It happened returning from school, along the road so many times traveled. He walked beneath a power-line when he saw a feather falling, and before it reached the ground Ernst had already climbed to the top, searching the nest. He was fascinated by birds. There were the pigeons, but the sudden arrival of their mother frightened him. He grabbed the cables to avoid falling and the electric shock caused him an irreparable damage.
He was 9 years old. He survived, though without arms. In Chile, where he was born, the local newspapers would soon spread the “exemplary role” of that boy, son of German immigrants, who painted with his mouth.
But this is not going to be a story of personal improvement and adaptation to a condescending attitude towards the “disabled”. Ernst, in his rebirth as Lorenza, is not going to settle for being neither “exemplary” nor “boy”, much less “handicapped”. She will reject not only the prostheses that would give her a “normal” appearance but also the type of life to which the productive system dooms the “deficient” bodies.
She changed her name at the Kassel School of Art, where she managed to enter at the end of the 70s. “What could she have been but an artist?”, writes Roberto Bolaño about that marginal and transsexual character with no arms that appears briefly in his “Estrella distante”. Bolaño imagines her as a street artist, one of many virtuous painters with mouth and foot.
Of course, she painted and acted in the street but not to beg. Performativity in public space was essential for her, questioning herself and the passer-by about the paradoxes of art and beauty, about the mutability of being, about excessive bodies … painting with her mouth or foot, dancing, using the face as a canvas and as a moldable material.
She was still studying in Kassel when the Documenta 7 was held. While the exhibition lasted she settled on the main avenue, next to the venue, and held her own alternative event. Her life would be a counter-fair, a counter-act, an anti-art, and would end up revealing the narrow-mindedness of the artistic world, which, believing itself critical with normative institutions, reproduces with its snobbery the models of normalization and exclusion against those who supposedly it fights.
Paul B. Preciado, the curator of this exhibition dedicated to Lorenza Böttner in La Virreina, discovered the artist when investigating marginal manifestations in Barcelona, in the late 80’s. Lorenza had incarnated Petra, Mariscal’s Paralympic mascot, performing as an acrobatic puppet in a tone of a circus show.
The encounters are not entirely casual. For Preciado the philosophical thought stems from the body and crosses it. For Lorenza art and life are the same thing. Both have deconstructed the concept of identity by experiencing with themselves the fallacy of binarisms: man-woman, active-passive, productive-unproductive, able-disabled.
A name that seemed condemned to be a footnote in the obituaries of a sports publication in its January 1994 issue (reporting the death of Petra due to AIDS), is now rescued and recovers her proper place, being a pioneer in understanding the subversive potential of the non-normative body, which Lorenza explored to its ultimate consequences.
Reading Judith Butler we would understand that gender is always performative, pure repetition of learned acts that reinforce being male or female. Reading McRuer, we understand that functional diversity is called “disability” to perpetuate social exclusion policies. Today we have a theoretical and activist framework that is sensitive to queer and cryp movements, but in the 1980s Lorenza only had herself. She took an intensive course of all that: her own short life.
Her bachelor’s thesis was her genuine manifesto. Entitled Behindert?! (Disabled ?!), she defends, based on her experience, the inclusion of the body that does not fit the norm as a transforming and creative agent. She includes herself within a genealogy of artists without arms and dialogues with her predecessors through her paintings but criticizes the pettiness of relegating art made by mutilated bodies to a subaltern level.
She studies the phenomenon of the freak show and the way to reverse the stigma and the circus show, as a trigger for a change of mind. Pushing back the limits (between the ideal of beauty and the monster, between glamor and excess…), she stirs our values.
In 1982, in Berlin, Lorenza mimicked the Venus de Milo and placed herself in front of a museum entrance. Visitors did not pay much attention to that excellent copy of Hellenistic sculpture until the statue got off the plinth and began to dance asking the people: “What would you think if art came alive?”. Thus was explained by Pedro Lemebel, although Preciado proves that the performance took place a few years later, in the East Village of New York and in Munich.
Wherever it was, the intention is clear: why do we admire the beauty of an armless statue and we feel embarrassed when we see a person with amputated limbs? To those who sound familiar this approach can be because more than twenty years later Marc Quinn asks us the same question with his marble sculpture of a girl without arms, Alison.
She put into practice the transgressive force of the performative act, she denaturalized both gender and “disability” concepts , and claimed the beauty and the sexuality of subjects that had been desexualized by the medical institution (even today documentaries such as “Yes, we fuck” by Antonio Centeno get us out of our comfort zone, showing that “they”, they also fuck, and by the way, being much bolder than “us”).
Her transformism went beyond the genre. In her self-portraits (photos and or drawing) incarnated men and women from different periods and social circles without ceasing to be Lorenza, almost like Orlando de Virginia Woolf traveled in time and changed sex as changed clothes. Nineteenth-century lady with a hat, a bearded gentleman, a mother breastfeeding her baby, a dancer, Greek statue, dominatrix …
Her painting styles are also metamorphic. Taking a walk around the exhibition we sometimes feel that could be visiting an antique shop full of forgotten bohemian painters. When she did not portray herself, she painted her brothers and sisters from the global lumpen: black men arrested in New York, prostitutes in Amsterdam…
In the first room, a brief documentary shows Lorenza in everyday life. Her words denote that kind of lucidity that acquires who is honest with oneself. As a teenager, she had thought about a sex change operation but delving into the reason for wanting to be a woman she realized that she only envied their freedom in dress, in transformative actions, and for that it was not necessary to go through surgery. She would design her own clothes and could transfigure herself through art. She would be Icarus and Victoria of Samothrace, her wings would grow and she would no longer get electrocuted.
She had a recurring dream: she fell from a tree and a hump sprouted on her back, but soon from the bulge began to grow wings. However, in the eyes of others, she only showed her deformity because if they saw the wings they locked her in a cage.
In the last room, in a brief spot made by the same director, Michael Stahlberg, Lorenza wears a straitjacket, but she manages to escape by drawing a window on one wall of the cell with her feet.
Art was her leap into the void, a leap of faith.
Lorenza Böttner, Réquiem por la norma
in La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona
until 3th Februarry 2019