At Documenta 14, the 2017 edition of the touted art festival that takes place once every five years in Kassel, Germany, Olu Oguibe erected a fifty-foot-tall obelisk paying homage to immigrants, Marta Minujín built a monumental Acropolis-like structure from stacked books, and Maria Eichhorn created an institute focused on the expropriation of property that had been owned by European Jews during World War II. These gestures grabbed the attention of international publications, but it was an artist heretofore unknown to much of the art world who stole the show: Lorenza Böttner, a German painter, dancer, and performance artist who, in the ’80s and ’90s, began making works meditating on her trans and armless body. Included at Documenta were her exactingly realized renderings of her trans and armless body, wielding a brush with her mouth and feet.
Until Documenta 14, few had heard of Böttner, whose “dissident transgender body became a living political sculpture, a trans-armless sculptural manifesto,” as theorist Paul B. Preciado wrote in an article for Documenta 14’s South magazine. Böttner, who died from HIV-related complications at 34 in 1994, had never had a major solo survey prior to Documenta 14; her reputation paled in comparison to those of other artists included. And yet many critics still took note. New York Times critic Holland Cotter devoted a full paragraph in his review to Böttner, whose paintings he called “accomplished,” and Andrew Russeth, in his ARTnews review, labeled her work the “indisputable highlight” of Documenta’s offerings shown at Kassel’s Neue Galerie.
Since Documenta, Böttner has moved into the spotlight, largely thanks to the work of Preciado, who curated her traveling solo show now on view at Concordia University’s Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery in Montreal. But, as Preciado has pointed out, Böttner’s work was widely seen during her lifetime. A member of the Disabled Artists Network, she went on to perform as the 1992 Paralympics’s controversial mascot, Petra, which was designed by Spanish illustrator Javier Marsical and was described by the event as “a positive, extroverted, independent, energetic and brave girl with no arms.” Her performances were staged the world over, in cities such as Barcelona and New York, and she even appeared in a Faber-Castell art supplies commercial, balletically wielding pastels using her toes.
Yet as Preciado once explained it, “This work could have been totally lost.” Thanks to shows like the one currently on view in Montreal, Böttner’s work will likely stand time immemorial. Below, a look at Böttner’s life and art.
‘I Am an Exhibitionist and I Like It’
Many artists make their work in private, toiling away in their studios and then only showing their work once it’s finished. That wasn’t the case for Böttner, who created her art within the public eye, collapsing the divisions between performance art, dance, and painting. “In some ways I am an exhibitionist and I like it. I benefit from it,” Böttner said in a documentary from the ’80s. “But I was not always an exhibitionist—it came as a result of my handicap.”
Böttner was assigned the name Ernst Lorenz Böttner when he was born in 1959 in Punta Arenas, Chile, to a German family. (In Preciado’s writings, the pronouns he/him are used in reference to the artist’s childhood; s/he is applied to Böttner’s years in art school, while the artist was beginning to transition; and she/her is relied upon in descriptions of the years afterward.) When he was 8 years old, he saw a bird’s nest at the top of an electric pylon and tried to climb the structure to reach it. He fell on his way down, and the electricity forced doctors to amputate both arms below the shoulder. Although he received a series of plastic surgery operations starting in 1973, when he moved to the West German city of Lichtenau with his mother, he never opted to get prosthetic arms.
When s/he began attending the Kassel School of Arts, Böttner began to explore what qualified as disability. S/he took the name Lorenza, “affirming an openly transgender feminine position,” as Preciado wrote in the South essay. After a professor told her s/he was a “walking performance,” in a comment that could be perceived as patronizing, Böttner initiated a photography series from 1983 called “Face Art,” in which s/he appeared before the camera wearing makeup that altered the artist’s face, causing certain features to look distended or particularly bony. In some cases, the makeup had made Böttner’s face appear confrontational, even menacing; in other cases, it softened the artist’s expressions, at times sad-looking. S/he graduated from Kassel School of Arts in 1984 with a thesis called “Behindert?,” or “Disabled?”
Böttner had grown fascinated with what Preciado has called the “tradition of freak art,” or artists who have made their work using their mouth and feet. Sometimes, this has taken place before the public eye—on the street, for example, or in circus sideshows. Böttner’s work subverted that kind of performance, returning the stares she received every day. “She’s fully confronting people watching the performances with the act of reclaiming her body, not with the object of a freak gaze but as a political subject,” Preciado said in a 2018 talk.
The Eye of the Beholder
At stake in Böttner’s art was often the concept of beauty itself—what it means to be aesthetically pleasing, and who gets to be considered as such. Western male artists throughout art history have often personified beauty in the form of a nondisabled cisgender white woman—think Praxiteles’s sculptures of Aphrodite or Peter Paul Rubens’s voluptuous females. Böttner’s paintings and performances put that notion to the test by attacking bourgeois images of this sort and cleaving open gender binaries.
In her work, Böttner appeared to play on viewers’ perceptions of her gender. One 1982 photograph shows Böttner seated on a wood floor next to a painting of a svelte nude woman with her breasts bared. Böttner poses without a shirt, inviting a comparison between her hairy, armless chest and the smooth, Renoir-like flesh of the woman combing her hair, whose face seems vaguely similar to Böttner’s. Both figures peer out at the viewer with a gaze that seems erotically charged.
Other works push Böttner’s images of gender fluidity even further. In an untitled and undated work on paper, Böttner creates something akin to a triple self-portrait. On the left, she shows herself wearing a dress and with wavy hair; in the middle, she has an elegant beard with stripes shaved into it; and on the right, she resembles a coiffed businessman. All of them bear a resemblance to Böttner. And in an untitled 1980 pastel painting, Böttner shows herself acting as a mother to a baby, holding a bottle of formula beneath her neck as she gazes down lovingly at the child.
One recurring figure in Böttner’s work is the Venus de Milo, the millennia-old ancient Greek sculpture that has been considered a paragon of beauty for many. In its current state, the sculpture lacks arms, much like Böttner. Why, she wondered, do so many people still considered the work beautiful, even if they wouldn’t say the same of her body? To accompany one performance, first staged in 1982, in which she took on the sculpture’s guise, she discussed that paradox. “A sculpture is always admired even if limbs are missing, whereas a handicapped human being arouses feelings of uncertainness and shame,” she wrote in a pamphlet explaining the work. “Changing from sculpture into human being, I want to make people aware of this problem.”