Days before the opening of a traveling exhibition on the history of homosexual and queer identity, the show’s promotional poster has stirred quite a bit of controversy in Germany.
The exhibition, “Homosexuality_ies,” which is traveling from two Berlin museums to the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur in the northwestern German city of Münster, uses the work of Canadian trans artist and activist Cassils. Though the same advertisement was prominently on display in Berlin last fall, the railroad company Deutsche Bahn AG, which operates national and international lines throughout Germany, announced this week that it would not permit the advertisements to be displayed in its train stations.
The piece, titled Advertisement: Hommage to Benglis, shows the artist wearing only a jockstrap and bright-red lipstick, with short brown hair and one nipple pierced. In reply to a query from the LWL on Twitter, Deutsche Bahn said the reason for the ban on displaying the work was that they deemed it “sexualized” and “sexist,” according to a press release from the Schwules Museum, one of the organizers of the exhibition. The press release added that Deutsche Bahn said that the German public had become much more sensitive regarding “sexism” after the events that occurred in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, in which there were over 80 reported cases of sexual assault on women.
In a statement released to international press on Tuesday, May 10, the Schwules wrote, “We, the Schwules Museum, on the other hand consider the allegation and the resulting advertisement ban wrong and inappropriate.… It is interesting that the Deutsche Bahn AG has no problems showing people—with nudity—in advertisements when they conform [to] heterosexual norms. Yet an image that obviously questions such norms is being ‘censored’ and considered unacceptable for public display.”
The work displayed in the advertisement is part of Cassils’s “CUTS: A Traditional Sculpture” series, which started as a six-month performance in which the artist reinterpreted Eleanor Antin’s work Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (1972) by focusing on bodybuilding and nutrition, instead of dieting like in the original work, for 23 weeks. During this time, Cassils gained 23 pounds of muscle and documented the change in a time-lapse video. The poster, made in collaboration with Robin Black, continues the tradition of Cassils revisiting the works of seminal woman artists by looking at Lynda Benglis’s famous Advertisement (1974), which depicts Benglis naked with short blond hair holding a double-headed dildo and ran in that year’s November issue of Artforum.
In a statement sent to ARTnews, Cassils, who identifies as a gender-nonconforming trans masculine visual artist, wrote, “While Benglis’s original Advertisement acted as a commentary on sexist gender-based limitations in the art world, Cassils’s Hommage uses the same strategies to intervene in the gendered policing of trans and nonconforming bodies in the world at large.… This faux-feminist opposition to the display of the image is a glaring incident of transphobia, not just homophobia. The phobic response to Cassils’s image here calls to mind broader instances of transphobia which seek to prohibit the presence of trans and gender-nonconforming bodies from public spaces.”
In a press release sent to press yesterday morning, the Schwules gave an update, saying that the Deutsche Bahn had lifted its ban on the poster and that it could now be displayed in train stations throughout Germany. The release noted, however, that the advertising spots that had previously been reserved for the exhibition had already been resold to other advertisers. Deutsche Bahn also announced this news in reply to a tweet from Queerspiegel, the LGBTQ blog of German publication Tagesspiegel. Deutsche Bahn has not released any official statements to the press surrounding the controversy and did not respond to requests for comment.
“The entire handling of the incident by the Deutsche Bahn AG has left us with a bitter aftertaste,” the museum said in the press release. “This, among other confusing statements, raises the suspicion that the Deutsche Bahn AG only changed its policy to avoid a public debate and damage to its image as a state-owned company. Since the posters cannot be displayed to promote at least the opening of the exhibition, the sudden turnaround of Deutsche Bahn AG is little consolation.”
Cassils added, “Artwork such as that presented by Cassils is vital to the project of working against transphobia, and the recent attempt to ban these images from the public sphere only underlines their necessity.… The artist invites you to download the banned image, print it, and paste it over any image you find ‘sexist’ currently displayed in the Deutsche Bahn.”
“Homosexuality_ies” first opened as a two-venue show in Berlin, jointly on view at the Deutsches Historisches Museum and the Schwules Museum, last fall. The first section, at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, addressed important moments in gay liberation within Germany, with a focus on section 175 of the German penal code, which made “homosexual acts” between men illegal and was in effect from 1872 to 1994. The second section, at the Schwules, looked at ongoing struggles for the LGBTQ community and included work by contemporary artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, and Nicole Eisenman. The exhibition at the LWL, which opens to the public Friday, May 13, will show a slightly more condensed version of the exhibition.