Lena Rosa Händle’s artistic practice and research deals with queer feminist discourses that are often linked with sociopolitical movements and queer visibility. She engages critically with contemporary societies and searches for utopian potential. Händle exposes on a socio-political level by radically questioning identity and normativity. In this search, she transmits an intellectual confrontation combined with a sensitive approach to her use of materials. Her multi-part installations reflect various levels, which create a complex visual tableaux.
Reclaiming Gestures, 2015 / text by Doris Guth
Lena Rosa Händle’s exhibition, Reclaiming Gestures (10.9. – 21.10.2015) in Kubus EXPORT—der Transparente Raum in Vienna represents a successful intervention to interrupt viewing habits in public space. A two-sided, larger-than-life light box is set in the glass cube under one of Vienna’s subway arches and shows two photographs. Next to it, a sculpture of the word Pelze (furs) appears in smaller neon writing on the floor.
The photos show the artist in two different poses: In Zu schön um wahr zu sein (Too beautiful to be true), she sits relaxed in red coveralls on furry, felt-like fabric and looks up at her hand reaching heavenward with a laugh. Whereas in Wenn’s lustig war, wenn’s lustig wird (When it was fun, when it gets fun), she crouches on a fuzzy wool blanket on the floor, her upper body is naked, and she is looking up at the viewer guardedly.
Both photos resemble advertising designs, while at the same time it is clear that this is not what they are. The presentation of the body, the clothing (work clothes, slippers), the surroundings (tattered, felted insulating material) do not conform to common advertising esthetics. The captured poses and gestures act as quotes, without their references being known. There are two specific advertisements being referred to. One is from the garden tool company Al-ko with the slogan Zu schön um wahr zu sein, the other is from MM champagne: Wenn’s lustig war, wenn’s lustig wird from the late 1960s. Both examples illustrate the sexist display of female bodies, where the woman, naked or partially naked, is reduced to her body and to “being beautiful.” In Zu schön um wahr zu sein, the woman in the ad is equated with the product—a lawnmower (!). In Wenn’s lustig war, wenn’s lustig wird, the woman lying in bed obviously becomes sexually submissive with the champagne. But the fun seems to apply more to the absent man, since the woman, curled up on the bed and shot from above, appears tired, small, and even helpless and is presented as a sexualized object. In any case, she is not a woman satisfied by orgasms, blissful, powerful, passionate, spreading her body across the bed.
The artist reappropriates the coopted and stereotyped gestures from the ads in her photographs by repeating the poses and making shifts. The focus is on an affirmative completion of the poses and a transformative new connotation. In Lena Rosa Händle’s works, the figures are transformed and queered: In one, we have the self confident woman dressed in bright red coveralls who smiles at her own body, and in the other, a woman in dirty work clothes crouching watchfully on the floor, looking directly at the viewer.
Judith Butler points out that body and gender are produced through performative repetitions. This is not only about restrictive technologies of power, but also creation and production. This process enables the undermining of discursive normalizations of gender identity and opens up moments of political freedom of action. In this quote-like and rearticulating practice, the poses and gestures in Händle’s photos offer a space of opposition and shifting. Innovative images are created that defy traditional habits of seeing and, at the same time, blend into urban space filled with advertising images. The photographs and their reflections light up and melt away in the night with the lights and images of the city, the transparent glass cube—which makes a separation between indoors and outdoors impossible, and dissolve in the fleeting motion of the passing cars.
The interpretation of the photos is reinforced and expanded through a sculptural element in the exhibit: The written word Pelze, which resembles a company name, repeats the reference to the consumer world while opening up another point of reference: Pelze-multimedia, a space for women and lesbians (FrauenLesben Raum) in Berlin from 1980 to 1994, which was located in a former fur shop. The original typography was translated into neon and pays homage to this special place.
from „Sei bereit für die Veränderungen des Universums, Werbungen und Sexismen“, Doris Guth, Hrsg. Frauen. Wissen. Wien. Nr. 4. MA57, 2015
Jump Cuts, Laughing Inverts, 2015 / Text by Diedrich Diedrichsen
The last time I read the term inverts was in Proust, or more specifically in the translation of research by Eva Rechel-Mertens. It is one of those antiquated words for homosexuality that now seems to make it possible to describe non-heterosexual orientations differently than through narrow classifications like homo or bisexual. It actually seems appropriate for contemporary projections, because it bespeaks twists, turns, and folds that are more reminiscent of a Möbius strip than a two-part society in which we either belong to one part or the other. Indeed, Proust uses the term in the multifaceted sense.
On one hand, the inverts have anything but a solid foundation of a simply antagonistic, anti-normal sexual orientation beneath them. Unlike a significant part of contemporary queer theory, which emphasizes overcoming the gender binary in favor of an open continuum in a liberating sense, for Proust it was precisely the polarity of man and woman that ensured endless depths. Because within every woman could be a man or another woman, within every man a woman (or another man), and the same thing would be repeated on the next level in a complex branched system of increasingly more confusing bifurcation. The inversions continue spiraling downward and undermine every clear vision of orientation, but not without using the two sides again and again.
On the other hand, Proust sets the real heteronormative world surrounding him in fiction as a great lesbian conspiracy. Because in the novel, Proust’s real male lovers become women (in order to avoid outing himself), who, when they resign themselves to the heterosexual pressure of reality, begin relationships with women who then become inverted – i.e. lesbians – in the fictional perspective. This results in an unreality in which normal appears as though it were always inverted, where as the world of the inverted is merely another twist and turn of those people who were already twisted or ready to turn anyway.
In Lena Rosa Händle’s book Laughing Inverts the subjects have long since plunged into this abyss and have let the Mobius strip of inversion show them the tangled way – albeit not necessarily tragic, bitter and heroic, like in so many stories, and also not melancholic. Instead, as the title suggests, laughing. This laughter is not coming from the distance of a safe, possibly ironic position; it is the laughter of people who are in the thick of it – and yet often somewhere else.
t first glance, the book follows a certain tradition of sub and counterculture photography that is based on testimony and mainly communicates that another life, which few can imagine to be real, was or is possible – which is why it requires the testimonial medium of photography.
One need only think of the often diary-like depictions of Larry Clarke, Peter Hujar, or Nan Goldin’s own circles of friends living on the edge, also with shifted focal points Wolfgang Tillmans’ early work. But what distinguishes the described practices, both historically and in their artistic character, is that the artists mentioned above generally try to cohere the story and the sequence of images. The dialectic of the subcultural in its classical period, specifically liberation at the expense of compartmentalization to attain exclusivity, was incredibly effective.
Lena Rosa Händle’s approach is almost the opposite of this. Although we can assume that the scenes from the exciting, intense, excessive life that we see here are not taking place far away from each other socioeconomically and that they include people who not only share commonalities of life content, culture, and politics, but actually know each other or could have met, each photograph seems like a new world to us. Changing the frame of reference is the main strategy of the whole story, more than that of each photograph. Outside/inside, natural/artificial light, group/individual, interaction with the camera/absorption, transparent readability/opacity – all of these contrasts and their potential modulations are thoroughly savored in the sequence of the individual photographs.
The result is a quality of photography that is only just evolving, mainly in the sequential storytelling element of the book, which literally presents photography’s political-subcultural side in a very different light than what was common in earlier (self) representations – the artist appears in at least one photograph. What we see is a precarious, threatened, more crisis-laden environment, a world in which there are no more guaranteed safe spaces. But at the same time, there is no exclusion and formation of a subcultural elite, which was associated with earlier movements and scenes. The outness and openness that characterizes these images leads to laughter with which the subjects confront the situation you end up in today if you want to lead a life that someone sang so dreamily about more than a half a century ago: I don’t know where I am going, I don’t know who I am going to be.
The fact that someone manages, wants to and has to manage, to make such a decision without the starry-eyed self-elevation, the eternal and latent colonial adventurism, that someone has and had to establish themself in an everyday life that has the advantage of being attainable, the disadvantage of actually being threatened by the inhospitality of cities (which cannot be avoided) and their prices – that is the situation that is acknowledged here with a laugh.
Space of Relations, 2013 / text by Stefanie Seibold
In Space of Relations, the artist Lena Rosa Händle brings together four disparate groups of works comprised of different techniques and/or motifs. Among them are two types of portraits, photographic and collage, a series of photographs with interior and urban spaces, as well as a glass sculpture and abstract material collages. How are these works connected, what kind of a Space of Relations is meant? Outer space, as the bright silver in one of the two collages seems to suggest? Or more of an inner view, an inner space, a feeling, an (secret) awareness, an invisible place? Lena Rosa Händle’s interest mostly likely lies in this second type of “space,” the kind that cannot be depicted easily and directly—spaces that are thought, felt, and experienced. Here she also looks at the very fundamental question of the significance of visibility for this complex project.
Silverfuture, destroyed. Dark rooms. Invisible. Alone. Averted. In darkness. Protected.
All of the works gathered here noticeably address their own planar surface. They are reflective or obscured, darkened, scratched, glued or torn and then made smooth. One can, therefore, assume that Lena Rosa Händle has also closely considered the surface reflections that constitute the photographic image—but they were defined as secondary here. (1) That the persistent idea that photography has a sort of genuine, indexical relationship to a depicted reality is aggressively disputed and deconstructed piece by piece. And this is precisely where Händle’s project comes in: challenging the significance of the visible in photographic work, the often too smooth surfaces of representation. The central theme is that which is and remains invisible and has to stay that way. Not as a primarily esthetic problem, but rather throughout Space of Relations as a parallel to the experience of total invisibility or the rendered invisibility of queer/trans/lesbian realities and structures of desire within the heteronormative regime of images surrounding them. (2)
I´ve got you under my skin* (3)
A key to this reading lies—along with the question of visibility—in the project’s present and absent bodies (also those of the viewers), particularly when dealing with portraits and body image.
In the series Place of Passing we only see the portrayed in a three-quarter, rear view; the faces are unrecognizable, the space around them remains undefined. In the averted face, upon which just a few details remain, such as a beard, the subjects deny the viewer a clear definition. With respect to themselves but also—and especially—with respect to gender. The denial of clear gender readability is a key queer issue, because the assumption of a dichotomous, organized gender system is based on heteronormative mechanisms of exclusion.
Transgender discourses also analytically challenge the two-gender system and practically defy it—like here—with diverging, self-determined concepts of identity. Both the title Places of Passing and the ambiguous physiognomy of the pictured bodies refer to a queer or transgender context.
The series Monsters follows the same logic. These small collage portraits pieced together from tabloid magazines can be understood here as queer dystopias, which reveal the smoothed, heteronormative sexist identities in the media as dystopian monsters that surround, threaten, and format us ubiquitously every day.
In the photographs in the series Of Other Spaces , the (queer) bodies are missing, but we almost suspect them to be hidden—beside what little is visible in the pictures—in the abundant (photographic) black. The absence of these bodies gives the works their meaning. In any case, the depicted places are only identifiable for insiders who know the exact codes to decipher them. Perhaps it is also best to keep these queer places secret, as they appear here—as our little secrets, places you will never know.
The photographs in the series Of Other Spaces and the sculptures in the exhibit work with a field of tension that is also important for queer theory and practice, between private and public space, again visible and invisible, obscured, hidden, coded and opaque, the visible surface and what is beneath or behind it. That which is possible in private space is far from possible on the street, before the law, or within the family.
The abstract collage/décollage pieces deal with (material) formations transferred from public space, which have a largely overlooked esthetic value there and only gain attention and significance when they are transferred to the art space. This process can again be seen as a parallel to the social marginalization of queer esthetics and ways of life, which are also only visible and of value in certain places and contexts. The two paper formations look like sediments of posters torn off the wall that multiply for years in a forgotten passageway and cover floods of advertising slogans and images layer by layer. One object was re-treated by the artist with paint, so that the layered information moves into the background and the unified, multilayered bodies that developed from them emerge as object entities. The architectural glass sculpture to which the remains of scratched off layers of paper are glued is perhaps what most clearly embodies the thematic and formal traces of surface, transparency, and (un)readability that Händle explores in her project. For a bright Silverfuture on the gummed up layers of the past.
1 This stands in contrast to her previous book, Laughing Inverts, which, in the tradition of Nan Goldin’s diary, emphasizes the visibility of queer deviance as a political necessity.
2 Like other systems of representation in the Western World, as noted by the literary critic Terry Castle: „(one is)…dismayed yet again at how invisible, literally and figuratively, lesbianism remains, even in the great rainbow-flag-waving cities of the West. Some of the smartest, most well-meaning straight people still don´t get it – in fact don´t even see it. This mole-blindness is all the more bizarre given the unremittingly vulgar sexual explicitness that otherwise assaults us everywhere in the mass media, not least in the cartoon world of online pornography.“ Terry Castle, You better not tell me you forgot , London Review of Books, Vol. 34 No. 18 · 27 September 2012, pages 3-11.
3 Passing in queer jargon is defined as: Being able to be seen in public as a member of one’s preferred gender, with no ambiguity or skepticism on the part of the viewer. Patrick Califia: Tranny Talk. A Glossary of Transgender Terminology, 2004. P. 4
3* Song title by Cole Porter, one of the most important song writers of the 20th century, who held luxurious queer parties in Paris as part of the Lost Generation.