Not surprisingly, Berlin is taking major part in the European Month of Photography, with loads and loads of amazing events happening. Mr. B is passionate about photography, and knows about my own interest in transsexuality / androgyny, so he suggested we go see French artist Bettina Rheim’s Gender Studies exhibition.
Located in the beautiful area of Savignyplatz, with its old buildings, boutiques and artsy spaces, the Camera Work gallery can be reached through a passage way next to the majestic entrance of Kantstrasse 149. Finding our way to the back yard, passing by other visitors in the wintery dark, gave us the impression that we were discovering a well-kept secret, with only a few other people in the know.
It is certainly a secret worth knowing. Over fifteen years old, the gallery not only presents photo icons such as Man Ray, Horst P. Horst, Peter Lindbergh, Diane Arbus and Helmut Newton, but also exhibits young, up-and-coming artists who are just starting their careers. (Incidentally, Camera Work AG boasts one of the most comprehensive collections of photographs and photo books in the world.) The space is by no means extensive, but appears airy, and bright. The extra-tall ceiling and the loving way of exhibiting photos, allowing them enough distance between each other, definitely helps. The lighting is perfect, and the white walls frame 25 large portraits which form quite a breathtaking ensemble.
The exhibition’s focus is the topic of transgender, “people who evade the categorization of male and female”. Its posterboy is, literally and symbolically, supermodel Andrej Pejic, by now almost a household name. Andrej P’s photo is exactly what you would expect: a captivating, perfect blonde sending a sultry look to the camera. In a way, it sets the tone for the rest of the portraits – they are characterized by almost unbearable beauty, sometimes in a conventional sense, and sometimes less so. The people depicted are all relatively young, and mostly pose facing the camera, engaging through open and earnest gazes.
Not all is perfection though: tatoos, minor imperfections covered up with band-aids, or post-op scars, everything is inscribed in the skin. And yet from a place simultaneously inside and outside, beyond what is written on the body, comes a gentle, encompassing light. Dressed in be-ragged off-white linen, the subjects stare cleared-eyed and candidly, until confidence or shyness becomes irrelevant. From photo to photo, they take on a saintly, or angelic quality. Falling angels, perhaps, with hints of vulnerability in their exposure, their compulsion to still cover up, their chipped dark nail polish.
In a society where the normative and stereotypical classifications of gender still tend to prevail, Rheim’s artistic study, and work in general, is indescribably important. Whether the effect is challenging, electrifying or purely aesthetic, this is an exhibition worth seeing.
It is on until the 1st of December at Camera Work, Berlin.