I’m Gray, Let’s Enjoy the Pink

Inga Iwasiów

I scan the web pages, watch the films documenting the “appearances,” I read articles in the papers published along the route of their life; I have seen the duo twice “in the flesh.” The story of EVA & ADELE’s living art changed after 1991 when they got married, partly as a result of the media environment they had entered. Had the artists planned this expansion of their “showcase” – a word they use to explain why they make their pilgrimages to the great exhibitions, festivals, and exhibitions – twenty years ago? When I began this text, I was using the masculine form to describe them [in Polish, the third person plural has masculine and feminine variants – trans.]. I will try to bear in mind that it is their artistic decision to be a pair of women.

When in the early 1960s Susan Sontag wrote “Notes on Camp” (and the duo is often interpreted through the lens of that idiom), a club, a gallery, or sometimes a parade could be showcases to demonstrate the aesthetic of overkill, kitsch, of everything that defied bourgeois “good taste” and cultural standards, particularly those pertaining to gender and sexuality. By the early 1990s parades had become a permanent part of the calendar in the big cities, though they were sideshows that occurred outside of both everyday social life and the gallery stream of art. The biggest audiences were at the Venice Biennale, at documenta in Kassel, and at gallery openings in New York. That was where they went. Who could have imagined that the print runs of the biggest magazines vying with each other to cover the “hermaphrodite twins from the future” would exceed the number of YouTube hits? Could such a path in the arts be taken today, could someone still state with an innocent grin: “Wherever we are is museum?” If a new duo, trio, or cooperative were to appear, the slogan would be seen as opposing the fact that a museum can be anywhere a viewer has Internet access. The showcase has expanded so much that it has exceeded the original intentions; it has placed the artists in a new context. They have pursued this expansion, making films and creating art objects linked with the lives of the people they have created. And now they are where they currently are not – on the Internet. This I find quite appropriate.

I find it appropriate for a few reasons, chiefly because EVA & ADELE give no ground to the context, and their project, which seems to efface the line between art and life, has entered life all the more forcefully – through the passing of years, the changes in the world, artistic trends, and the development of pop culture. Also because I, too, have a museum at home – I go through various web pages, and something which might once have fallen by the wayside or remained in a gallery (as a video recording or photographic document, enlarged alongside a canvas), i.e. their uncomfortable presence that throws doubt on my taste is available in their FUTURING, a word which Adele pronounces most charmingly.

It is true that alongside their pink web page, photographs, reviews, and films, my computer dredges up offers of sex, pornography and freaks, so I have to take care not to see accidentally something that will blemish my Internet honor. The fact of this neighborly vicinity also tells us something about the context, and about the innocence of two decades ago.

For anyone writing about this duo, the Internet forms a constrictive frame; it is an interpretation browser. It demands we ponder the critical mass of mediocrity, the limits of how original a response to art can be, and – all apologies – the superannuation of discourse. What has happened? Are EVA & ADELE too persistent and predictable all at once, do critics not know what more to write? Perseverance has, over time, taken pride of place in this project, dethroning provocation and camp kitsch, and has begun to resemble devotion. There would be nothing remarkable in one or multiple appearances in kitschy outfits at art openings, as long as this were only for a limited period. Their appearance generated a description which is now multiplied a hundredfold on the Internet. What are the critics and the witnesses of subsequent actions meant to do? Describe the connotations of the accessories the artists carry in their arms? Focus on the ties with the local culture? Note that this has been continuing for twenty years? One way or another, these statements must give way to a description of what is continuing. One way or another, their persistence and ingenuity – how many creations have there been, how many times have they interacted with their surroundings, stood out against the backdrop of others? – put critical language to the test.

EVA & ADELE appear in public as twins of indefinable gender, hermaphrodites, though we can tell at once who started off as a man, and who as a woman. The campy dress-up looks equally grotesque in either case. Eva “was” a man, and so the bald head suits her, while the make-up emphasizes rather than obscures the masculine features. Nor does the fairly stocky figure stuffed into pink outfits fool us. Adele is smaller, shapely, but frills and ruffles make even the smallest woman look like a doll. The bald head does not hurt her charm one bit. Are they the same, i.e. sexless, even though they choose a feminine sort of wallpaper? In such circumstances we tend to deploy the slogan that gender is a cultural construct. EVA & ADELE, appearing modeled this way among people, in “over-feminine” costume, with their male-female bodies, are an assault on the gender boundaries that people have in their heads. The act of their presence aims to garner a response. In the media, of course, but also directly. Here the Internet also makes a difference. Seeing a live hermaphroditic work of art beside you means more than reading Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble.” Seeing EVA & ADELE on the Internet, returning to the safe space of the private has a different quality; I should not like to decide at once if it defeats the purpose. “Gender Trouble” no longer grabs us, but has the double smile of the living dolls lost its appeal? It no longer shocks, at least not in the salons of Berlin, not even in the open air ones. Yet it would seem to work nonetheless, as we stand alongside, generally in our gray clothes, hidden away, our desires buried deep. Their repeated presence in the crowd, standing out among all the others, illustrates, or even stages and incarnates the basic principle of the performative; repetition establishes reality. Repetition has meant they are there, they exist – as hermaphrodite twins from the future, linked not by destiny (which we often assign to the culture of twins and doubles), but by an artistic program and a personal bond. The word “love” suits this bond, though I should not like to be sentimental.

Appearing at openings, the duo (perhaps we ought to call them a “married couple”? – I shall return to this point) wear garish colors, extravagantly feminine outfits, and have a sweet, kind persona. In general, when we seek to challenge the cultural norms, and the hetero-norms in particular, when we aim to negate the scope marked out for us by what we are biologically given and our social training, we use strategies of takeover and provocation; we use force. EVA & ADELE are nice. They give interviews, grinning widely. They make friendly gestures, wave, chat up the opening participants. In one film they are dressed in cat costumes; they wave the tails they hold in their hands, and endear themselves to a child, whose mother returns their smiles. We might say that in this way they parody the female culture of submission, were it not for the fact that, moments later, they are sitting in a garden pagoda, embarking on some passionate foreplay. This is not how nice women behave. Cats, however, can. So can women in a hetero-normative space, since being polite does not mean being sexually inaccessible. But this? The “hello” to the child, and putting the little cat on the big one’s lap? A cat on a cat? Lesbian sex between over-feminine cats? The big one must have a penis between his legs, because the little one keeps pressing in harder. Do the male and female cats have the same identity? Does a man in a dress retain his sexual allure? Can two female cats have a legal wedding? We play such games at home, where we hope no one is filming. In front of the cold buffet table, such games accustom us to their permissibility.

How to interpret the sequence where EVA & ADELE repeat together and precisely, paying attention to where the stress falls in the sentence, one of their inventions: “The beginning after the end of art” (the reporter is unable to extract anything else)? Here they set a boundary in a place they themselves call art – let us recall that the museum is wherever they see fit to place it by their act of appearance. The word “museum” is, at any rate, unsettling, because it also means the past, mortification. Are they already dead? Have they been going too long? At any rate, it is they who moderate the interview. Though they appear to reveal themselves, they are in fact concealed. Authors of numerous articles have noted the strategies the pair uses to generate an aura of mystery. Nothing odd about this, given that they have come from the future, wherever they happen to have set it, in order to display themselves in museums as we know them. They landed right after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and, after all, Berlin is the European capital of cabaret and camp. Their private life is off limits, we cannot look into it, they let no one into their home before putting on their costumes. Art has gone beyond the limits of the exhibition hall, though we ought not to let this statement fool us. It is only valid when someone is performing an artistic act. Here, of course, we have an unending artistic act.

They keep their privacy separate, while stressing the peculiar intimacy of their art, which makes us consider the way these “freaks” function in public space. In real life and the affiliated media, a “freak” is naked; (s)he stands defenseless before us. Anyone who looks different from “us,” particularly when we entertain suspicions about their sexuality (for example, female, lesbian, gay, or transsexual), is left utterly disrobed. EVA & ADELE show their difference, but they keep control of all the rest – public and media figures are under their influence. They respond to questions as their script demands, we do not see their photographs in “non-artistic” circumstances. Yes, I know, they are “always” in artistic circumstances, and have been for twenty years. And yet all we see is what they want to perform for us, when they appear, transforming the space into the artificial context of their performance, where they are carrying out yet another intervention.

They are artificiality incarnate – no one dresses like them, no one is so sweet, no one stages things in such close proximity – and they call this artificiality living art. Moreover, we know that they are a couple, and thus the limits of their work are marked by the nuptial act (perhaps they believe in the performative? Definitely: “I do” – the wedding vow – is the model of the performative act in every textbook written on the theory) correlated with the destruction of the wall and with some point from the future, from which they have teleported, these angels among celebrities. There, between carefully selected facts, they lead a life in a place which we might imagine as a changing room or a workshop, where they become hermaphroditic twins. We see nothing else, ergo: life is artifice. On the other hand, the reaction that we, the audience, give would appear to be authentic.

They also depict their intimacy in their pictures. During openings they enact surrealistically overstated scenes from their sex life. Then too they hold an advantage over the public; they lead us to the corners of the garden they choose.

Their nice behavior does not, of course, mean that they are neutral. Nice kids, nice women, nice kittens, nice mascots. They do not cause trouble or force anything to happen. They let themselves be used. EVA & ADELE enter soft but sure. The gathered public and those they use to give the public a performance – all those around – are discomfited, forced to reflect. Passive watching changes into the workings of the emotions and world-view. In looking at them, we question ourselves. In not wanting to look at them, we are forced to confess that they do affect us. Watching them on the Internet – the stream endlessly expanding their work – we can admit our feelings to ourselves with no illusions.

Nonetheless, their “natural” space is the unnatural environment of the art event, the focus of the discourse of cultural theories which process social facts. In this one sentence I have managed to describe the dependencies, while sacrificing clarity, of course. I shall leave the sentence as it is, however, because the non-communicative structure corresponds with the consternation that audiences experience. Moreover, it sounds as if it could have come from an exhibition catalogue – which is, after all, what this is.

The live presence of the artists has more power to interfere in a tame, normalized space, and has a greater effect on the public than recording one of their actions through some artistic medium. Of course, it would be hard to deny the opinion that what made an impact – and could sometimes even shock or at least raise interest in the late 20th century, still remains “transgressive.” In fact, EVA & ADELE are a duo that comes to us from the 20th century – from the past. It is possible that the 20th century has yet to conclude in Poland, what with all its questions concerning identity and gender roles. Venturing beyond the norm and transgressions make less of an impact now than they did twenty years ago, even in Poland. What matters more is that the Berlin artists are persistent, they have stayed together and continue to appear at yet another opening. They make us uncomfortable by forcing us to use words that often seem overused: camp, transgression, the performative, gender. They force critics to repeat things that might already seem to have been “ticked off.” I believe that this becomes a part of their act, it is one consequence of the permanent nature of living art: it prohibits critics from chasing after the new, it demands they repeat phrases (rather than clichés, we hope) that remain important for understanding social life and the role of art.

And so I am trying to imagine myself at the opening of a retrospective of “appearances” of the hermaphrodite duo from the future. What catches my eye? The fact that they are together, and that I am wearing a gray outfit. The camouflage does not mask me entirely, at any given moment – in spite of everything – when I drift out of my role, my privacy, I feel the punishing, invisible hand of the social censor. Meeting the duo forces me to wonder if it is worth wearing my gray uniform. Come what may, a woman in an arts space is public prey. She will not be invisible even if she apologizes for having spoken up.

Men, too, become fair prey when they try to cross the cultural boundaries of masculinity. I am not sure if these two situations are parallel or comparable in art. Opting to “over-feminize” oneself – the artists’ basic theme here – means that, as of 1991, intervention required femininity – of an extreme variety in Eva’s case, but also on Adele’s body.

I shall now return to a fact mentioned in every article on EVA & ADELE: the duo began their actions immediately after their wedding. Supposing that this piece of information could have been eliminated had the duo found it trivial allows us to view it as part of their art. As we can the following piece of news: the official sex change in 2010. This second act can be seen as a response to the relationship between the law (confirming the public role of the subject) and life, but also to the anachronistic nature of legal categories, in whose framework we write the scripts of our biographies.

In Poland the erotic bond they stage while milling about in the art opening crowd might be highly valuable. It is gentle, open, and stimulating to watch. In the paintings we see the sexual act and nudes; in the photos there are kisses and petting; “in the flesh” they keep their distance from the crowd, faking intimacy. I assume that they are “faking it” because these acts always have an element of play, of grotesque self-effacement. By the same token, they have a warmth, a mutual bond. The most raw scenes are reserved for the paintings – they are not literal in style, though they do emphasize the role of sex in the relationship. The erotic nature of the depictions does not make us feel like voyeurs. After all, they are right beside us, at the opening. They tell us: people living together means having sex, but before you get any ideas, look at us. We’re faking it.

Against a backdrop of dramatized identity narratives – and a Polish backdrop of hypocritical discussions on sexuality – the erotic bond and joyous sex proposed by EVA & ADELE provide a breath of fresh air. They also have political significance, in the sense that they defuse the audience’s excitement in the boundless right to judge other people – particularly those they situate outside the norm.

I am considering this as a writer and critic who deals with gender aspects of various narratives. The issue of exposing oneself to public scrutiny, constantly developing the reactiveness of being someone who speaks up, often demands that one dress in camouflage. Of course, one can try to win the battle for the right to speak, using tools offered by the media. In addition, it is as I said earlier – even gray will not protect you from society. The suspicion that we are having sex strips us of respect. Strangely, this is still the case.

EVA & ADELE therefore tell me a great deal about my own self-apprehension as a woman/writer/teacher/academic critic. I cringe before putting on a pink mini skirt, and in high-heel shoes I might take a spill in the gallery. I do not make public shows of affection. I am only harsh in my articles. Otherwise, I speak loudly and forcefully. Of that much I am capable. Leaving behind the female role at the scene of my writing and public appearances. With a costume to mask me, of course. I leave desire and temptation to the private sphere.

For twenty years, EVA & ADELE have been working on behalf of women and men dressed in gray clothes, artists of both sexes, all audiences. We put objects from the past in the museums, and the present will some day end up there as well – though more likely in multivisualizations than in showcases. The utopian future, in which gender and norms lose their significance, will no doubt take some time to arrive. While we wait, let’s enjoy the pink and remember that pink is political. In the museum, of course – for in the world at large, this is not always so.