*Advertisement for Jägermeister featuring Klaus Nomi shot by Jan Michael, which ran in a 1981 issue of New York magazine.(

*Advertisement for Jägermeister featuring Klaus Nomi shot by Jan Michael, which ran in a 1981 issue of New York magazine.(

Klaus Nomi

*Advertisement for Jägermeister featuring Klaus Nomi shot by Jan Michael, which ran in a 1981 issue of New York magazine.(

Thirty years after Klaus Nomi’s death, the Neuer Aachener Kunstverein (NAK) dedicated an exhibition to the visionary musician and performance artist whose theatrical self-fashioning, developed in the context of glam, new wave, and disco, continues to resonate. For his first exhibition, NAK’s new director, Ben Kaufmann, compiled a great deal of original visual and audio material as well as previously unseen footage of interviews with Ulrike Ottinger, Jürgen Klauke, Melissa Logan, Wolfgang Staehle, and others, giving visitors an opportunity to engage with Nomi’s various strategies of self-presentation and the media representations through which his image circulated. Kaufmann also invited several contemporary artists to engage creatively with Nomi and his work and included a number of already-existing artworks by others. The exhibits featured Nomi’s now-famous 1981 ad for Jägermeister and a cover of the German weekly Die Zeit’s magazine supplement from July 1980, both of which present the countertenor wearing his trademark androgynous makeup and a costume reminiscent of that in Oskar Schlemmer’s 1927 Triadic Ballet. There were also clips from Nomi’s appearances on German and American TV talk shows, the poster for the 2004 documentary The Nomi Song, a Nomi remix by DJ Hell, and even the poster of the Aachen exhibition itself. Instead of denying its own participation in the logic of media and commercial exploitation to which Nomi’s persona has been subjected, the show illustrated how the various stages of his life—his modest background (he was born Klaus Sperber in rural Bavaria in 1944); his childhood and teenage years as a social outsider; his sudden stardom in New York, where he moved in 1972; and his tragic early death from AIDS in 1983—fed into the Nomi myth. Kaufmann didn’t try to uncover the “real” Klaus Nomi, but instead investigated the persistent interest in his persona, the bizarre fictional figure “Klaus Nomi.”

At first glance, Nomi’s outlandish theatrics—his diva-esque getups, his highly artificial mechanical-geometrical costumes, and his unusual fusion of disco and opera—seem to be the products of a will to individual expression. Starting in the mid-1970s, New York’s East Village gave rise to a counterculture in which political dissent seemed secondary to the riotous enjoyment of personal freedom. It may seem that the scene’s protagonists, reveling in opulence and glitter, living life on the edge at the very height of the Cold War, were oblivious to the world around them. But their unfettered hedonism implied a profound transformation of the self; identity in the classical sense was dissolved or became mutable, brittle, and equivocal. There was a playful and pleasurable quality to this experimentation, but with the onset of the AIDS crisis, an undercurrent of pain became poignantly obvious. Nomi’s theatricalized productions are legible today not only as models of deliberate and radical inauthenticity but also as demonstrations of fragile identities shaped by vulnerability and the imminence of death.

The works by younger artists scattered throughout the exhibition corroborated the contemporary relevance of this transmutation of the self. Ragnar Kjartansson’s performance video Sounds of Despair, 2009, in which the artist is taped to a column and, dangling in midair, vociferously laments his situation, illustrates the precariousness of individuality. In Xavier, 2013, the stage Agnieszka Szostek set up at the center of the ground-floor gallery functioned as a placeholder for possible theatrical (self-)productions. In From Beds from Everlasting Snow! (The Cold Song / Klaus Nomi), 2013, Gregor Hildebrandt transformed an audiotape with a recording of Nomi’s “The Cold Song” (1982) into an abstractly iridescent surface. The ecstasy, experimentation, and passion of glam have given way to a cool and melancholy aloofness. The staging of identity, it seems, has now become a pragmatic strategy.

Daniela Stöppel

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.