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by Mary Rinebold
"Manon," Apr. 29-June 30, 2009, at the Swiss Institute, 495 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.

Back in the 1970s, a handful of German and Swiss artists took "Body Art" in an especially erotic and transgressive direction. Artists like Katharina Sieverding and Urs Lüthi posed and vamped in the best tradition of the Weimar Republic, raising provocative post-feminist questions about gender and sexual identity. Another member of this crew was the Swiss body artist Manon (b. 1946), who is currently having her first substantial exhibition in the U.S. at the Swiss Institute in Manhattan.

Manon, who was once Lüthi’s wife and muse, is revealed here to be something of a chameleon, metamorphosing into "a dandy, a sleepwalker, a drunk and a lascivious bitch," to quote the description of a 1979 suite of her black-and-white photographs. Organized by Swiss Institute curator Gianni Jetzer, the show features a pair of room-sized installations as well as two series of photographs from the 1970s, a slideshow from 2003, two vitrines filled with ephemera and a group of color photos from 2007.

Representing one extreme is The Salmon-Colored Boudoir (1974-2006), a room-sized tent scented with a floral perfume and lit with a warm pinkish glow, a mirrored boudoir filled to overflowing with the paraphernalia of decadent luxury: champagne, a tray of oysters, a box of bonbons, an array of pharmaceuticals, candles, ostrich feathers, a trunk, a makeup table, silk nightgowns and an assortment of furs, all arrayed around a lavish bed of satin and silk. From the vanity hang scarves, numerous snapshots, a satin sea-shell clutch, and a gigantic animal tusk.

This scene is a diva’s fantasy. Too over the top to be traditionally female, The Salmon-Colored Boudoir is more like the property of an interstellar drag queen.

At the other end of the Swiss Institute’s loft-like space is a second sculptural installation, The End of Lola Montez. Consisting of a spotlighted chair with silver chains inside a cage with black bars, the object is an artifact of a 1975 performance in which Manon, dressed as a masked dominatrix, posed bound and helpless before an audience at the Museum of Art Lucerne.

"Lola Montez" is, of course, the 19th-century Irish-born adventurer who seduced the King of Bavaria, eventually leading to his downfall. According to an apocryphal tale, at the end of her life she had joined an American traveling circus and allowed herself to be exhibited in a cage, enduring taunts and lewd observations from voyeurs who came to see the exotic dancer and one-time courtesan to Europe’s elite.

In the large central gallery is Manon’s photographic series La dame au crâne rasé (The woman with the shaved head) (1977), a series of black-and-white photographs in which the artist appears nude, her hair cut off and wearing exaggerated makeup. The image is both castrated and sexual, denying sex and proclaiming it, a sadomasochistic emblem of gender confusion. This kind of androgyny was very much of the cultural moment, exemplified by Jean-Christophe Ammann’s 1974 exhibition "Transformer" at the Museum of Art Lucerne (which later appeared at the Kitchen Center in New York).

In another group of photos, titled The Gray Wall or 36 Sleepless Nights (1977), as in La dame au crâne rasé, Manon plays the part of both muse and artist. She is "sculptor and Pygmalion in one," as Ammann writes, both object and author, both photographer and model. It is a moment when the muse comes to life and stares back at the viewer. The moment, according to feminist theorist Amelia Jones, writing in the exhibition catalogue, "enacts the conflict at the heart of 20th-century femininity."

In a separate gallery off to the side is She Was Once Miss Rimini (2003), a slide projection of color photographs of the 57-year-old artist clowning in a wide variety of costumes and poses, from the glamorous and wickedly erotic to the bizarre. Overly made-up and oblivious to what might be called the conventions of age-appropriate behavior, Manon now enacts the role of a beauty queen whose powers are fading. It’s a role that is desperate and brave and, finally, utterly human.

MARY RINEBOLD is a curator and writer based in New York.