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Dittmar in Barcelona | © Melanie Erspamer
Dittmar in Barcelona | © Melanie Erspamer
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On Art And Gender: Fabian Vogler’s Groundbreaking Sculptures In Barcelona

Picture of Melanie Erspamer
Updated: 1 November 2016
The topic of gender in art is quite heated right now, mostly circulating around the issue of the poor representation of women in galleries and museums (see the Guerilla Girls’ recent exhibition). In his exhibition at the Espronceda Center in Barcelona, German artist Fabian Vogler takes the question of gender one step further, exploring the still largely ignored area between genders. Based on this forward-thinking exhibition, members of the fashion and art worlds gathered Thursday, October 13th to discuss the connections between fashion, art, and gender.

Vogler’s exhibition, Liquid Gender, occupies two large rooms at the Espronceda Center for Art and Culture and is comprised largely of sculptures, along with a mix of photography, video, and audio pieces, some which can only be listened to with orange flashing headphones. The idea he is exploring, intersex, remains a dark area for most people, even as more and more begin to understand what transsexual means. It also remains a highly experimental area for artists, for the representation of a human figure in art is traditionally linked to the representation of a gender, that representation, of course, being culturally and temporally specific. Yet how can an artist represent intersex? Vogler articulated this worry, saying, ‘The question is whether to show gender or take it away. If you show it, it becomes the focus; if not, you are entering the world of hard to define sexuality.’

Gallery visitors interact with Vogler's video and audio pieces | © Melanie Erspamer
Gallery visitors interact with Vogler’s video and audio pieces | © Melanie Erspamer

The many sculptures in the exhibition vary in size from small bronze pieces as big as a hand to larger ones made of plaster. Many of them could recall the human figure, with shapes and forms that seem like legs or breasts, but none can be assigned a gender. A key aspect of the sculptures is their interpretability, which is given greater dimension by four series of photographs that are part of the exhibit. Each series is based around a different location, and in each photograph one of the small bronze statues of a set (each statue has a different name, some names suggesting a certain gender, others remaining ambiguous) is shown at different angles and in different spots in these locations, which include Barcelona, Greece, and South Africa.

Dittmar in Barcelona | © Melanie Erspamer
Fabian Vogler, ‘Dittmar in Barcelona’ | © Melanie Erspamer

The inspiration for several of Volger’s works comes from a painting by 17th-century painter Diego Velázquez. The painting, Las Meninas, shows one of the young daughters of the king of Spain at court, with some of her servants around her. As Vogler points out, though the girl is only a child, she is sexualized, using adult clothing that draws out her gender as fully as possible. In his series of sculptures called Menina, Vogel dramatizes the form imposed on the girl by her dress, which tightens her waist and makes her almost extend horizontally rather than vertically, until her shape seems unnatural and inhuman. Thus even a (traditionally) most feminine form becomes agender and strange when taken to its extreme.

Fabian Vogler, La Menina | © Melanie Erspamer
Fabian Vogler, ‘La Menina’ | © Melanie Erspamer

Vogler plans on exploring the idea of intersex and liquid gender even further in the future. Not all the sculptures in this exhibition initiated with the idea of intersex, though their later development and installation at Espronceda brought out the way they challenged the strict binary of gender. ‘I’ve always been bored by male stereotypes,’ he said.

Fabian Vogler, Druckkopf | © Melanie Erspamer
Fabian Vogler, Druckkopf | © Melanie Erspamer

Now he will be working on a book that was inspired by talking with Dr. Katinka Schweizer from the University Medical Center Hamburg, a book that will broach the subject of intersex from a breadth of different perspectives, including philosophical, art historical, and medical. Volger will create artwork based on the articles included, ensuring that the discussion remain visual as well as theoretical.

Based off of Volger’s exhibition, Espronceda hosted a panel debate Thursday, October 23rd, entitled ART / FASHION / GENDER: crossover at the age of fluid thought, with the aim of discussing the links between these three areas. The discussion was facilitated by Valentina Casacchia, a curator based in Milan, and the panelists included Vogler himself, the fashion designer duo Elisabet Carlota and Elisenda Oms, fashion designer Guillem Rodriguez Bernat, and curator at the Museu del Disseny de Barcelona Sílvia Ventosa Muñoz.

Carlota and Oms are the power behind Barcelona-based fashion company Carlotaoms. Although both women are only in their early 20s, their vision has already led to Carlotaoms winning the 080 Barcelona Fashion National Award to Emerging Talent 2016. A key aspect of this vision is that all their clothing is agender. ‘We are an agender brand, not a unisex one,’ clarified Oms. This point aligns their fashion with Vogler’s art: they are not merely unsatisfied with the gender binary’s constraints, they want to move beyond the gender binary altogether. As Carlota said, ‘The functionality [of the clothing] is more important than its form.’

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656 | © Museo del Prado/WikiCommons
Diego Velázquez, ‘Las Meninas’, 1656 | © Museo del Prado/WikiCommons

Bernat struck a slightly different note, clarifying from the offset that he designed clothing for men. For Bernat, ‘Fashion is fashion, art is art.’ While Carlota and Oms said they initially feel like artists when designing, and then functional designers when marketing their products, Bernat immediately characterized fashion as an industry, saying, unlike art, it must cater to the public from the outset. This might seem to make it harder for fashion to be a pioneer, as art can be, for the intersex community, since if it is catering for the public it is catering to bodies that are largely defined by the gender binary. Yet Bernat explained the way women’s and men’s fashions have informed each other for centuries, one example being Chanel’s radical ‘masculinization’ of women’s fashion. Bernat’s own design is heavily influenced by clothing made for females. ‘Why can’t you see a man in a dress?’ he asked.

The last speaker added a historical dimension to the discussion. After all, though fashion and art have only recently been pushing the limits of our traditional understanding of gender, there has always been interplay between the three concepts. Muñoz showed an informative powerpoint centering on paintings by Velázquez (including Las Meninas) and other painters of his time. She thus revealed how fashion in the past was used to maintain strict gender relations, and art to then transmit and immortalize these relations. Around her sat the people who were using those very same tools to tear down these relations. Art and culture, Muñoz suggested, are always important for gender and politics.