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In Ulrike Ottinger’s transgressive photographs, on view at Bridget Donahue Gallery, gender bends freely: Glinda the Good Witch becomes a bearded queen in a shopping mall; Dorian Grey becomes a sleek, feminine power broker; and a pearl-clad pirate wears cut-and-pasted body hair on her bare chest.
Taking in these clusters of photographs is like barreling down an escape hatch into a realm where traditional power structures are flipped on their head. Born in Germany in 1942, Ottinger has made narrative and documentary films since the 1970s; her still images range from travel snapshots to mashups from her highly stylized cinematic worlds. Included in this exhibition — Ottinger’s first in New York in nearly 20 years — are shots from her experimental femme-fatale allegory The Enchantment of the Blue Sailors (1975), stills from her lesbian-pirate film Madame X (1978), and real-life images documenting a snowy market in Odessa. They’re featured alongside more recent works, including four big map collages made in 2011. As a whole, Ottinger’s works propose campy re-imaginings of history, fantasy, and legend. They cycle between documentary and the surreal, resulting in the best kind of escapism — where reality and fiction are so intertwined, you can’t imagine them without one another.
These glorious, queer fantasies aren’t without darkness. Among them are images of dagger-wielding, leather-clad heroines and a cult-like nude dinner party laced in barbed wire. We’re reminded that gender is as amorphous and changeable as violence and danger are imminent.
Ottinger’s images harken back to an era when gender-bending was a clandestine activity and queerness was almost universally considered freaky. Images from her aptly titled 1981 film, Freak Orlando, embody this best: a set of monks triumphantly hold chickens wearing babydoll heads as masks, and a circle of nymph-like characters in billowing gowns gaze at their genitals in a pool of water. Ottinger’s images are carefully crafted to queer as a verb; they’re imbued with the angst of being oneself in a world intent on oppressing your personhood.
It is this crossroads of acceptance and misunderstanding that connects contemporary queer photography to Ottinger’s imagery. LGBTQ+-focused photographers working today — like Angal Field, Matthew Leifheit, and Elliot Jerome Brown, Jr. — often make tender images, crafted to do justice to their subjects’ identities and bodies, to represent them in all their complexity and humanity. They do this by using the image as a container for the complications of being a person in this world and allowing the limits of the frame to give each participant rights to refuse the viewer’s gaze. Although these contemporary photographers trade in Ottinger’s brash alternate world-making for softness, their work is still steeped in the disorienting light-headedness of feeling like an outsider, fighting to live your own truth.
Ottinger’s images present a queerness that isn’t interested in individualism but rather in creating a universal force, like gravity or hate, bound by neither the body nor society. By rewriting legend and myth, she invents an enchanting world where gender’s basic function is cast as a tall tale.
Ulrike Ottinger is on view at Bridget Donahue Gallery (99 Bowery, 2nd Floor, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 3.