Intertwining times, people, and stories become simultaneously the creative source and content of the new publication In Frauenkleidung by writer Zoltán Lesi and designer Ricardo Portilho. This poetic experiment makes the state of being incomplete into a potentiality, and opens the frame for their own considerations and imaginary: Both artists investigate the narrative of intersexual athletes and their entanglement with and connection to other people, places, media, times, and themselves. As its outcome In Frauenkleidung is a collage of fact and fiction, poems and found footage, image, and text. The interview traces the origin of the publication and the friendship of Lesi and Portilho as a creative vehicle and desideratum for the book.
Schlosspost: Your new publication In Frauenkleidung (2019) interconnects different layers of stories, spaces, time, and people. It plays with the format of the book as a space for new and further connections within memory dynamics of the past as much as personal ideas of the viewer/reader. But before we start discussing the book itself, we might begin with your personal connection and relationship. You got to know each other during your fellowships at Akademie Schloss Solitude. Zoltán, you approached Ricardo with an astonishing story of a high jumper. What is this story about?
Zoltán Lesi: Fiction and reality merge in contradictory statements about the female high jump competition in the 1936 Olympics. Athletes, judges, coaches, and journalists tell their versions. Subjectivity infects history, which thus remains incomplete. Dora Ratjen is at the center of the action. She could only participate in the Olympics because Gretel Bergmann was prevented from doing so for anti-Semitic reasons. Ratjen may have been a victim of medical treatment, or as the police report says, she was born with »ambiguous«genitalia. But can anyone believe the National Socialist Security Police? The overlaps, repetitions, and differences in the narrative poems are poetic and also produce fake news.
Schlosspost: Why did you ask Ricardo to collaborate? What connects both of you?
ZL: Ricardo and I were residents together in autumn 2017 at Akademie Schloss Solitude. I invited him for tea, and we started to talk about Joseph Cornell. While we were talking, we figured out that the Brazilian music in Rose Hobarth couldn’t be in the original version of the movie, because it is newer than the first famous screening. A few weeks later Elmar Mellert was organizing a group exhibition in Solitude exhibition space on Römerstraße. I had an idea to present my new poems on a folding fanzine with newspaper cutouts and the image of a pole on it. I asked Ricardo if we could create the fanzine together.
»And then Zoltán came up with a proposal arranging five words that when put together, are always irresistible for me: Let’s make a fanzine.«
Ricardo Portilho: At that time we discovered our shared interests. I remember watching Rose Hobarth with Zoltan, and then started to talk about that particular song, the one that Joseph Cornell added to his film, and naturally to all the ideas connected to that. So, besides our nightly ping-pong sessions in the basement of Haus 2, we found out that we could start a real interchange of work and ideas. And then Zoltán came up with a proposal arranging five words that when put together, are always irresistible for me: Let’s make a fanzine.
Schlosspost: The story of Dora Ratjen was just the starting point for your artistic research on intertwined but hidden stories of intersexual athletes. What happened then?
ZL: One of the most fascinating things is telling a story. But I realized, that despite the detailed research, the big collection of newspapers, photos, and radio interviews, it is impossible to know the complete truth about Dora Ratjen. I found interviews with the athletes competing with Ratjen, and I wanted to add their perspective in the book. Later I found out that Stella Walsh was also competing in the same Olympic games as Dora Ratjen. Adding her and Zdeňka Koubková’s story to the book gave a possibility to talk more aspect of living as a female athlete or an intersexual person. Although I have researched contemporary cases, it was more coherent to keep the book in the frame of the 1930s.
»I realized, that despite the detailed research, the big collection of newspapers, photos, and radio interviews, it is impossible to know the complete truth about Dora Ratjen.«
RP: When we started working on the fanzine, I was astonished at the amount of material that Zoltan had researched and how he managed to collect so much material evidence of things that happened on that time. Mostly thanks to his obsessive research, all the interrelated cases started to appear.
Schlosspost: You are focusing on aspects of gender within the context of sports. Why?
ZL: Actually, besides the gender context, the role of media is also very important for our project. It is hard to find anything that gets more media attention than an international sports event. Also, I find the movement of jumping an artistic act, a poetic experiment in levitation.
»I find the movement of jumping an artistic act, a poetic experiment in levitation.«
Schlosspost: Thinking of World War II, your project shows its massive cesura of and effect on social life as much as the continuity of history through everyday life through your project. How does collective history intertwine with personal narratives in your project?
ZL: Gretel Bergmann left Germany after the Olympics and traveled to the United States. It was very difficult to immigrate because the Nazis didn’t allow to leave with more than 4 dollars. Also, the US was not very open to Jewish immigrants, because they were Germans to them. Bergmann’s parents later left to the United Kingdom and although the father had businesses there the family needed to wait for a long time in an immigration camp. Ratjen stayed in Germany and was working for Reichsarbeitsdienst. After she had needed to turn to be a man, she wanted to disappear from all public encounters. Stella Walsh also had difficulties integrating herself in the US. Although she grew up there, she was not accepted as an American citizen for a very long time.
RP: Zoltan could also mention other characters that appear on the book: Ibolya Csák, the Hungarian jumper that was competing against Ratjen, won the Olympics in 1936 and was also Jewish. Helen Stephens, the runner that was suspected to be a man and had to take tests, although Stella Walsh, who was competing in the same games, never had to take a test and in the end of her life was found to be a man. Or Dorothy Odam, the British high -jumping champion who got married and had kids, and had herself photographed as a jumping housewife. These are all parts of a whole that is the complex social structure of that time. Some how are individual cases that are part of a bigger collective narrative.
Schlosspost: There are so many layers and bits and pieces of intertwining stories and lives through time and space. How do you approach these dynamics in your artistic working style?
ZL: The poems have the title of the name of the person who is speaking. Each poem is like an answer to an interview question or a letter or a diary excerpt. The book is like a fragmented detective story and the reader reading the book gets closer and closer to understanding what happened with the protagonists.
Schlosspost: Another layer of meaning appears in your playful approach of intertwining fiction and fact. There are amorphous connotations and the line between truth and falsehood blurs continually. Why?
ZL: The genre of the book is documentary poetry. It is an uncommon approach in lyrics, although in cinema, people are used to mixed genres. The surrealistic fictional approach in the stories in which animals, cats, and lobsters are speaking also opening up the prosaic language and presenting a broader context. This was also a point where the visual presentation, the exhibition influenced my poems. The essayistic style in poetry is more common in English-speaking countries. One of the biggest figures in this genre is Anne Carson.
»I always think about that saying, ›Truth is the first to be killed in a war‹ so, also thinking about the 1930s, it leaves us so much to imagine of what has not been told, or registered in any form […].«
RP: Other athletes, other life stories, people that were living in the same period of time and could have met each other. What fascinates me is how Zoltán manages to navigate the fictional possibilities of these relationships. I always think about that saying, »Truth is the first to be killed in a war« so, also thinking about the 1930s, it leaves us so much to imagine of what has not been told, or registered in any form, and then there is a big open space for creation, a space that Zoltán knows how to navigate very well.
Schlosspost: We as viewers can especially experience it in your zine, which you created as a first step of your collaboration. What potential does the zine offer you for this artistic working method?
ZL: The zine gave us the possibility to experiment on a smaller scale. It was also a preparation for the exhibition and book project. The zine is a lengthy foldable paper with newspaper and photo collages on the cover and with my poems inside. The translation was done by Nóra Keszerice.
RP: In the zine we started to discover the potential of the media archive to be used as a device to tell these stories as well. At that time the idea of exploring the notion of fake news was already very present, so in the zine we started combining images and texts from different sources to create something else, something that was not always linked to reality. The fact that there were all black-and-white images and the zine was to be printed in black was also considered. Everything was in low-resolution, which actually made it easier to figure out as some sort of aesthetics of the doubtful message.
Schlosspost: After creating a zine you exhibited it in Budapest and literally put »the fanzine on the wall« as Ricardo stated. What did this exhibition look like and what was on display?
ZL: I brought the zine Sprung to a gallery and book shop, and the owner invited us to a one-day exhibition. First, we thought about something very simple, but then Ricardo came up with the idea to let ourselves be inspired by Joseph Cornell and prepare boxes. I spent a week at Solitude in May 2018 to produce the works. We have six wooden boxes with assemblages connected by copper tape to a TouchBoard. Each box has an audio recording of my poems and when the visitors touch the tape or specific point on the box, it starts to play a poem. Besides these we have around 100 Plexiglas boxes arranged in clusters, two small videos, and a vaulting pole. The exhibition was shown later in Akademie Schloss Solitude, Endemity Festival in Poznan, Zsolnay Quarter in Pécs, and Vienna’s T/Abor Gallery.
»We decided to take the shadow boxes as a starting point, which led us to a lot of different situations, more research, derives through the city’s flea markets, and some amazing moments in the Solitude workshops.«
RP: Yes, we started wanting to make something simple, but as we started working, more and more ideas started to come. We decided to take the shadow boxes as a starting point, which led us to a lot of different situations, more research, derives through the city’s flea markets, and some amazing moments in the Solitude workshops. We also built another series of assemblages, with small Plexiglas boxes that we found in a decorating shop. Zoltán managed to record different voices reading the poems and connected them to each box, creating an interactive installation. All this, assembled at the ISBN gallery in Budapest, was so impressive. Nowadays, when I see all the places these exhibition has already traveled, I am very proud.
Schlosspost: A fanzine is a self published magazine »for the pleasure of others« as Wikipedia tells us. What means »Fanzine on the wall?« How do you work with fanzines in the exhibition space?
ZL: All art is for the pleasure of others. The collages and assemblages in the boxes also used a lot of newspaper cutouts and archive photos about athletes in the 1930s. We have collected some objects in antique shops in Stuttgart and we built in those into the boxes as well. The installation is an extended 3D projection of the fanzine.
»All art is for the pleasure of others.«
RP: The idea started, I think, when we looked at all the material that was put together as research, all the news pieces, the images; and thought about how those things could put together to show, somehow, some of the subjects that this project was dealing with. In this sense, what we call »the small boxes« ended up very much following a work method that was closer to that of a book of images, or a big collage. But actually, calling it »fanzine on the wall« was an insight that came up when we were working in Solitude in May. Suddenly we were able to look at all those tiny boxes, objects, all put very close to each other and recognize something that looked very much like what had been done in the fanzine.
Schlosspost: Why are you so interested in combining different media?
ZL: It doesn’t make sense to combine poems and texts with visual objects and multimedia, but my new book is based on newspaper articles. Remerging my narrative poems with their original context was part of the concept from the beginning. This was also part of my Solitude plan, and I found the best partner for the project. The dream came true when we started the collaboration.
»Remerging my narrative poems with their original context was part of the concept from the beginning.«
RP: I just can’t avoid it. I feel that recombining visual or textual material, or repurposing archival sources, is a method in which I feel comfortable and I can play with the possibilities of meaning. And also, because of this project and the collaboration with Zoltán, I feel like experimenting with it in new projects, or different media.
Schlosspost: Both of you share a passion for archives. What power do you find in them and how do you work with (or rather create?) them?
ZL: Creating the archive is the side product of the research I was doing for my writings. For creating the visual work with Ricardo, I needed to rearrange them. This also inspired my writing, and I was learning a lot from Ricardo.
RP: And I learned a lot from Zoltán!
Schlosspost: Your collaborative process was informed by Surrealism and especially Joseph Cornell’s assemblages created from found objects. Against common surrealistic approaches Cornell’s shadow boxes with his eclectic fragments of photographs and items show his interest in the faded beauty of his found objects. How does this relate to your approach?
ZL: Cornell was creating the shadow boxes for his brother and for children in their neighborhood in Queens. He was rediscovering the beauty in found objects. We combined his techniques with the stories we wanted to tell about female and intersexual athletes in the 1930s.
RP: Playing with the shadow boxes opened a new possibility for us: to experiment with a visual poetic language, to produce images that relate to what has been expressed in Zoltán’s text, in a more open, nonverbal way. But in our case the boxes are also connected to the Touchboard, so they become an interactive installation. The viewer can listen to recordings of the poems after touching a specific point on the boxes.
Schlosspost: Surrealists work with irrational juxtaposition as an artistic tool and evoke nostalgia by this. Do we find nostalgia in your project, too?
ZL: Joseph Cornell’s works often have nostalgic elements in childhood. Speaking about the 1930s, and the part of the story we tell about immigration or gender, still causes political stress. We cite stories from the 1930s, but we are definitely not nostalgic for the time.
»Speaking about the 1930s, and the part of the story we tell about immigration or gender, still causes political stress.«
RP: I think the boxes portray the objects inside them as precious, rare items. I like this kind of perception, the precariousness but also the feeling of something that has to be carefully preserved. Maybe there is a component of nostalgia, indeed, but it is not literal. I think it is more connected to the kind of feeling you have when you open an old suitcase full of objects from the past.
Schlosspost: Let us draw the bow back to your publication of your new book In Frauenkleidung.Again, there is a playful approach to the book format. You work with collages and assemblages, combine fact and fiction, different stories and people, times and spaces. Can you give us a short introduction to the book?
»In the precisely portrayed figures and their very different biographies – highlighted by the view from a historical distance – our own contradictory gender roles emerge.«
ZL: The book of poetry In Frauenkleidung traces the life of intersex or women athletes at the beginning of the 1930s. Combining prosaic, intense language with historical photographs and newspaper clippings creates a detective story of a special kind. In the precisely portrayed figures and their very different biographies – highlighted by the view from a historical distance – our own contradictory gender roles emerge.
Schlosspost: Zoltán’s poems as well as other texts and photographs find their way into the book. Next to Ricardo’s design both form and content invite the viewer to rethink preshaped patterns of perception and meaning. Why?
ZL: The pocket-sized book In Frauenkleidung has 24 poems with a collage of archive photos. Despite the experimental look, it suggests a linear reading and opens the story as investigation or research. We learn about the stories of Dora Ratjen, Gretel Bergmann, Stella Walsh, and Zdeňka Koubková.
»Joining two or more copies of the book allows a collage to be built.«
RP: I think the design of the book, specially how we edited the images, connects with the idea of a story that emerges from the connection of several different pieces. The images are very present in book, in a number and intensity that is uncommon for poetry books. But they are almost always cropped, so the reader is never able to see a complete picture. Joining two or more copies of the book allows a collage to be built. So, as the texts unfold more and more views as the reader goes through the book, the images reveal themselves as fragments that can be seen as a big mosaic when several pages are seen together.
Schlosspost: Is this the end of your project?
ZL: After the German publication, we are preparing the Hungarian, Slovak, and Polish versions of the book. Besides this project, we are already starting new cooperation related to a collection of Ricardo’s photos inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
RP: Do not forget the Brazilian Portuguese translation of In Frauenkleidung!
The interview was conducted by Sophie-Charlotte Opitz.
In Frauenkleidung was published by Edition Mosaik in 2019.