The title of this show, “Manon—A Person,” suggested that the artist’s first retrospective was not meant simply to gather works but that instead, through works and documents, a woman, a whole human being, was being presented—and indeed, this was the only way to do justice to a personality who has been as much a myth as a real person since her first appearances in Zurich in the early 1970s. “Manon,” a pseudonym, has a tone somewhere between the familiarity of a first name and the distance of a diva, ruler of her own desires as well as of those she awakens. Early on, the artist linked art to fashion and subculture, performative and photographic self-staging, geometrically rigorous and baroque overflowing installations.

“The girl with the salmon-colored tie”—as she called herself in the artist’s book Manonomanie, 1975—first appeared on the artistic scene in 1974 with the installation Das lachsfarbene Boudoir (The Salmon-Colored Boudoir): “La philosophie est entrée dans le boudoir, il est temps que le boudoir entre dans la philosophie”—philosophy has entered the boudoir, it is time for the boudoir to enter philosophy, according to Manon’s sketchbook. Whereas Louise Bourgeois’s cells urge us to explore nightmares and compulsions, Manon’s mirrored tent in Das lachsfarbene Boudoir encompasses a multitude of obsessions in an overabundance of fetishes and symbols. Observers remain physically excluded from her work, however, as if, in the intimacy of the boudoir, we are to let only our thoughts and fantasies wander. One year later, Manon presented herself in performance as a masked wild animal behind massive bars, exhibited and chained in a luminous cage, dominant and yet herself dominated by a voyeurism that both sides have to endure: Das Ende der Lola Montez (The End of Lola Montez), 1975/2006, evokes the lover of Ludwig I of Bavaria, a woman who gained great political influence, then was ostracized, and finally was reduced to displaying herself as a “femme fatale” in a circus.

Again and again, photography is used like a display case whose gleaming surface simultaneously excludes and seduces observers. In multiple series she stages the shifting roles of her femininity: “La dame au crâne rasé” (Lady with Shaved Skull), 1977–78; “Ball der Einsamkeiten” (Ball of Solitudes), 1980; “Das Doppelzimmer” (The Double Room), 1982; “Künstler Eingang” (Artist Entrance), 1990; “Einst war sie Miss Rimini” (She Was Once Miss Rimini), 2003; “Borderline,” 2007. Bare skin, reflections, plays of light, disguises, accessories, and interiors reveal Manon in dialogue with herself, with men, or with fantastical figures, and the boundaries between dream and travesty disappear. “Elektrokardiogramm 304/303,” 1978, is a series of black-and-white photos that show Manon trying to break out of a narrow space painted in a chessboard pattern.

Manon anticipates a utopian state in which gender discourse will have conceived two free genders capable of being united in one person. The strictly choreographed presentation of the show did not attempt to generate an enveloping atmosphere but rather, through clear distinctions between the individual spaces, let the fragility and the pride of the “person” in the works speak for itself. The exhibition opened individual chapters of a life as it is sketched by Manon’s “Diaries,” 2004–, in juxtapositions, almost as if forming a Surrealist collage, of flashy, colorfully illuminated people and things.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Diana Reese.