PRINT December 1994


IT’S HARD TO SAY when Betty Bee became an artist. At eight, she covered herself with white paint, hoping to throw a guard dog off her scent and so escape the reform school where she was confined. In Vienna some ten years ago, she and a friend sprinkled subway seats with pig’s blood; the next day they brought relief, spraying the train cars with air freshener. (This without knowing anything about the Viennese Aktionismus movement.) More recently, having discovered galleries, museums, and art magazines—art as a system, in other words—she has turned to video, taping the actions she has always performed in public.

Now Betty Bee’s paintings, photographs, and installations have begun to appear in galleries. But her works remain reactions—through flight, aggression, or eccentric interventions—to the intolerable: poverty in her home town of Naples, rape by her father and her brother, mistreatment in reformatories, her mother’s death, a gang rape, life on the street. Betty Bee turns tragedy into farce, exorcising evil and reintegrating traumatic experience. One way she has talked about her life is in comic strip form, each frame a misfortune. A friend realized the cartoons for her, since she can’t draw, or so she says; but it may be that the story is too painful to be represented firsthand. Another way is through collage, in a group of photographs, for example, of a house she once lived in—and was evicted from.

Betty Bee is drawn to transvestites and transsexuals, perhaps because they often embody exaggerated ideas of femininity, or because they both replace and combine the figures of father and mother. For Betty, a transsexual is both benevolent man/father and strong woman/mother—a figure uniting and harmonizing the oppositions of conventional gender roles. Betty imitates the clothing, makeup, gestures, and even voices of transvestites—she is a remarkable mimic. To complicate things she may slip a false penis made of tissue paper under women’s trousers and hit the streets, mixing with the “normal” people, whom she mocks by her provocative “otherness.” At openings, parties, soirées, even in bars in broad daylight—any place people gather—she appears as a transvestite under the name Fofò, or Katia. She uses foul language and obscene gestures, she makes mothers scared for their children, she alarms men with sexual advances, she tells stories of prostitution, exploitation, or the homosexuality still violently repressed in the patriarchal family life of today’s Naples. At the end, a striptease may reveal her as a woman, or someone may congratulate her for the “splendid performance.” Only then does the anxiety her simulations have caused subside.

The elevated hyperreality in Betty’s work would meet the approval of Baudrillardians everywhere (if there are any left). But this is a simulation with tangible effects. A group of Neapolitan women artists, for example, although they knew her work, had her thrown off the set where Oliviero Toscani was photographing them for a spread in Benetton’s magazine Colors, revealing the intolerance behind their feminist stance—their unexpected inability to deal with a simple play on sexual identity.

The fact is that a woman dressed as a transvestite is an excessive figure, intolerable from a number of viewpoints, including not only that of conventional good taste but, apparently, that of the sort of feminism that essentializes gender in the quest for representation. Betty’s point of departure in constructing this figure is the Neapolitan stereotype of the femminiello, the transvestite prostitute, a stereotype she turns into a paradox through the bulging crotch that the transvestite would certainly suppress. Perhaps her woman with penis also embodies the psychoanalytic fantasy of the phallic mother.

One thing is sure: in the end, Betty Bee’s work addresses issues of sexual enslavement and the always unpredictable dynamics of the war between the sexes.

To do this, Betty is ready to put her own safety at risk. In the video pieces she is now working on, the “Adescamenti” (Solicitations), she will distinguish among three types of transvestite: the vulgar kind (whom she dubs “Miss Banana Yogurt”); the chic bourgeoise (“Bamby”); and the dominatrix (“Leonardo”). She has already had herself photographed in their costumes. Next she plans to pretend to be a prostitute of each of these sorts, going to pick-up places while her activities are taped by a hidden video camera. The pretense will be truer than true: she’ll actually make pick-ups. Then she’ll break off the action just before consummation. The danger she will thus invite reflects the violence of this decisive exchange in the harsh human comedy that she has chosen to represent, throwing it back in our faces.

Giorgio Verzotti is a curator at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.