the urge to think about appropriate representations of people infected, of mourning, and of straightforward activism. In 1987, activist groups like ACT UP and its art branch Gran Fury were formed, and in 1988 Nan Goldin curated her show “Witnesses: Against our Vanishing” that included a group of artist friends from New York’s Lower East side that in one way or the other were directly affected by HIV/AIDS.[7] The same year, the late Frank Wagner put together “Vollbild AIDS. Eine Kunstausstellung über Leben und Sterben,” [Complete Clinical Picture AIDS: An Art Exhibition about Life and Death] (fig. 2) at Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst Berlin e.V., the first exhibition that tackled the issue in Germany (it was later presented in Bern and Belmont-sur-Lausanne). By taking a medical term for the title of the show, Wagner indicated that even though the epidemic hadn’t reached its peak in Germany, this might happen soon. Since at this point there was no effective treatment available, he decided to combine both art works and documentation, framing the epidemic as a social as well as political crisis. American artists/activists like the ACT UP affiliate Gran Fury and David Wojnarowicz participated in the show next to other international and Berlin-based artists such as Marcel Odenbach, Astrid Klein, Salomé, and Juan Davila. The exhibit also included homage to the photographers Peter Hujar and Rolf von Bergmann, who had died of AIDS in 1987 and 1988, respectively. The catalogue contained a German translation of Douglas Crimp’s now canonical essay “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” as well as German AIDS public service ads, fictional texts, and factual reports.

Because of this educational approach and implicit warning, this show differed quite a bit from Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen’s “Gegendarstellung. Ethik und Ästhetik im Zeitalter von Aids” [Contra-depiction: Ethics and Aesthetics in Times of AIDS] that came into being at the Kunstverein Hamburg four years later (and then travelled to Luzern). As the title already implies, this exhibit concentrated on the question of a “new ethic and a new aesthetic that came into being under the pressure of AIDS.”[8] Thus, it indirectly referred to a debate that started around 1988, following the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition of the photographer Nicholas Nixon, and subsequent protests against the exhibit organized by Crimp and other AIDS activists. For them, Nixon’s infantilizing depiction of infected people—and utter avoidance of the political context of AIDS—was unethical, at least in the first major American museum exhibition on AIDS, and turned the people portrayed into doomed victims. In Schmidt-Wulffen’s exhibit, the list of mostly US-based artists, working at the intersection of art and activism, included such key figures as Wojnarowicz, Goldin, Félix Gonzáles-Torres, and Robert Gober, as well as collectives such as Gran Fury and Fierce Pussy, but also lesser-known artists such as Diane Neumaier and Brian Well. Tellingly, both exhibitions were originally held at a Kunstverein, the German model of a non-profit art space that is to a large extent funded through its members and is thus not at a publicly-funded museum.

Fig.3: Oh Boy, it´s a girl!, Kunstverein München e.V., 1994, installation view. © Kunstverein München e.V.

Third Wave Feminism and Identity Politics
Once again, it was at a Kunstverein, this time in Munich in 1994 (and then later in Vienna) that hosted a key exhibition of the then newly established field of queer theory: “Oh boy, it’s a girl! Feminismen in der Kunst” [Oh boy, it’s a girl! Feminisms in Art] (fig. 3), curated by Hedwig Saxenhuber and Astrid Wege. Its original conception was a response to to, as they put it, “the disinterest in feminism in the German-speaking countries.”[9] However, the situation had changed by the time of the exhibition, and the discourse around gender had become a “hot topic” (“one gender exhibition is hunting the next, one symposium the other” as they write).[10] Saxenhuber and Wege therefore didn’t even try to give a comprehensive overview, but focused instead on the connections between queer theory and feminism, e.g. breaking away from binary thinking and drawing heavily on the theories of Judith Butler and Leo Bersani (both Gender Trouble and Culture of Redemption were published in 1990). They therefore decided to go for a cross-generational approach and included established feminist artists such as VALIE EXPORT and Carolee Schneemann as well as younger figures such as Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, Julian Goethe and Lukas Duwenhöger, Dorit Margreiter and G.B. Jones, most of them coming either from the U.S., Canada, or a German-speaking country. Not all of the partaking artists were necessarily queer or women themselves, an aspect that reflects the non-binary thinking and proved typical for this type of a more reflective, discourse-oriented exhibition in the 1990s.[11]

Fig.4: Oh… Jakob Lena Knebl und die mumok Sammlung / Oh… Jakob Lena Knebl and the mumok Collection, mumok Wien, 17.3.–22.10.2017. Photograph by: Lisa Rastl. © mumok

Arriving in the Mainstream
When, ten years later, a show at Museum Ludwig in Cologne self-consciously claimed to be “the first queer art exhibition,”[12] the focus again lay somewhere else. “The Eighth Square: Gender, Life, and Desire in the Arts since 1960” was guest-curated by Frank Wagner in association with Julia Friedrich and was mostly meant to celebrate work dealing with queer issues. As Friedrich discusses this exhibition in-depth in her article in this volume,[13] I will here only mention a few key points. One is that they took an issue of the German art magazine Kunstforum international dedicated to “the homoerotic gaze” as their starting point—an issue that as far as I know still marks the only issue of a German art magazine solely dedicated to this perspective on art history.[14] Second, “The Eighth Square,” which “stands for recognition and the still utopian idea of unlimited equality,” as Wagner put it in his catalogue text, included work that in one way or the other dealt with gender issues by over eighty artists.[15] Historically, this large-scale exhibition can be seen as a major achievement and its celebratory tone clearly marked a new momentum. At the same time, not all of the reviews were positive: Martin Büsser, for example, criticized the show for not being critical and activist enough.[16] “It,” as he put it, “just lacked the potential of being scandalous.”[17] Reaching for the mainstream and gaining acceptability clearly helped to canonize the art works on display and make queerness an accepted field within art history—but at the cost of losing some of the political power it once had.

Artists’ Interventions
That not everything had been said—or rather shown—on this topic becomes particularly apparent in view of artists who have come up with their own exhibitions of a queer art history. One of the most ambitious works in this regard is Henrik Olesen’s installation Some Faggy Gestures. Some gay-lesbian artists and/or artists relevant to homo-social culture born between c. 1300-1870, which, among others, was shown at the Migros museum in Zurich in 2007.[18] On seven panels, the Berlin-based artist showed various examples from art history with more or less obvious queer connotations, under headlines like “Männerfreundschaft,” “Baths,” or “American Dykes in Rome,” assembled in a style that resembled Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne. The artist-turned-curator hereby provided an alternative reading of canonical art history, while at times humorously pointing at the blank spots within the usual heteronormative narratives. The public display of this work was preceded by a two-year research period, part of which also ended up in Olesen’s essay “Pre Post: Speaking Backwards,” first published in the anthology Art after Conceptual Art (2006), and later reprinted in the catalogue accompanying Olesen’s show in Zurich.[19]

In 2016, transgender artist Jakob Lena Knebl went for a very different approach and aesthetic. When invited by the Museum of Modern Art in Vienna to curate a show with works from the collection, she turned two floors of the museum into campy experiences of art, obviously breaking with the museum’s usual display modes. The exhibition entitled “Oh…” for example included a Giacometti dressed in a glittery red evening gown as well as a copy of an Ellsworth Kelly painting turned upside down so that it looks like a big blue breast, and re-appropriated by the artist her/himself (fig. 4). The only Picasso in the collection was hung behind a wall and could only been seen through a mirror. All this happened in direct exchange with the curators Barbara Rüdiger and Susanne Neuburger and, therefore, with the full support of the museum. In a slightly twisted way, it now put a transgender artist into focus with an exhibition that was relatively easy to digest and fun to look at.

Fig.5: Vika Kirchenbauer, Welcome Address, single-channel video, 2017, installation view. Photograph by: Alex Giegold, 2017. © schwules museum*/ Vika Kirchenbauer.

Time for Revision
One could say that even if art by queer and trans people or exhibitions thematically related to queer and trans issues have reached the mainstream (and perhaps being a “queer artist” can even be an advantage today), the fight isn’t over but rather beginning all over again. As with any form of labeling, terms like “queer” today face the risk of a narrowed, even normative and stereotypical definition—something that the term itself, once it was re-appropriated by queer people, obviously worked against. When it comes to a queer exhibition history in the German-speaking world, it is particularly remarkable that at least three of the aforementioned shows underwent subsequent revision. “Oh girl, it’s a boy!” at Kunstverein Munich in 2007 played with the title of “Oh boy, it’s a girl!” from fifteen years earlier and attempted to “reconsider, question and re-evaluate the central aspects of the then underlying debates on ‘gender politics’ and ‘gender studies’ in the face of a changed and changing political present.”[20] The three curators, Stefan Kalmár, Daniel Pies (both directors), and the previously-mentioned Henrik Olesen, saw the conflict between “the fight for recognition and integration, on one hand, and the protection of ‘identity difference’ on the other” as central to their argument.[21] In 2013/14, Frank Wagner, together with a team of four other curators, took up his own show to reflect on the history as well as current state of art dealing with the topic of HIV/AIDS in a two-part exhibition, “LOVE AIDS RIOT SEX. Kunst Aids Aktivismus 1987-1995” and “LOVE AIDS RIOT SEX. Kunst Aids 1995 bis heute” [LOVE AIDS RIOT SEX: Art Aids Activism 1987-1995/ 1995 till today],[22] again at nGbK. And last but not least, in 2017, the Schwules Museum* hired a curator—Ashkan Sepahvand—to look at their exhibition history and archive from a postcolonial perspective. The outcome was “Odarodle - Sittengeschichte eines Naturmysteriums, 1535-2017” [Odarodle - An imaginary story of naturepeoples, 1535-2017], a group exhibition including sixteen international artists and a symposium that looked back at their founding exhibition “Eldorado” (the new title is “Eldorado” backwards) (fig. 5). As Birgit Bosold mentions in her article in this issue, Sepahvand’s publicly-funded position was solely for this show. After adding an asterisk to its name in 2004, the Schwules Museum* embarked on an extended conception of inclusivity. Cleary these revisions came out of a need to engage with queer (exhibition) history as well as the need to push forward in new directions, or to put it differently, for the museum to adjust itself to the current discourse.[23] As these examples imply, we can only move forward by first acknowledging our past.


Fiona McGovern is an art historian, curator and educator based in Berlin. She is specialized in (artistic) exhibition histories and theory as well as interdisciplinary approaches within the arts, especially between visual art and music. McGovern has taught on these subjects at various art schools and universities (Free University Berlin, Merz Academy Stuttgart, Berlin University of the Arts, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, University of Potsdam). In 2016 her first monograph Die Kunst zu zeigen. Künstlerische Ausstellungsdisplays bei Joseph Beuys, Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger und Manfred Pernice was published. She is also the co-editor of the conference volume Assign & Arrange. Methodologies of Presentation in Art and Dance (2014) among others, and has frequently contributed to exhibition catalogues and art magazines like frieze and Texte zur Kunst. In 2016 McGovern co-curated the exhibition gelbe MUSIK. Works, notes, and photographs from the archive of Ursula Block at Mathew gallery, Berlin, which in 2017 traveled to New York. Since mid-2016 she is organizing the screening series Sounding Images at Kunsthaus ACUD in Berlin.

Lawrence Rinder, “An Introduction to In a Different Light,” in In a Different Light. Visual Culture, Sexual Identity, Queer Practice, City Light Books, San Francisco, 1995, p. 2. Exhibition catalogue.

2 See Bruce Hainley, “‘Transformer,’” Artforum, October 2004, pp. 73-76.

3 Peter Gorsen, “Die Geschlechterentspannung als Formprinzip und ästhetisches Verhalten. Versuch einer Standortbestimmung der Travestie im Kapitalismus,” in Transformer. Aspekte der Travestie, Luzern, 1974, unpaged. Exhibition catalogue.

4 For an in-depth analysis of the exhibition, see unpublished research paper by Andrea Rottmann, University of Michigan, 2015.

5 See Rolf Bothe, “Einleitung,” in Berlin Museum ed., Eldorado. Homosexuelle Frauen und Männer in Berlin 1850-1950. Geschichte, Alltag und Kultur, Berlin, 1984, p. 6. Exhibition catalogue.

6 For more on the history and politics of Schwules Museum* see Birgit Bosold’s article in this issue, p. 5.

7 For more on this show see Maura Reilly’s article in this issue, p. 54.

8 Stefan Schmidt-Wulffen and Martin Schwander, “‘Gegendarstellung’, 1992” in Gegendarstellung. Ethik und Ästhetik im Zeitalter von Aids, Kunstverein, Hamburg, 1992, pp. 10-11. Exhibition catalogue. [author translation]

9 Hedwig Saxenhuber and Astrid Wege, “Editorial,” in Oh boy, it’s a girl! Feminismen in der Kunst, Kunstverein, Munich, 1994, pp. 5-6. Exhibition catalogue. [author translation]

10 Ibid. [my own translation]

11 The already-mentioned exhibition “In a different Light” at Berkeley Art Museum, 1995, for example, chose a similar approach, so did “From the Corner of the Eye” at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, 1998.

12 Christiane Erharter, “A Collection of Key Queer Moments, 2006-2015,” in Christiane Erharter, Dietmar Schwärzler, Ruby Sircar, and Hans Scheirl eds., Pink Labor on Golden Streets. Queer Art Practices, Sternberg, Berlin, 2015, p. 19.

13 See Julia Friedrich’s article in this issue, p. 22.

14 “Der homoerotische Blick,” Kunstforum International Vol. 164, May 2001.

15 Frank Wagner, “The Eighth Square. Observations on an Exhibition Experiment,” in Das Achte Feld. Geschlechter, Leben und Begehren in der Kunst seit 1960/ The Eighth Square. Gender, Life, and Desire in the Arts since 1960, Museum Ludwig, Köln, and Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2006, p. 21. Exhibition catalogue.

16 Martin Büsser, “Das Achte Feld,” Intro No. 143, October 2006, trans. Christiane Erharter. Accessed 03.02.2018. http://www.intro.de/kultur/das-achte-feld. See also Erharter, “A Collection of Key Queer Moments, 2006-2015.”

17 Büsser.

18 Previous to that there this piece respectively predecessors of it were shown at Buchholz Gallery, Cologne (2005) and MD 72, Berlin (2007).

19 See Heike Munder, “Some Faggy Gestures,” in Henrik Olesen. Some Faggy Gestures, Migros Museum, Zurich, 2008, pp. 166-171.

20 “Oh Girl, It’s a Boy!” 2007. Kunstverein Muenchen. Accessed 03.01.2017. http://www.kunstverein-muenchen.de/en/program/exhibitions/archive/2007/oh-girl-its-a-boy.

21 Ibid.

22 In the meantime, nGbK held other shows dealing with the topic like e.g. “Africa apart. Afrikanische Künstlerinnen und Künstler konfrontieren Aids” [Africa apart. African artists confront Aids] in 2002.

23 The same year, the German art magazine Texte zur Kunst published an issue entitled “Identity Politics now” with Donald Trump on its cover. While the “now” in its title implies a revision, there never was an issue titled “Identity Politics” in the first place (nonetheless it was a topic that has been present in the magazine throughout its existence).

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