Male gender roles are transforming. What is masculinity today and how do we reflect on men and their socio-political roles in the midst of reorienting the socio-political roles of both, women and men?
Questions like these, belonging to the light that becomes coloured when it goes through the prism of human life, were provoked at the 23rd edition of Philosophy Unbound, a collective promoting performative philosophy. Operating under the theme ‘A Thousand Masculinities’, the collective put the work of performers, philosophers, dancers and writers into dialogue at the alternative space Spitzer connected to the Odeon Theater in Vienna’s second district.
My following text will sketch out three vignettes to discuss the idiosyncratic performative gestures of Brigitte Wilfing’s FAT HER LAND … with colours!, Jaskaran Singh Anand’s L-INKED, and Zoltán Lesi’s Sprung to inquire how ideas of masculinity and femininity can be performatively transgressed when the performers re-shape, de- and reconstruct themselves on the stage.1
Heimat: FAT HER LAND … with colours!
A woman appears on the stage. She wears a pair of jeans and dark T-shirt, topped-up with a turquoise hip figure of an aqua-coloured octopus. Her stiff and static body recites words, repeats and breaks them apart. HEIMAT and GRUSS GOTT are three of them. They are both politically-charged Austrian expressions for which there are no equivalent sayings in the English language. The latter of the two literally means ‘hail god’ and the former relates to the notion of ‘homeland’. The body that which performs this fragmentary speech act is Brigitte Wilfing’s and her bodily gestures and speech recall the Hitler hail and its corporeal and reproducible rigidity.
Drawing on her own nationality, the Austrian artist works through the words her tongue generates, stutteringly she breaks them up into their syllables, turning them over and over. The forceful but still playful decision of speeding up the rhythm of her speech performance grabs her whole body, and makes the words stick with, in, us. In this way she transforms herself into a robotic word machine, and us, into an imagined collective that reacts to the mishmash of the syllables that neither clearly sound English nor German after some time.
HEI-MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT. MAT.
HEIM-AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT. AT.
Although Wilfing’s serious and strong play with voice and words is dramaturgically polished, I cannot help waiting to hear and see her transgressing the historical concept of HEIMAT right at the beginning, because HEIMAT denotes more than the concept of homeland or nation: it continues to perform itself through its people. What her performance demonstrates is that post-war Austrians continue to embody the idea of HEIMAT, despite their desired alienation from it. The uncanny Marxist form of ENT-FREMD-UNG still resonates with UN-HEIM-LICH-KEIT in FAT-HER-LAND. I am signposting here, like she does, and I am, like she is, bound up in whatever our gendered idea of HEIMAT is and how it manifests itself through our daily performed gestures of greeting and speaking. As Rebecca Schneider points out, ‘If the past is reiterative, given to reappearance like the reverberation of a hail, it is also always and again open to response. The past is a relation’.2 The relation of the past and the present that Wilfing stages in FAT HER LAND is colourful, addressing both men and women, as her title effectively suggests. And yet, it, HEIMAT, continues to perform itself through individual identity politics; a critical response to what it denotes today was unscrutinised in this performance because the idea of HEIMAT as we aleady know it, was merely re-performed.
FE MALE NESS: L-INKED
‘Curse the things that made me sad for so long. Yeah it hurts to think that they can still go on. I’m happy now. Are you happy now?’ These are the words that set off Jaskaran Sigh Anand’s L-INKED, an attempt to overcome gender binaries with a spectacular performance to coming-of-age pop music. Wolf Alice’s latest song, Blush, booms from the loudspeakers installed in the space when Anand enters the wooden stage from the back, dancing seductively to the bittersweet music. First, we see his naked upper body from the back, covered by his long, black, wavy mane of hair. All of a sudden, the strangely sexualised atmosphere changes. He throws his hair and Britney’s Oops!…I Did It Again sets the next tone.
Anand starts dancing on the floor in front of the stage. He marks both ballet and jazz movements, which has the effect of dramaticising both, elite and pop cultural performance practices. Seeking eye contact with the viewers, his gaze meets mine when he stands in the centre of performance area, looking straight ahead to where I sit. I am blushing slightly and have to grin when our eyes meet. Quickly, a feeling of shame creeps up inside me. Why did I choose to sit here? Please stop looking into my eyes.
As Britney sings, ‘I got lost in the game’. But pop music from the 1990s does not go so well down with Anand’s reference to drag and his frankly spoken dia/mono/logue. L-INKED ends with Michael meets Mozart by the Piano Guys; its attempt to blend genders as well as high and pop culture into one, presents itself as a sticky label for the commodification of bodies and culture in general. L-INKED’s performative collapse of gender categories ironically re-enacts the concept of the ‘man-made Woman’. This is how the feminist theatre scholar Jill Dolan calls the cross-dressing traditions of Greek, Shakespeare and other popular theatrical forms in England and America that re-enacts ‘female-likeness’, a performative stylised act that also belongs to the gender performance of the Japanese Kabuki theatre.3 Following this performance tradition, Anand, an Indian artist based in Austria, fluidly queered binary gender categories by constructing a male femininity through his body on and off the stage.
Zoltán Lesi stands in front of a microphone. His nails are coloured in a bright red. Photographs and newspaper clippings of the high jump competition of the Berlin Olympic Games produced by Leni Riefenstahl and others from 1936 are projected onto the wall behind him. He starts reading from his paper; he introduces us to the transgender story of Dora Ratjen. Born as a boy, perhaps with pseudo-hermaphroditism (which means that his parents claimed not being sure if he was fact a girl) but raised as a girl, the teenager Dora established a reputation as the talented high jumper. When her competitor Gretel Bergmann, a Jewish athlete, was excluded from deservedly participating in the Games, Dora replaced her. ‘A man’ dressed in woman’s clothes, competed for the Third Reich, and came forth at the Olympic Games. Two years later she won the high jump competition at the European championships and set a new women’s world record. This happened days before it was uncovered that she was a cisgender man. Forced to take on a name and identity that fitted her biological sex, Dora had to legally become Heinrich.
Lesi’s lecture performance not only called Dora’s controversial story into mind but also brought it back to life, about eighty-years later. Neither imposing nor reinforcing the transgressive nature of his subject onto his audience, his performance addressed the individual and larger socio-political issues with which queer people were confronted in the early twentieth-century. The story of Heinrich Ratjen, who was known as the sport performance star Dora Ratjen, is tragic. It is Lesi’s disinterestedness in her innate sex that makes the controversial story of Dora-Heinrich a point of reference, a point of departure that helps to rethink the modern concept of masculinity and its bodily performance practices that which still resonate with the ancient patriarchy. As Lesi’s lecture staged a form of transgender, male to female and back to male, it was his performance that made clear that the critical socio-political potential of the feminine man can only operate in relation to its female man-likeness. Lesi’s take on masculinity, in juxtaposition to the two other performances, serves as a reminder that the societal role of women has to be seriously rethought too when we are reflecting on what masculinity today could mean, can do, and therefore is.
1 The three performance works were framed by two more conventional performances, two brief talks. Sebastian Vetter talked contextualised the struggles that the patriarch generates, analysing Marx’s dream of having a classless society, in terms of gender categories and Jörg Killian gave an insight into his forthcoming book Backlash – Essays zur Resilienz der Moderne.
2 Schneider, R., ‘That the Past May Yet Have Another Future: Gesture in the Times of Hands Up’, in: Theatre Journal, Vol. 70, No. 3, September 2018, pp. 285-306, p. 288.
3 Dolan, J.,’ Gender Impersonation Onstage’, in: Gender in Performance, Senelick, L. (ed.), Hannover: University of New England Press, 1992, p. 4-5. On gender roles in Kabuki theatre see Mezur, K., Beautiful Boys/ Outlaw Bodies: Devising Kabuki Female-Likeness, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.