Emma Wolf-Haugh, Domestic Optimism - Modernism, a lesbian love story, 2020. Photo by Nicola Baratto.

Modernism: a Lesbian Love Story – in conversation with Emma Wolf-Haugh

Issue no6
Dec -Jan 2022
zigzag 2022 > 2023 + nieuwe collectie

Emma Wolf-Haugh’s living room exhibition Domestic Optimism in De Appel in Amsterdam is centered around modernist architecture and lesbian culture, with a specific focus on Eileen Gray (1878-1976), who was a modernist architect and bisexual. Wolf-Haugh was specifically curious about why so few people talked about Gray’s “queerness”, and they chose to research why those aspects of peoples’ lives are historically often unhighlighted.

Domestic Optimism presents an alternative reading of Eileen Gray’s life and legacy, while also referring back to the late-modernist architecture of the building De Appel is currently situated in. Wolf-Haugh’s aim was to “propose a decolonial, queer and working class reading of architecture, furniture, and modernist aesthetics,” as the exhibition text says.

The exhibition room is divided into two large components, with a couple of smaller works in between. The right side of the room is where Wolf-Haugh’s video work Domestic Optimism, Act One: Modernism – A Lesbian Love Story (2020) is presented. In between the door and both areas, there are screens of rectangles of fabric. Some rectangles are made of satin in dark turquoise or purple – a colour scheme that reminds of the bisexual flag – whereas the others are made of the denim of the suit Wolf-Haugh wears in the video. The denim is bleached with abstract lines, covered in words and lines composed of red yarn or drawn with a yellow marker: “modernism – colonialism,” “no more genius bullshit,” “utopian wholes -> utopian holes,” and more of the like. On one of the denim panels, made of the back of a denim jacket, we can read: “Eileen Gray strolls through Paris / wearing a well tailored suit / accompanied by her lover Damia / and a black panther.” The exhibition, though addressing quite a serious issue, is definitely comedic and light-hearted. At the beginning of our conversation, Wolf-Haugh says: “Humour is a bit of a smuggling device,” and we both laughed in reply.

I brought my experience and toolkit from involvement in DIY scenes in Dublin into how I approach my work - zine making, performance, collaboration, conversation and a theatrical approach to representation

Emma Wolf-Haugh, Domestic Optimism - Modernism, a lesbian love story, 2020. Exhibition overview. Photo by Nicola Baratto.

Emma Wolf-Haugh, Domestic Optimism - Modernism, a lesbian love story, 2020. Photo by Nicola Baratto.

The exhibition is part of a trilogy, THRXSOME, all three components focusing on sexuality and space, both public and private. The first chapter of the trilogy, The Re-Appropriation of Sensuality, was about histories of feminist architectural critique. As a consequence, Wolf-Haugh started to think about feminised queer bodies in public space. This then led to the second chapter, called Sex In Public, which was about claiming space very softly. This and the interest in temporality opened up another part of research into squatting and cruising. They researched the melancholic loss of squats and alternative places for cruising for queer people in places like Berlin, London, New York and Dublin, which led up to the final part of the trilogy: Domestic Optimism. Through the feminist critique of architecture, Wolf-Haugh came across Eileen Gray, dealing with questions like: How is domestic space constructed and what does it lead to?

“It was actually a backwards realisation, thinking of the works as a trilogy. The first part The Re-appropriation of Sensuality began with an interest in sex club architecture: in 2010 I was in Berlin, looking for non-cis male sex clubs, and I couldn’t find any that were built by queer women and trans folk for queer women and trans folk, most of what was available was hosted by architecture designed for cruising between gay cis men. I asked myself and the people around me: what would it be like if such a space existed? The written answers I received collectively became an archive that spoke of desire through spatial imagination. I didn't want the work to be spectacular or to clearly image any particular space or body or desire. The project was community-oriented from the beginning, performative and engaging collaboration. I was thinking of how space is constructed temporarily, coming from community organising, activist theatre and queer club promotion, especially within scenes where there is very little money. I was thirty-three when I entered university to study photography, there was very little queer/feminist art practice active in Dublin at the time, it wasn't an established or valued practice. I brought my experience and toolkit from involvement in DIY scenes in Dublin into how I approach my work - zine making, performance, collaboration, conversation and a theatrical approach to representation.”

Wolf-Haugh’s background in DIY’ing and scene-making is highly visible in the exhibition: all the objects in the room look very home-made and collage-y. The embroidery on the hanging pieces of denim is cute but also not really neatly done – Wolf-Haugh’s handwriting is very visible through the yarn. Around the room are different cardboard life-size cut-outs of furniture designed by Eileen Gray – most eye-catching is her famous Bibendum chair, which resembles and is based on the Michelin puppet.

Wolf-Haugh comes from a working-class background: as a child, they often moved homes, re-making the domestic space new each time. This background led them to become interested in forms of gathering: how do you occupy a space temporarily? They asked themselves: how do you bring people together (especially without any money to build such a space)? The core question was a more utopian one: how do you imagine a community space for sapphics to exist? Wolf-Haugh hoped Eileen Gray would have a reply.

If you don't have social space that you can return to then it's harder for queer social practices such as cruising, flirting, community building as well as new forms of activism to develop

Emma Wolf-Haugh, Domestic Optimism - Modernism, a lesbian love story, 2020. On the left: Eileen Gray's Bibendum chair. Photo by Nicola Baratto.

I was wondering why Wolf-Haugh was constantly looking for a temporary space for queer women and trans folk, instead of for something more permanent. It’s true that most FLINTA* (which is an acronym for “Frauen, Lesben, intergeschlechtlige, nicht-binäre, trans and agender personen”: women, lesbians, intersex, non-binary, trans and agender people – the asterisk stands as a placeholder for all gender-nonconforming gender identities) places are more in time than they are in space: neither of us had ever really come across a “hub” for FLINTA* people, but rather FLINTA*-focused events in most often male-dominated queer spaces.

“I realise the importance of a built environment – it’s very important to have stable and regular space for queer women and trans folk. If you don't have social space that you can return to then it's harder for queer social practices such as cruising, flirting, community building as well as new forms of activism to develop. But the question of stable or permanent space is also one of economics, it's becoming harder all the time to hold space without access to or interest in capital.”

In a way it’s classical how all big queer spaces are mostly focused on gay men rather than FLINTA* people – if we think of the classic feminist analysis in which the male is public and the woman is the private figure, it’s not strange that the average gay club in any major city is focused on gay men, whereas the non-male queer people have to look for their companions in the realm of the domestic. Wolf-Haugh says:

“I mean, you did have all these sapphic designers and architects in Paris. They really did something in making a claim on the public and private, subverting both by their interventions, but it was very class-based: they were mostly upper-class and of independent means, although because they were women, just because they were women, it's often argued that they didn’t have the same class identity as upper class men. In the early to mid 1900's, there obviously also were working-class dykes, for example the out lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall while being of considerable wealth herself was socialising with a cross class mix of dykes involved in the war effort, driving ambulances and partying hard. There’s a book I've been trying to get republished, it's currently out of print, A Crystal Diary, a memoir by Frankie Hucklenbroich. It's an incredibly honest retelling of Frankie’s life as a ‘street butch’. Butch dykes were mostly not accepted in the feminist movement in the sixties and seventies, look at Leslie Feinberg (writer of Stone Butch Blues), who was often considered too masculine to fit into that wave of feminism: many feminists at the time were about embracing ‘the female form’ and an essentialist understanding of femininity. These stories, I believe, are actively absented and we need to look harder to find them and make them available, to find ourselves in history, because we're already there.”

It’s been said of Gray that she was unable to separate structure from ornament: that, although she was a modernist architect, she was unable to leave sensuality behind. The round shapes of the aforementioned Bibendum chair are but one example. The first house designed and built by Gray was called E-1027, it’s situated in the most Southern part of the French Alps. It is a building modernist architect Le Corbusier was obsessed with. Not only was he obsessed with the building, he was obsessed with Gray, and with lesbians in general (Wolf-Haugh calls him “Corbu” jokingly). In their video work, Wolf-Haugh says about E-1027: “The lines between pleasure, rest, work and gender were blurred.” Eileen even put a bed in the living room of the building: who even does something like that?

“Eileen kept sensuality alive in her design and this was part of a Sapphic movement at the time, they moved towards decadence, sensuality and decoration, all major stains within classic modernist thought. Eileen was also influenced by an extensive network of dykes in Paris in the 1900s: they were an interconnected community of queer women who were artists, designers, performers and writers. Eileen was a self-taught architect who overworked the blueprints of celebrated modernist architects like Le Corbusier. I like to think she was giving him the finger. There is an extensive part of Eileen Gray’s archive in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, but I have only once been able to visit and that was when the archivist was on sick leave. The museum does house a permanent exhibition of Eileen’s work, but it gives a very particular reading of her life and work. I would love if I could put this exhibition inside of that exhibition.”

Drag performance really knocked me into being an artist. I’m still doing drag in my work, the capacity to make something happen that is entertaining, maybe seductive, perhaps a little disturbing or critical is the value of drag for me

Emma Wolf-Haugh, Domestic Optimism - Modernism, a lesbian love story, 2020. Photo by Nicola Baratto.

This third part of THRXSOME Domestic Optimism received the most institutional attention of the trilogy of works, all projects were made on modest budgets. “I still make everything myself,” they tell me: “Domestic Optimism has had three institutional exhibitions and it's been bought into collections, and I do wonder if the presence of 'Modernism' in the work has anything to do with that, maybe it's acted as a smuggling device for historical and speculative queerness and class based critique. Institutions love a good institutional critique. It’s been recognised by people who connect to that kind of coding: it’s bougee recognition. It’s a weird kind of romance academia has with the working class: it's an abstraction that doesn't actually allow for working class voices. The voice-over in the video is spoken in a Dublin working-class accent – I am from a working class background - although I don’t have that accent myself, my grandmother was a snob and didn't allow us to speak that way. The exhibition offers a class critique from a working-class perspective, which is not something you encounter often in art institutions and academia, I hope that's starting to change. I was a drag performer for a couple of years, in the end of the zeroes, I was part of a drag king collective called ‘The Shamcocks,’ a play on words ‘shamrock’ [a national symbol of Ireland] and ‘sham’ meaning ‘fake.’ Drag performance really knocked me into being an artist. I’m still doing drag in my work, the capacity to make something happen that is entertaining, maybe seductive, perhaps a little disturbing or critical is the value of drag for me.”

Upon asking Wolf-Haugh what was next for them, they told me they recently made a film and exhibition in collaboration with Iarlaith Ni Fheorais, called Oh – Infamy - we eat electric light, based upon Circe in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Besides this, they are making a work whilst thinking with class and Ireland's colonial legacy, single motherhood, mothers and monsters, using the aesthetics of science-fiction. There are different ideas of how it will materialise, but it’s a start and I, for sure, am curious about its finish.

Emma Wolf-Haugh’s exhibition Domestic Optimism is on view at De Appel, Amsterdam, until the 11th of December

Eli Witteman
is an intern at Metropolis M

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 6 — 2022