The artist Jakob Lena Knebl staged with the installation Schwule Sau (Faggot) a temporary memorial to homosexual, lesbian and transgender persons who were persecuted and murdered under Nazism. Designations such as “schwule Sau” or “Mannweib” (bulldagger) that are pejorative and devaluing in everyday language have been deliberately used here: in this way the artist took up Judith Butler’s theory of performativity of the political discourse on hate speech. He turned himself and his body to an exhibition and projection space and confronted the public in the installation.
Judith Butler argues that “keeping such terms unsaid and unsayable, can also work to lock them in place preserving their power to injure and arresting the possibility of a reworking that might shift their context and purpose” (Butler 1997, p. 38). In the installation Jakob Lena Knebl did exactly this: the artist reminded of the fact that in our use of language there are terms that injure. And she did not allow these words to be used behind closed doors. In the work, they were inscribed on Jakob Lena Knebl’s body and could not be even deliberately overlooked. The apparently naked body of the artist — despite being painted — exposed the terms and ultimately also all those who intend to employ them in a defamatory sense. This was now impossible, since the artist anticipated this; he had appropriated the terms, employed them in a defamatory way against himself and so deprived them of the injuring force that homosexuals, lesbians and transgender people find themselves exposed to.
The artist examines cultural studies and deliberately chooses political subjects. She wants to focus on pushing forward a consistent analysis of norms, normativity and the ideals of our society. Similar to Judith Butler, who besides theory also calls for persistent efforts (Butler 2004), she wants to contribute to trigger social and political changes. It is this lasting effort which also makes Jakob Lena Knebl’s work a political practice.
The installation presented photographic depictions of the artist himself. They are entitled Oskar and establish the deliberate reference to Oskar Schlemmer and his Triadischen Ballett (Triadic Ballett).
Schlemmer’s approach consisted in staging a theatre without action, as a pure art form that researched the relationship between people and space. The actors’ costumes were based on lines, diagonals, circles and ellipses, on geometrical principles. Jakob Lena Knebl now made use of this suprematist principle by painting the strictly geometrical forms directly on her body in place of a costume. Her corpulent body form, which she herself designates as anti-aesthetic, subverted and deformed the strict form language which in the Suprematist period — between about 1915 and 1930 — was considered to be the pure and artistic form. Using her body, the artist broke the aesthetic form language that was considered beautiful. The same happened in the color palette, which referred to the poster art of constructivism and to the trends in current interior design. Thus the installation and the photographic work looked fashionable and deliberately speculated on arousing attraction. The artist induced a further break — at times the essential part of Jakob Lena Knebl’s artistic practice — by endowing the strongly visually sensed with intense political messages. She calls this “trickery” (Schwindel) — something pretends to be something else than its true content and so gains the viewer’s attention by trickery.
The fact that gaining the viewing through trickery is still necessary today, not only turns the installation to a memorial to the victims of Nazism. It also represents the people who are still persecuted by intolerance, hate and a declared lack of understanding.
Text (abridged): Miriam Kathrein
Judith Butler, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performance, New York 1997
Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, New York 2004
Morzinplatz, 1010 Vienna