In this interview the philosopher and curator –one of the most influential today– reveals how he discovered the work of Lorenza Böttner, a trans artist born in Punta Arenas, who, as well as appearing in books by Bolaño and Lemebel, and posing for Robert Mapplethorpe, created work that criticised the normalisation of the body and gender.
By Evelyn Erlij
In 1996 both Roberto Bolaño and Pedro Lemebel described in their respective books Estrella Distante (“Distant Star”) and Loco afán (“Uncontrolled Yearning”) an implausible character, a sort of phantom, as Bolañesque as Lemebeliano, who seemed condemned to disappear into the pages of the books. According to the first author, the character’s name was Lorenzo; according to the second, it was Lorenza. The two authors each wrote a different biography, with Bolaño claiming that Lorenzo was one of the many exiles who left Chile during the dictatorship; Lemebel wrote that he was the son of a German woman and a Chilean policeman who, after an accident that resulted in his arms being amputated, left Chile with his mother to get healthcare in Germany. His name, wrote Lemebel, was Ernst Böttner, he was born in Punta Arenas, but in Europe he became a visual artist called Lorenza.
“Once upon a time there was a poor boy who lived in Chile… His name was Lorenzo, I think, I’m not sure, and I’ve forgotten his surname, but somebody will have remembered it, and he liked to play and climb trees and electricity pylons. One day he climbed up a pylon and received such a strong electric shock that he lost both his arms”, wrote the author of 2666. In the chronicle “Lorenza, (Las alas de la manca)” (Lorenza: The Cripple’s Wings), Lemebel added: “Ernst replaced his lost hands with his feet, developing great dexterity, especially for painting and sketching. Gradually he turned from art to transvestite makeup in which the burnt wings of his little homosexual heart blossomed. She studied classical cart, posed as a model, and turned her own body into a mobile sculpture (…) And so Lorenza Böttner was born. The female name was the last feather adorning her transvestite costume”.
These books were published several years before Paul B. Preciado (1970) became one of the most important and radical gender theorists of recent decades. He is the author of essays such as Manifiesto contrasexual (“The Contra-sexual Manifesto”, 2002), Testo yonqui (“Testo Junkie”, 2008) and Pornotopía (“Pornotopia”, 2010). “I’m an avid reader of both Bolaño and Lemebel, but I hadn’t noticed the figure of Lorenza in their books. I thought she was a quasi fictional character”, Preciado writes from Paris, days after he launched his book Un apartamento en Urano, (“An Apartment on Uranus”). It’s a book of chronicles with a sketch by Lorenza Böttner on the cover: a half-male, half-female body that somehow represents both sexes. Furthermore, the Chilean artist’s birth name was Ernst, while the Spanish philosopher was called Beatriz.
He explains that he came across Lorenza by chance in 2014 while he was teaching a course on exploring the politics of the body in artistic and literary practices in the post-dictatorship years in Spain. He says he wanted to map artistic practices, paying particular attention to corporal dissidence and functional diversity. That’s how he got to looking into the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics, whose official mascot, Petra, was a figure without arms. The Spanish newspaper ABC wrote: “A physically disabled Chilean actor, Lorenza Böttner, will bring Petra to life”.
“From the first I wanted to know who was behind that character”, explained Preciado who has for years worked as a curator and was in 2018 voted by Art Review as one of the most influential people in the art world. The little that was known about Lorenza’s life was in part thanks to research undertaken by Carl Fischer in 2016. A professor at Fordham University, USA, in the context of his doctoral thesis on Chilean queer literature, Fischer wrote that Lorenza had died in 1994 in Munich at the age of 33, from AIDS-related complications. Fischer also wrote that she had studied at the School of Art and Design, Kassel, that she did performances in New York, and that she had lived in Barcelona and Munich. But as well as building up a biographical understanding of her, for Preciado it was essential to discover where her work was.
“That’s how I came to Lorenza’s mother, who had kept all of her son/daughter’s work in her house”, explained the philosopher, who in November inaugurated Réquiem por la norma, an exhibition based on Böttner’s work, in the La Virreina Centre de la Imatge in Barcelona that then moved to Stuttgart. “The moment I first saw her work was one of the most emotional moments of my life as an art curator. I think Lorenza found me, not the other way around. Her work gave a materiality to a whole series of practices of sexual and corporal dissidence that I had been working on theoretically for years”.
To raise awareness of Lorenza Böttner’s work Preciado undertook the huge effort of classifying, photographing, restoring and studying it. It had been stored for years in Munich in conditions that had made its conservation hard, so what Preciado needed was a team of experts, and above all, a budget. He also came up against a second challenge: to combat the exoticising and pathological gaze with which trans bodies and bodies of functional diversity are viewed, in order to ensure that Lorenza’s work was recognised as art. “I was faced with the prejudices that define the artistic work of a person of functional diversity as handicap art,” he explained. “I was even told that Lorenza was an artist for Unicef”.
Both the financial problems and those of the work’s eventual validation were solved when Paul B. Preciado was named curator of documenta 14, the prestigious art exhibition that takes place in Kassel, and which in 2017 also took place in Athens for the first time. “The project was enthusiastically welcomed by the director of documenta, Adam Szymczyk, and then by the whole team of assistants who worked with me to prepare the exhibition”, says Preciado. “The challenge was to articulate a narrative, a curatorial story to ensure that Lorenza’s work would be understood as art, as performance art, painting, and photography, and not as the occupational therapy of a supposedly disabled person”.
In parallel Preciado was reconstructing Böttner’s life, which is how he came across the November 1973 number of the magazine Mampato –edited at the time by Isabel Allende–, in which there was a short article about her under the title “A Model Boy”. “(Ernst) appeared in the magazine’s offices one day to hand over some sketches he’d done for the magazine. He was passing through Santiago with his mother; a few days later he’d be taking the plane to Germany”, read the text, which also specified that he was in the last year of primary school at the German School in Punta Arenas. That trip to Germany, which was meant to be for specialised medical treatment, would be a one-way journey: Lorenza Böttner only ever came back to Chile a few times, for very short stays, before she died.
In his chronicle Lemebel writes that although Lorenza had done a piece of performance art in Santiago, it made hardly any waves on the local art scene: “Lorenza’s performance in Chile took place on a hot Sunday afternoon in the Bucci Gallery, in front of a small audience and under the lazy gaze of couples going window shopping on their day off. When somebody asked whether it was part of the Teletón charity fundraiser, they were shushed by others while the beautiful cripple projected her Etruscan shadow onto the walls of the gallery (…) Walking past a barracks one day the guards blew her kisses and shouted at her. Without missing a beat she opened her cape and answered okay, but one at a time”.
Among the Chileans who knew Lorenza, was, according to the chronicle Loco afán, the artist Mario Soro who established a friendship with her when he went to Germany in 1989. But beyond some brief anecdotes such as these little is known of her relationship to Chile. Reading Estrella Distante one can imagine that her name was known to Chilean artists and writers in Europe, such as Bolaño himself, who in the voice of his alter-ego, Arturo Belano, talks about Lorenza as Petra: “At the time I was in the Valle Hebrón Hospital, my liver shot to pieces, and I was reading about her triumphs, her jokes, her anecdotes in two or three newspapers every day. Sometimes reading her interviews made my sides split with laughter. Other times they made me cry. I also saw her on the TV. She played her part brilliantly”.
The exhibition Réquiem por la norma –which after Stuttgart will go to Bergen, Toronto and Paris, but which still hasn’t been formally invited to Chile– brings together hundreds of works that show the diversity of Böttner’s style and form, as she explored photography, drawing, performance, installation art, painting and dance – all disciplines which, according to the narrative hegemony of art, are centred on a use of arms and hands. Lorenza created with her mouth and her feet. “I learned to use a pen with my mouth, and I was still in hospital when I first tried to draw”, she explained in Mampato. Added to this functional dissidence is that of gender: Lorenza depicted herself in photos and paintings as neither man nor woman. Her body, says Preciado, is not identity, it’s transition.
“Rather than transvestism, it makes more sense to talk about practices of transition as techniques of counter-learning through which the body and the subjectivity considered to be “disabled” or “sick” reclaim their right to represent themselves and invent their own ways of living. So it’s not right to say that Lorenza uses her feet and mouth as hands, or that she simply dresses herself as a woman, but rather that she invented another body, another artistic and gender practice that was neither disabled nor normal, neither feminine nor masculine, neither painting nor dance”, writes the curator in the exhibition catalogue, in which are also included recorded interviews and extracts of films in which Böttner participated. In one of them she says: “I’m a performance in movement”.
Lorenza combines and confuses life and art, a common enough practice in the second half of the 20th century. But what is absolutely original, says Preciado, “is her intention to escape the institutional straitjacket and the rendering invisible of functionally diverse bodies; her affirmation of her living body, of her vulnerable but desiring body, faced with the normalised identification of disability and transsexuality as pathologies. Lorenza uses performance, painting, photography, what she calls “danced painting” in order to create a body that resists the norm. This is what makes her absolutely contemporary: her rejection of the fixed identify and the assignment of a pathology to her”.
In Europe and the US Lorenza did hundreds of performances and danced-paintings, which were often street interventions in which she painted the ground with her feet as she danced. In New York, thanks to a scholarship from the University of New York Steinhardt, she undertook further studies in art, fell in with the local art scene and even posed for photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Joel Peter Witkin. Böttner rebelled against what Bolaño called “the zoo of the gazes”, that is the image of the freak. She made her body visible, installing it on the street and at the centre of her work. “I’m an exhibitionist”, she says in a recorded interview, something that’s also clear from her many self portraits.
At a time when so much of the discourse of both sexual dissidences and feminist movements point towards the same type of body, raising awareness of the name Lorenza Böttner is a political gesture: “Lorenza’s work is a manifesto that allows one to imagine a different politics of the body, beyond the politics of identity and the differences between the normal and the pathological”, says Preciado. “For me, she is a figure of the crossroads, of the transition that leads towards the possibility of imagining a transversal political subject not defined by the hierarchical taxonomy of modernity (“man”, “woman”, “homosexual”, or “disabled”), but rather a subject who defines themself as a vulnerable living body”.
Mario Soro: Memories of Lorenza
Lemebel wrote the chronicle Loco afán after interviewing Mario Soro, who was a distant relative of Böttner’s. “Lorenza was the cousin of a cousin of mine”, explains the visual artist and engraver. His work was exhibited as part of Los dominios perdidos at the Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI), an exhibition (which closed on 5th May) of Chilean art of the post-dictatorship years. Soro exhibited a travel notebook in which he had dedicated a chapter to the moment he met Lorenza in Munich in 1989. “I went to take part in Cirurgía plástica, a Chilean art exhibition in Berlin, but I arrived first in Frankfurt where a cousin of mine told me about Lorenza”, he remembers. “When I saw her I found myself in front of a person two metres tall who held out her foot with such grace that I didn’t even realise it wasn’t her hand. Meeting her completely broke me down, and I built myself up again entirely; it shaped the whole of my work from then on”.
Soro has since worked around themes of amputation and the dismemberment of the human body in exhibitions such as Enfermedades del cuerpo político (2010 -2017) and in works such as La mesa de trabajo de los héroes (2000). He developed a friendship with Lorenza that lasted until her death. “Lorenza came to Chile on several occasions and stayed at my house, which was a place where she felt safe. During her first trip in 1989 I was working at the Bucci Gallery and we suggested the idea of doing a performance with her, with consisted of her drawing, with her foot, a heroic masculine figure, almost philo-fascist, and the figure of a woman. There was nothing threatening about it, unlike the performances that were being done here with nudity, blood, sweat, semen”, he recounts. “Those who saw it just laughed, at her and her innocence, at her interest in the representative. The body was most important thing in her work: all of her work was a prosthesis. I wanted people to learn about her work because I understood its inherently disruptive element. So it was a wonderful surprise when Pedro (Lemebel) approached me. The two of us cried together”, he confesses, before adding that “Lorenza was interested in what was happening in Chile, but she didn’t refer to political issues. She was a German whose childhood had been in Chile in Punta Arenas, and she had as part of her imaginary the wind, the cold, and the local landscape. I remember how sensitive she was, how generous, extraordinarily feminine and masculine at the same time”.