Rebecca Ann Tess

Figge von Rosen Galerie | Berlin

Not long ago, German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle married his boyfriend of many years. Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her personal congratulations. Christopher Street Day—a gay pride celebration—is a familiar occurrence in major German cities. All this might lead you to think that the question of identity politics insofar as it touches on sexual preference has been laid to rest in Germany. Wrong, says artist Rebecca Ann Tess. Difference is desirable; it’s good for the bottom line in the fashion and design industries, there’s even room for it in the political sphere, and it helps tabloid sales as well—but then what? Feminist theorist Judith Butler has criticized Christopher Street Day for being too uncritical and too commercial—which is why she turned down the Civil Courage Award the organizers wanted to give her this year.

This situation explains Tess’s drive to reframe the discussion of queerness. But do new ways of discussing difference really exist? The old ways persevere: For her HD video projection Dad Dracula Is Dead, 2009, Tess used nonprofessional actors to restage scenes from movies of the 1920s and ’30s in front of a backdrop made of blownup stills. With a keen editorial eye, Tess excerpted individual scenes and had them acted out either exactly or in changed form, adding offscreen commentary. Among the quoted films is Dracula’s Daughter (1936), which gives the show its title: “Not Dad Yet Sad!” But is this Dracula-cum-überfather truly dead along with all his clichés? There’s also the 1919 German film Anders als die Anderen (Different from the Others), which features a homosexual violinist as its hero. His failure seems preprogrammed: The film ends with his suicide. And Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) from 1931 was censored in the United States because of fears that certain scenes could be understood as lesbian. Offscreen, a voice reports on the work of early-twentiethcentury sexologist Havelock Ellis, who blamed the increase in lesbian relationships on all-girl schools and the fact that women were appearing more in public. The film installation was here accompanied by dramatically staged color photographs. Each picture in this numbered series is titled missing image. We’ve seen pictures of gay men cruising before, but lesbians? Tess tries to imagine several such scenes, setting them in a park at night.

Many artists today use techniques of reenactment, but Tess does so quite differently than, say, Jeremy Deller, for whom authenticity is a key element in a project of creative anachronism. Tess considers authenticity a trap, and she counteracts it by using Brechtian estrangement techniques. Her actors take a distanced approach to their dramatic dialogues. Nothing is authentic, neither the role of the woman nor that of the man being played by a woman, or is this man the woman? In her book Giving an Account of Oneself, Butler quotes Theodor W. Adorno: “Anything that we can call morality today merges into the question of the organization of the world.” In these arrow-sharp works Tess declares the world’s current organization subject to renegotiation. There’s every reason to conclude that the question of identity politics is still far from being resolved.

Noemi Smolik
Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss