STUTTGART, Germany — Had she been alive today, it would be impossible to ignore Lorenza Böttner (1959–1994), the trans artist on the streets. Lithe, hirsute, and completely armless, Böttner’s eroticized body has a mermaid-like quality that transcends gendered limitations and features extensively in her work. She painted with her foot and mouth on the streets and posed unclothed for photographs and video installations that shone a spotlight on how she went about her day-to-day life, unaffected by what some may have seen as her body’s functional inadequacies.
Böttner’s somewhat exhaustive body of work is the subject of an ongoing exhibition in the German city of Stuttgart. It comprises of pencil and pen sketches, photographs, video installations, pastel art, and miscellaneous documents from her life, like her birth certificate and her graduation thesis, titled in German, “Behindert?” [Disabled].
With materials gathered from her friends — who are in possession of her art — and her mother — who preserved much of it in her basement in Munich — the exhibition, Lorenza Böttner: Requiem for the norm, informs the viewer on how she used her body for aesthetic expression. “There may be more of her work out there, but this is all we could manage to collect,” Iris Dressler, a director at the Württembergischer Kunst Verein museum in Stuttgart told Hyperallergic.
But what is on display proves that even as strikingly visible as Böttner was in public consciousness at her time, her work was dictated by an unremitting emphasis to provide visibility for disabled trans bodies like hers. As provocative as she may be, it’s not exhibitionism that dictated her work but the need to subvert the marginalization of disabled bodies in art. “I wanted to show the beauty of the crippled human body,” she explains her motive in a short video about her life.
Though Böttner’s playful pen and pencil sketches depict homosexual liaisons of beefy men in leather and assorted images of gay subculture, her pastels and other mediums where she is the main subject tell a different story. In one arresting, nude self-portrait, Böttner, flat-chested, yet sexually ambiguous, with flowing hair, longingly watches the baby in her lap, while feeding formula, nursing the bottle between her cheek and collarbone. It is easy to recognize the picture as assuredly maternal, but it also slowly dawns on the viewer that this person is ungendered, muddling views dictated by rigid gender strictures.
While in art, the unblemished human body is demanded and aspired for, through her disabled body, Böttner sought to challenge that notion. In the printed program note of Venus from Milo — a performance piece in which she dressed up as an armless Venus that she staged in New York and San Francisco — she noted: “A sculpture is always admired even if limps are missing, whereas a handicapped human being arouses feelings of uncertainness and shame. Changing from sculpture into human being, I want to make people aware of this problem.”
Böttner was aware the epistemological framework for observing artistic work needed to be altered to suit the ever-evolving perspectives on gender, body, and sexuality. One of her self-portrait pastels, set in a pleasing teal background, records the ambivalence of gender normativity and the de-sexualization of human body. She is a woman, unmistakably, in the first image, albeit with chest hair, while the second and third images render her as a man in varying degrees of acquiescence.
Born Ernst Lorenz Böttner, he suffered burns to his arms in an accident and underwent amputation of his arms as a child. Though Böttner dressed up as a woman in her formative years and identified so, she decided against gender reassignment surgery in her later years to avoid complications to her already bruised body after many surgeries she endured as a child.
Curator of the exhibition Paul B. Preciado believes Böttner’s work is a critique of the hegemony of the hand in art history. “She teaches us that what we call art history is just the history of the hand, but we know nothing or very little about the history of the foot and mouth,” he observed.
Fueled by the need to fight against the stigma of being considered a disabled person and not as an artist, Lorenza Böttner’s art created new avenues of visibility for the human body. The exhibition Requiem for the norm offers a window into it.