Unlike the rest of the writers here, I’m not an expert on queer art. I just happened to be at the right time and place when Kasper König was planning a show on queer art. The mastermind of this show, Frank Wagner, sadly died exactly one year ago, on June 1st 2016, only 58 years old. So all I can do is offer an insight into the design, the realization, and the dimensions of our 2006 exhibition, “The Eighth Square,” the many problems it had, and how beautifully it came out, in all senses of the word—simultaneously a very serious statement and a big celebration.
“The Eighth Square” became the first large exhibition on this topic in a major German museum. As I’ve already noted, the initial idea for our show came from a very straight man, Kasper König, director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne from 2000 to 2012. In the year 2001, König read an issue of the German art magazine Kunstforum International on the topic of “the homo-erotic gaze” (Der homoreotische Blick). He immediately recognized the fantastic possibilities this subject could have. After talking with the editor of the issue, Heinz-Norbert Jocks, König decided to commission Frank to prepare an exhibition on homosexuality in the arts. König had already collaborated with Frank when he was director of the Portikus in Frankfurt in the 90s, thus they had known each other for a while.
Frank accepted the offer under the condition that he could broaden the scope. He not only wanted to reflect homosexuality, but all varieties of desire and transformations. He also stressed the political aspect, being interested in “the so-called side aspects involved in change and transformation: the sexuality of man and woman, man and man, and woman and woman, and gender per se.” In his view, the exhibition should recall “things hidden or off the tracks,” it should question “the centre,” which itself could be on the periphery, and define “a territory of differentiation and change.”
In other words, Frank redefined the subject of the show from gay and lesbian to queer, meaning also “that patchwork of street culture, art, preciosity and vulgarity which formed the complex tissue of a mode of apprehending the world without dullness and common sense,” as a pioneer of queer thinking, Guy Hocquenghem, once put it. Frank left the chronological and even the logical path aside, going astray. This was a revolutionary step, and he knew he could dare to take the plunge, even in such a leading museum, because he could be sure König would always stand beside him. Frank remembered much later: “Still today, I am convinced that only Kasper König could have made possible such an exhibition in Germany.” But without Frank it wouldn’t have been possible either. In those days there were only very few curators in Germany who had the knowledge and experience he had. For more than 30 years he was a curator of the New Society for Visual Arts (nGbK) in Berlin and showed, as early as 1988, a group exhibition on AIDS in the arts, “Full-Blown Aids” (Vollbild Aids), and again in 2013 with “LOVE AIDS RIOTS SEX.” He created a memorial room for his friend David Wojnarowicz in 1993 and curated a retrospective on Félix González-Torres in 2006 simultaneously with our show. He also curated solo exhibitions on Marlene Dumas, Valie Export, Alfredo Jaar, Yoko Ono, and Hannah Wilke. More than anyone else, Frank had explored queerness in the arts, which he always saw from a social and political perspective, often promoting young and controversial artists and always finding new paths and new methods. That’s why he called the “Eighth Square” an “exhibition experiment.”
Prior to this experiment, König had commissioned guest curators to organize exhibitions in the museum, for instance Dorothea von Hantelman with “I promise it’s political” in 2002, Hans-Christian Dany with “Economies of Time” in the same year, and Andreas Siekmann and Alice Creischer with “Ex-Argentina” in 2004. He never interfered much, although he reserved a “veto right” for himself. And it was his wish that a member of the staff should support the guest curator, not as a watchdog, but as a “co-pilot.” The co-pilot in this case was me, by then still a trainee. It was a pleasure for me to work with the two old hands, even when we had some stormy times.
König himself remembered that this was an exhibition that everybody believed was a sure-fire success. He said, “People thought that with this topic one kicks at an open door. The media suggested we only wanted to put on airs. They obviously didn’t assume a serious examination of gender relations, they assumed some tomfoolery.” But, as König was already aware, the contrary happened: the show had many opponents even long before it opened, and the first major blow came from the German Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes). It’s the aim of this institution to invest “in projects which develop new methods of fostering cultural heritage and tap into the cultural and artistic potential of knowledge required for addressing social issues.” As I see it, our show would have been the perfect match for this noble endeavor, and the jury of the Foundation had already agreed to provide a large sum. But the board of directors, chaired by Wolfgang Thierse—a social democrat and Catholic who, back then, was the president of the German Bundestag—refused the money. This could have been the end of our story. But thanks to others, it wasn’t.
Not only did the Art Foundation of North Rhine-Westphalia, die Kunststiftung NRW, step in, but so too did the Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which normally doesn’t support projects abroad. But the president of the Warhol Foundation, Joel Wachs, pushed it through. This was a triumph: an American foundation helping a German museum to produce a nonconformist show.
The first title Frank had found for our exhibition was “Normal,” referring to his questioning of “the centre.” König wasn’t so fond of it, so Frank looked for a new one, and he remembered a cheap thriller he once read. The backdrop to its crude story is the heterosexual BDSM scene, but there is also a gay bar, and its name is “The Eighth Square.” Frank liked this strange name a lot. “It is taken from a rule in chess: if a pawn manages to reach the eighth square it can transform into a queen.” Frank was more interested in change and transformation than in identity, and he avowedly loved naming a major show in a major museum after a “shady little place.”
So, change and transformation as queerness is at the heart of the exhibition, not identity, not history, not gay liberation, even when there was a section called “Identity and Portrait.” But the artists involved in that section, like Zoe Leonard, Sheryl Dunye, Nan Goldin, or Jack Smith, invented identities, changed them—they surely didn’t want to be just themselves, whatever that meant. And even in a section called “Outsiders, Discrimination, AIDS,” again, there was no straight (ahem) story from “the closet” to the Stonewall riots and beyond. On the contrary, there were subversive, shocking, and often poetic explorations of these bitter topics by David Wojnarowicz or Paul Thek.
The starting point for this exhibition about “Gender, Life, and Desire in the Arts,” 1960, seemed arbitrary, as Frank freely admitted. The year 1960 is neither linked with the history of queerness, which is centuries old, nor with the new women’s movement or the gay liberation movement, both of which started a few years later. Rather, simply and banally, the date was chosen because of the Ludwigs’ collection. Because “The Eighth Square” featured Pop Art—the early focus of Peter and Irene Ludwig’s collection—it exhibited a fundamental connection to the Museum that housed it. Right from the beginning, our objective was to combine the vast collection of the museum with new artists. Pop Art, with its multifaceted queer implications by gay artists like Gilbert & George, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Ferdinand Kriwet, Robert Rauschenberg and, of course, Andy Warhol, was fundamental in this respect, and the Ludwigs’ collection was easily available.
The museum owns a large photo collection, and the exhibition lavishly made use of it, including works by Valie Export, Jürgen Klauke, and Cindy Sherman. We wanted to show known artists in a different, queer light, like Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman, Jeff Wall, Katharina Sieverding, or Cy Twombly. Frank brought into the museum many, many artists, starting with his all-time favorites such as Wojnarowicz—whose series “Rimbaud in New York” the museum purchased on this occasion—and González-Torres. Also available were portraits by Del LaGrace Volcano, Catherine Opie, and Annette Frick, videos and video installations by Aurora Reinhard, Marcel Odenbach, or Bjørn Melhus, drawings by Jochen Flinzer, or Marc Brandenburg, and appropriations by Susi Pop.
There was so much that the traditional museum visitor would have scarcely ever seen. And in no time, we had over 80 artists and 250 works to show. This posed real problems.
First, where was the space to exhibit all this? We decided to put this marginalized art in the very centre of the museum, and to not only use the special exhibition area, but also the broad staircase (figs. 1-2). The show could now be very big, and occupy the very heart at the center of the building. Our second problem concerned how to structure all this. Frank tried to do it with his thematic sections, such as the aforementioned sections on “Identity” and “Discrimination and AIDS.” He had also conceived of sections on “Establishing Identity through De-sign,” “Sexy Machismo,” “Accursed Worlds,” “Female to Male to Female,” “Transsexuality,” and “Places of Desire—Cruising.” While Frank’s sections gave the whole exhibition a deeper dimension, they neither could nor would untangle the knots: rather, they tied new knots. For the visitor who didn’t know what “cruising” meant or couldn’t understand the distinction between “female to male” and transsexual, not to mention all these other labels, confusion was likely. So we came to our third and biggest problem, namely how to present all this visually, to make it a whole, a web, or a tissue?
That’s the moment when artist Eran Schaerf stepped in as our exhibition designer, and not only solved our problem brilliantly, but gave the exhibition a “face.”
As I understand it, Eran recognized the difference between “the logic of the darkroom” and the logic of the white cube, between the outside of the museum and the inside, between the marginalized and the hegemonic, between invisibility and visibility. He didn’t want to make the invisible visible, its humdrum reality exposed to the light within the usual presentation modes, thus submitting it to normality and normativity. Exactly the other way around! He wanted to force the visitor to experience the marginal situation, so he created protected spaces for the subtle and often intimate works of the show. He wanted to construct “a stage as a reversed image of the order of visibility, that shows what this order has excluded. I call this process ‘reversed assimilation.’ What wasn’t visible until now, remains probably invisible, to make tangible the space politics of its invisibility.” Eran’s thinking is a reflection of the politics of visibility and a rejection of the all-visible.
He began to separate the space with white fabric and colored walls. On the staircase, the fabric took over the ridges of the building’s saw-tooth roof; the walls gave the color and material of the floor an upward trend. In some spaces, he created a feeling of constriction that could be claustrophobic. He divided a staircase (fig. 3). And in the middle of another staircase he put a wall, so the visitors found themselves before an obstacle that, however, they could overcome. The visitors were forced to move around, but were always rewarded for their efforts. At the same time, this design fulfilled very practical requirements. We could show sensitive works, like Paul Thek’s drawings on newsprint paper, in the staircase area and protect them from light. In the exhibition space, fabric cones were folded around the light-diffusing ceiling. The elegance resulted from the simplicity and the application. Without Eran, everything could have fallen to bits and pieces.
It was Frank’s explicit wish that the boundaries between museum space and outside world should be crossed. There was the Go-Go Dancing Platform by González-Torres that was to act once a day “as a stage for a dancer dressed only in silver shorts and shoes. The ‘performance act’ is done wearing headphones and an iPod—to become a hallucinatory event done in silence. And since it lasts only a short while, it remains a fleeting occurrence that is easily missed.” For König, this daily happening remains an unforgettable transgression: “Félix González-Torres’ Go-Go dancer really was good. As if it were the most natural thing, this handsome, well-built man came into the museum, put on his silver shorts, made his show, changed clothes again and left. That seemed strange to everyone, because the sacred halls of the museum seemed under attack. All of a sudden everybody realized how society is constructed. (...) There were moments when everyone thought: That really is impossible, this is a museum after all, isn’t it?”
Another crossing of the borders was the installation of the “David” sculpture by Hans-Peter Feldmann (fig.4 ) directly in front of the museum. This six-meter-high work made of steel and styrofoam is not, as it seems at first glance, a kitschy appropriation of Michelangelo’s “David,” but rather a souvenir replica of this famous work. It’s a replica of a replica, so to speak, and—with its yellow hair and pink skin—a fine piece of low camp. It’s also a depiction of a young man in the nude, and, after all, the original work was created by an artist who was, if we believe Pietro Aretino’s hints, a closeted homosexual. Therefore we uncovered Feldmann’s sculpture on Christopher Street Day 2006, thus connecting the exhibition with the gay, lesbian, and transgender movement. The work became something like the figurehead of the “Eighth Square.”
Frank had many other ideas on how to cross borders, including genre borders. He invited Thomas Meinecke, a renowned writer, to reflect on some motifs that came up during our research. I quote König’s gloss: “Meinecke has given literary portraits of, for instance, the deeds and trial of the criminal homophobe who prompted Donald Moffett’s series of drawings ‘Mr. Gay in the USA,’ the partnership between Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, and Robert Rauschenberg’s magnificent happening ‘Open Score.’ Central to all of these pieces is the way Meinecke investigates a story from the subculture that has fed on gossip and scandal, rumours, articles in papers and magazines and what others say, and in this way contradicts the official version.” A copy of the book that resulted of this, Feldforschung (literally “field research,” meaning also the research on this particular square, the square of transformation), was given for free to every visitor.
The catalogue of the exhibition was meant to be more than an illustration or a guide, thus it served as a survey of the subject as a whole, with a theoretical essay by Judith Butler on “Transgender and the Spirit of Revolt,” a very personal contribution by Douglas Crimp, and essays on queer performance, cinema, and music. The latter included a contribution by Harald Fricke, who died a few months later. In fact, the catalogue, complete with a track list pulled out of Meinecke’s record collection and a bibliography, can still be used today, long after the show has ended, as a kind of introduction to the field, even though of course that changed quite a lot during the last decade.
Frank’s concept had an holistic approach to it that included film screenings, an audio guide with queer music, talks by Drag Kings, and many other events. Such a celebration always begets envy, critique, even hate. I’ve told you that the German Federal Cultural Foundation didn’t want to pay for so much flamboyant subculture. When we decided to use a photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans for our advertisement, the trouble broke loose.
Tillmans’ picture (fig. 5) is a view up the skirt of a man with no underwear—a funny picture, no harm at all. But the local company for outdoor advertising refused to hang the posters. Eventually the city’s head of cultural affairs, Georg Quander, prohibited the use of the photograph for the outdoor advertising because he and his legal consultants firmly believed it to be “pornographic.” This really was a cold shower. We were flabbergasted and realized where we lived. In fact, it wasn’t the only ban on posters, and when a year later there was a panel discussion in the Schauspielhaus, a local theatre, on the question “How far can art go?” König exclaimed: “In this fucking town nobody’s defending culture.” Quander responded that he declared these prohibitions because he was defending culture. Interestingly, he added that in Berlin, controversial posters would pose no problem at all, but the mental horizon would be much narrower in Cologne, and this he would have to take into account.
But we wouldn’t take it into account and used Tillmans’ photograph nonetheless for the catalogue cover, the tickets, the brochures, and so on. Paradoxically, if there is no headwind, you’re sailing in the wrong direction.
Julia Friedrich is head of Museum Ludwig’s collection of prints and drawings. Friedrich studied Art History and Jewish Studies in Berlin, Potsdam, and Venice. She completed a doctorate in 2008 on Grau ohne Grund. Gerhard Richters Monochromien als Herausforderung der künstlerischen Avantgarde. As a trainee at Museum Ludwig, she worked on the exhibition Das Achte Feld with Kasper König and Frank Wagner and later curated exhibitions on such artists as Maria Lassnig, Vija Celmins, Jo Baer, Andrea Büttner, Otto Freundlich, and Günter Peter Straschek.
2 Frank Wagner, “The Eighth Square. Observations on an Exhibition Experiment,” in Frank Wagner, Kasper König, Julia Friedrich eds., The Eighth Square: Gender, Life, and Desire in the Arts since 1960, Hatje Cantz Publishers, Ostfildern, 2006, p. 21.
4 Frank Wagner, “Lipstick on the Rim. Das achte Feld – ein gelungenes Experiment queere Kunst repräsentativ im Museum zu präsentieren,” in Anna Brohm, Valeska Schneider eds., Ein Wunsch bleibt immer übrig. 12 Jahre Museum Ludwig. Eine Auswahl, Cologne 2012, p. 136.
6 “About the Foundation.” Kulturstiftung des Bundes. Accessed 13.05.2017. http://www.kulturstiftung-des-bundes.de/cms/en/stiftung/.
11 Eran Schaerf, “Umgekehrte Assimilation. Das bis dahin und weiterhin nicht Gesehene,” in Brohm, Schneider eds., Ein Wunsch bleibt immer übrig. 12 Jahre Museum Ludwig. Eine Auswahl, Cologne 2012, p. 132.
14 See Creighton E. Gilbert’s introduction to John Addington Symonds, The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti. Based on studies in the archives of the Buonarroti family at Florence Volume 1, Philadelphia, 1911, p. XXXIII.