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Everything is Permitted – spring 2019
Sophie Podolski, c.1967© Francisco Mendez

The queer utopias of the late Belgian artist Sophie Podolski

Juliet Jacques, the author of Trans: A Memoir, considers the role Podolski plays in her own personal queer canon

At a time when trans rights are more under threat than ever, the spring 2019 issue of Dazed takes a stand for the global creativity of the LGBTQIA+ communities and infinite forms of identity. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here, and see the whole Infinite Identities campaign here.

Yet again, I’m in a gallery, trying to contact someone lost, to grasp at someone intangible, hoping that, somehow, we can save each other. The images here are familiar, like the cover of an intermittently interesting but forgotten LP that my father might half-recall. There’s a multi-coloured mermaid rendered in pen, flanked by some strange owl-goblin hybrid and slogans like ‘FOR SUCK INTO YOUR SEX’ in English and French. A grinning, terrifying cat-like creature bursting from a pair of lips, obscured by what look like prison bars but are, on closer inspection, playground swings. A collage made from images of Marilyn Monroe more than a decade after the actress’s death.

A strange, slightly unnerving portrait of a woman’s head, shoulders and breasts, who I later find out is Maria Bethânia, a Brazilian singer who I don’t know and the sister of Caetano Veloso, who I do. Besides the sexually charged images of women – into which it’s harder to read the nature of the artist’s desire than in the endless nudes I’ve seen from male artists – and the ones that blur the lines between humans and animals, there are pictures that echo the androgyny of glam-rock in its heyday: two eyes drawn with brush-strokes thick enough to resemble eyeliner; lips thick and pursed, above a beard that evokes the sea, a hand stroking it with four of the five fingernails coated in black varnish. Soon, after looking at so many images of gender and sexual transgression and repressive state machinery, I’m wondering if this artist is someone I can take into the queer canon that I started curating by myself, for myself since I was a teenager, to make me feel less alone in a hostile society.

Trying to realise one’s identity through art and artists has numerous pitfalls. Sometimes, it’s coming to understand that someone whose work did so much for you is actually an awful person – a feeling familiar to those millions who, like me, needed The Smiths to guide them through a time of yearning loneliness. Sometimes, it’s finding a single work that makes you wonder why you’d never heard of an artist before, looking them up in excitement and being confronted with an(other) early, tragic death. That didn’t happen to me with Sophie Podolski, but only because I knew her backstory before entering the gallery in her home city. She was born stateless in Brussels in 1953 (two years after my father and a year before my mother), only becoming a Belgian citizen when she was 20, and died in 1974 (the year my parents got married). Like so many in my ‘canon’, she took her own life. In this short time, Podolski left a single volume of poetry – handwritten in French and famously admired by Roberto Bolaño – whose title translates as The Country Where Everything Is Permitted, as well as a number of drawings, paintings and collages. She and her friends filmed each other, leaving another record of her presence. One such friend, Joëlle de La Casinière, compiled the footage into a short film in 2017 called In the House (of Montfaucon Research Center), about life in the residential artists’ community that she and Michael Bonnemaison co-founded in 1968, and which ran for five years.

That interest in androgyny may not have been part of my father’s imaginary, with his record collection including Ziggy Stardust but none of Bowie’s glam contemporaries. But it was part of mine, and Podolski’s. It’s so jarring to think of Podolski as part of my father’s generation – given the distance in space and spirit, her life seems worlds away from the straight, stable suburbia where my family lived. Watching In the House (of Montfaucon Research Center), I find it hard to conceive the context in which Podolski and her teenage friends lived, but that is the point. They carved out a space where they – both the people wearing nothing at all and especially the cross-dressers (as I must call them, as the images cannot show me how these people identified) – could express themselves freely. (I don’t know much about Belgium in the 70s, but I imagine that, despite the global popularity of a few UK rock stars, cross-dressers were shunned and beaten up here as much as anywhere else.) Maybe the group were just playing around, inspired by the counterculture of the time – who knows? I have no idea who most of them are, or what happened to them, apart from Podolski. Rather than project identities on to them, let alone fates, I see them as strangely detached from space and time, shot as they were in that Super 8 stock that can make something that happened ten minutes ago feel irretrievably nostalgic. But time always breaks back in, reminding you it is intransigent, incontrovertible. Soon after Podolski was filmed, her community broke up; by the end of the following year, she was dead. It took another 43 years before La Casinière presented her document to the public, having kept Podolski’s artworks in cardboard boxes for several decades. The exhibition at Wiels – one of Belgium’s most important contemporary art venues – has won Podolski some new fans. Among these are a number of female authors with an interest in art as well as literature, who combine creative and critical writing, think deeply about female sexuality and alternative sexual practices, and are sympathetic to LGBTQ+ people even if they don’t identify under the term’s umbrella.

From the small amount of evidence in the gallery, I add myself to this list of Podolski fans, and Podolski to a list of people whose lives could have overlapped with mine, who I wish I could have met. I can’t add her to my queer canon, any more than I can put her cross-dressing friends in the list I keep (in my head) of historical transgender people, because I don’t know anything about her sexual orientation or gender identity and she’s not around to discuss them. She just looks like someone who might have been my friend, had she been in her 20s at the same time as me. But she lived and worked through sickness, schizophrenia and marginalisation, and it pains me to admit it, but perhaps I would not have been capable of or even willing to maintain such a challenging friendship when I had my own creative ambitions and personal issues to contend with – not least my ongoing, quixotic efforts to convince people around me, especially my colleagues in miserable jobs, that I am ‘normal’. 

Most likely, it’s easier to think ‘What if we could have met?’ and credit myself with the ability not just to recognise a kindred spirit or fellow traveller but also nurture an imagined relationship, without having to consider the sadness that often comes with queer community, where we find each other because we need each other, as family, and then – like families – project our psychoses on to each other, hurting each other and ourselves in unimaginable ways. Our failure to sustain the spaces we need results in new, even more painful feelings of isolation.

“It’s easier to think ‘What if we could have met?’ and credit myself with the ability not just to recognise a kindred spirit or fellow traveller but also nurture an imagined relationship” – Juliet Jacques 

I’d been tempted to imagine some encounter with Podolski, as I sometimes do with other artists who capture my attention (most recently in a piece on French surrealist artist and writer Claude Cahun, who died just after Podolski was born). But it doesn’t feel appropriate to do something so playful with such a short, traumatic life – and besides, people who did know her well are still alive, and still able to speak about her if not for her. It’s still tempting, though, to pose the question ‘What if she had lived?’, as I did about Ian Curtis when I was a teenager obsessed with Joy Division, and first heard Ceremony” – the last song Joy Division wrote and the first New Order recorded. I immediately fell in love with the song, before realising that what grabbed me about it was its narrator’s fatalistic detachment, even as its chorus proclaimed the kind of personal regeneration that one expects only from those completely invested in life. The end she chose was not inevitable, but it reminds me that, when thinking about people in my queer canon who died by their own hands, my first response is never ‘What could have been different in their lives?’ but ‘What could have been different in their societies?’

Over the last 50 years (and the hundred before that), it has been relatively easy to imagine – if not to bring about – a better society, in which anti-queer legislation is challenged through political action, and negative stereotypes are broken down via education and personal experience. I underestimated how much reaction there would be against this process. Despite learning about scientific advances and sexological activism in the Weimar Republic and the brutality of the Nazi counteroffensive (right down to the SA planting offices in the former home of Eldorado, Berlin’s most popular transvestite cabaret), I did not anticipate the wave of hostility towards trans people after we started to break into the mainstream media in the early 2010s, let alone Donald Trump’s attempts to mandate trans people out of existence in the US, or Jair Bolsonaro making an assault on LGBTQ+ people – and especially artists – a central plank of his election-winning fascist programme in Brazil. 

Perhaps Podolski was not up against anything quite so horrific in Belgium in the early 1970s, but she certainly felt – like many others before and after her – that she was hemmed in by a conservative, conformist society. In an article on The Country Where Everything Is Permitted for the Minor Literatures website, Aaron Boothby wrote that Podolski “inhabit(ed) a world ruled by cruel orders of capital and male domination of women: a certain-world where love, gender and health are fixed properties ruled by production and life outside is not permitted”. She rejected the implicit demand that she cultivate superhuman resilience (or total emotional detachment) to deal with this, copying from elsewhere: Je ne suis pas ici pour être plus fort que vous – “I’m not here to be stronger than you.” Perhaps she knew that fighting for the kind of queer utopia depicted in her drawings – including the ones scattered throughout her text – would involve endlessly replaying the same battles, against forces far more organised (and better funded) than her, and she couldn’t face the frustration and exhaustion that would ensue. Preferable, then, was the country of her youthful, extraordinary imagination.

As a teenager, I was quite literal about my queer canon, and who was part of me. I bought a shocking-pink folder for my A-level work and made collages on the inside covers with images of queer pop stars, actors and writers, as well as left-wing activists, that I’d printed from websites. Now, it’s less literal, having become more a collection of people who recur in my texts and films, but the premise remains unchanged. Or does it? Like Podolski, I was writing and drawing in my youth, although, unlike Podolski, I did not produce anything publishable – and did not find my way to an artistic community as she did. So I can’t identify a point where I moved from idolising my heroes (including transsexual punk singer Jayne County and Manic Street Preachers’ neo-glam lyricist Richey Edwards) to being creatively influenced by them, let alone moving beyond those influences to find my own voice, one that reacts to the world around me rather than remaining stuck in a melancholic past. In my youth, fixated on the sadness of the people lost to prejudice, I didn’t think about how my relationships with them only went one way: the basic question of what I could give to them was beyond me. I had to accept that it was too late to save them, and appreciate that they had passed something useful and beautiful on to me, and anyone else who sought them out. All I can do is pass things on in turn, and hope that, over time, it makes life a little better for those who follow.