Manon, winner of the prestigious Meret Oppenheim prize in 2008, is today considered the most important representative of performance art in Switzerland, and a major artist of the European avant-garde in the early 1970s.
Born in Berne in 1946, she studied decorative arts at Saint-Gall before settling in Zurich to join the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique. Her wide-ranging artistic production includes environmental and sculptural works, performances and installations – all related to photography, which occupies a central position in her work. With a deep feminist awareness Manon, unlike her contemporaries of the 70s, does not aim to provoke or take a militant stand; her work falls instead within a phantasmagorical sphere in which lust and role-play mingle in a dreamlike, sometimes even nightmarish world. Her life is her art and her art is her life: “I didn’t want to make art; I wanted to be my own work of art!” she said once. A quest for beauty strongly pervades her work, supported by an awareness that this object of desire can only tend toward ruin.
Manon made a stricking entry onto Zurich’s artistic scene in 1974 by literally exhibiting her “world”, with Das lachsfarbene Boudoir (The Salmon-coloured Boudoir) at the Lily Tobler gallery. She gave this name to her place of living and dreaming, the place where she spends most of her time, day and night: her bedroom, her cocoon, her most secret inner world. It is an multi-angular space enclosed by mirrors on all sides and filled to the brim with a surprising mixture of feathers, fetishes, eccentric objects, erotic curios, exotic flowers and salmon-pink fabrics. It was during this period that she would turn up in the middle of the night, like a “night-of-love flower”, poisonous perhaps, mysterious certainly, in the bars of the Zurich scene frequented by the likes of Walter Pfeiffer, Dieter Meier, Ursula Hodel, David Weiss, and Urs Lüthi, to name but a few.
She would emerge from the semi-darkness, constantly wearing the same pale make-up, dressed entirely in black and hidden behind dark glasses, as we would later see her in her own photographs – very much in the style of the “superstars” of “The Factory”, but without waiting for Andy Warhol’s blessing. She created her own image as an inaccessible Diva and it was through her image that she made her name as an artist and that she protected her hypersensitivity.
In the 70s and following on from the most contemporary sociology, we can mention other examples of (self-) portraits of artists using their own body and appearance as artistic material, such as Katherina Sieverding, Michel Journiac and Jürgen Klauke. While Manon revealed her “own” interior in 1974, male artists of the same period were showing their exteriors, in other words their own clothes or someone else’s, such as Urs Lüthi in the exhibition Visualisierte Denkprozesse (1970) at the Kunstmuseum Lucerne, Christian Boltanski with his Inventaire des objets appartenant à un habitant d’Oxford (1973) and Hans-Peter Feldmann with Alle Kleider einer Frau (1974).
An individual mythology - for herself
Manon’s early work lies as much within the framework of the Individual mythologies of art (as Harald Szeemann named one of the sections of his famous 1972 Documenta) as in the exploration of the representation of the body of female artists by themselves, in the wake of the sexual liberation of the 60s and 70s and the first stirrings of post-68 feminism.
Thus, for the performance La fin de Lola Montez (1975) (The End of Lola Montez), Manon, dressed in a black “body”, is chained in a cage hanging in the darkness above the visitors, like a wild animal in S&M gear. This modern Lola Montez, a woman’s body tainted by sins, is presented as though in a circus, served up to the curiosity of a salacious public – reflecting Max Ophüls’ representation of the last years of the life of the former mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria in his final film.
In 1975/76, Zurich gallery owner Pablo Stählin made his window in the old town available to Manon for her small exhibition Das Leben im Schaukasten (Life in a Showcase), a work in which the artist made her life public through photographs and documents. It was with Manon Presents Men (1976) that the artist left her mark on recent art history by inverting the old artist/model duality. Not contenting herself with a single model, Manon brought in a whole “harem” of 7 men – “the most handsome” in Zurich, in her words – not represented in painting or photography but in flesh and blood. Their costumes reflect her fantasies as do the names she gives them (Rock Angel, Dandy, Beach Boy, Steppenwolf, Portier de Nuit, Juicy Lucy, etc.). The exhibition also inverts the set of male fantasies seen by the artist in 70s Amsterdam where prostitutes exhibited their bodies to the eager gaze of male passers-by in the shop windows of the Red Light district. With this performance, the public is excluded from the exhibition space and sent straight back to its primary voyeuristic position. FinallyManon Presents Men can also be seen as an inversion of genders seen in Marcel Duchamp’s installation Etant donnés (1946-1966).
She concluded her trilogy of performance pieces with The Artist is Present. A group of clones consisting of 16 young women and a mannequin dressed as the artist accompany the “real” Manon across the city of Zurich to the central station before she takes the train to Lucerne. This was still a long time before the issue of cloning became a matter of debate.
From 1978 onwards and following her move to Paris for a few years, Manon devoted herself exclusively to photographic work, staging herself in front of the camera. As in her performance work, she used her body as medium and modelled it in shots for which she controlled every aspect, from framing, through direction, to light: a certain kinship with Marlene Dietrich is not to be denied! Thus, from the moment she arrived in the City of Light, in a great flurry of work she produced the series Die graue Wand oder 36 schlafflose Nächte (The Grey Wall or 36 Sleepless Nights) (1977), La Dame au crâne rasé (The Lady with the Shaved Head) (1978) andElektrokardiogramm (1978). With their theatricality and their “chic-DIY” appearance, they bore witness to the “maladies of civilisation” that belong to us all, such as solitude or paranoia.
Self-determination in the representation of her own body
Self-determination in the representation of her own body in the way Manon has made her own and applied it since the mid-70s is in the tradition of certain post-war women artists, such as Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Brigit Jürgenssen and Orlan, to name but a few.
In 1971, Manon appears in one of the first works by Urs Lüthi: Manon as a Selfportrait (Like a Bird). In this sense, Manon’s work also echoes the path of women who have gone from the status of being the “models” of male artists to that of women artists in their own right, by turning the camera round, giving up the role of model, and producing images themselves, such as Dora Maar, Meret Oppenheim, Tina Modotti, Lee Miller and even Leni Riefenstahl in the first half of the 20th century.
At the beginning and in the middle of the 70s, other women artists such as Francesca Woodman and Ana Mendieta, based their approach on working in front of and behind the camera like Manon. While Francesca Woodman’s approach consists rather of a melancholy introspection about women’s transition to middle age, Ana Mendieta uses an approach that examines the symbolism of the union with “Mother Earth” in her “earth-works”.
Manon’s work is quite different from these approaches. She clearly belongs to the life and culture of the city and sometimes plays high culture off against low culture. She also questions gender a great deal more and tends at certain times towards an abstraction of her self, using her body as a stereotype in a consumer society in which social roles derive from their commercial status. In particular she highlights existential anxieties, physical and psychological suffering, and even hallucinatory states, referring to the psychedelic aesthetic with Elektrokardiogramm (1978).
Although Manon’s world owes a great deal to the cinema, her cinematic overtones are never direct in the way say Cindy Sherman’s series Untitled Film Stills are; an artist with whom she is too often mistakenly compared. Cindy Sherman – whose early work the CPG exhibited in 2012 – clearly referred in this series from the late 1970s to a Hollywood aesthetic of 50s B-movies, while Manon’s cinematographic influences draw a wide arc from Max Ophüls (Lola Montez) to Josef von Sternberg (Lady from Shanghai) and Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad), through the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Werner Rainer Fassbinder and her friend Daniel Schmid.
Not having been subjected to the same kind of criticisms as Hannah Wilke regarding her physical beauty, it is not surprising that from the age of 50, the issues of age, loss of seductive power and health should become themes often approached with a bittersweet irony, as is the case for example with the series Einst war sie Miss Rimini (She was once Miss Rimini) in 2009.
The exhibition at the CPG
The CPG is presenting the first institutional exhibition of Manon’s work in French-speaking Switzerland. The public will see an unexpected aspect of the artist’s work which might be considered a sort of dismantling of the erotic and glamorous image we are familiar with. Most of the works in the exhibition are appearing for the first time and have been produced specially for the occasion, and place emphasis not on the most diverse representations of the artist herself, but on an exploration of spaces deserted by the human – both interiors and exteriors. In this momentum, the artist takes into consideration the exhibition space itself as a space for producing emotions.
In the first part of the exhibition, the public will see for the first time documentary photographs of the artist, followed by self-representations in which the artist’s image is distorted by an aesthetic bordering on kitsch at the same time as making the viewer feeling uncomfortable. Then a room opens with views of dilapidated interiors, followed by new work, representations of objects that had decorated The Salmon-coloured Boudoir and never-exhibited polaroids showing fragments of it. Finally, at the end of the exhibition, the Elektkrokardiogramm series will be shown in the last room, displayed in a new form.
Manon has already had 2 solo exhibitions in Geneva, one in her early years in 1979 at the artist-run “Écart“ gallery, led more specifically by John Armleder who gave her a lot of support over the years. In 2012, following her rediscovery by young artists and art historians, Manon was invited to the Zabriskie Point art space at Rondpoint de Plainpalais, where she exhibited an installation entitled The Voyeur consisting of a gynaecology chair facing a designer armchair and a low table with a champagne bucket and crystal flute to its side.
Manon will be present at the opening at the Centre de la photographie, on Thursday 17 September, as well as on 3, 4 and 5 September prior to the opening.
The artist will also be appearing on the programme of the PerformanceProcess event at the Centre culturel suisse in Paris from 18 September to 13 December 2015.
Exhibition at the Centre de la photographie Genève 18 September to 29 November 2015 / Opening on Thursday 17 September at 6pm
PerformanceProcess at the Centre culturel suisse in Paris 18 September to 13 December 2015 / Opening Friday 18 September at 6pm Further information: http://www.ccsparis.com/events/view/performanceprocess
Manon, winner of the prestigious Meret Oppenheim prize in 2008, is today considered the most important representative of performance art in Switzerland, and a major artist of the European avant-garde in the early 1970s. She studied decorative arts at Saint-Gall before settling in Zurich to join the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique. Her wide-ranging artistic production includes environmental and sculptural works, performances and installations – all related to photography, which occupies a [...]
Manon, winner of the prestigious Meret Oppenheim prize in 2008, is today considered the most important representative of performance art in Switzerland, and a major artist of the European avant-garde in the early 1970s. She studied decorative arts at Saint-Gall before settling in Zurich to join the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique. Her wide-ranging artistic production includes environmental and sculptural works, performances and installations – all related to photography, which occupies a central position in her work. With a deep feminist awareness Manon, unlike her contemporaries of the 70s, does not aim to provoke or take a militant stand; her work falls instead within a phantasmagorical sphere in which lust and role-play mingle in a dreamlike, sometimes even nightmarish world. Her life is her art and her art is her life: “I didn’t want to make art; I wanted to be my own work of art!” she said once. A quest for beauty strongly pervades her work, supported by an awareness that this object of desire can only tend toward ruin.
Determined to break free of the confines of her role as a muse (to her second husband, Urs Lüthi), Manon’s first act as an artist was to present, in 1974 in Zurich, an installation representing the site of her life and loves, Das lachsfarbene Boudoir(The Salmon-Coloured Boudoir). Many of the following pieces were performances featuring herself, such as Lola Montez. WithManon Presents Man, she exhibited seven men corresponding to her fantasies in a Zurich art gallery, like Amsterdam prostitutes posing in window displays.For The Artist Is Present she travelled from Zurich to Lucerne with 16 young women, all in her image. The mirror was broken. Then came a long period of photographic work, all staging herself with the same sophisticated erotic flair, a lustful and extravagantly glamorous feminism borrowing from the feminine side of David Bowie and the masculine side of Marlene Dietrich. From 1990 she began to make more sculptures and installations, increasingly in contemplation of disease and death. OSMOSCOSMOSpresents an excerpt from the 1982 Doppelzimmer series showing her with her third husband,Sikander von Bhicknapahari, a photographer’s assistant, producer, coach, digital assistant and more, in a reversal of the role of the nude model.