2 July 2021
By Juliet Jacques
As soon as I sit down with Philipp Gufler, in the library at Delfina Foundation where he was a month into his three-month residency, we start talking about people we’ve lost. Mostly, not people we knew, or at least not well. Some are people who struggled to know themselves, and tried to work it out in public while still in their teens in a world that was too complicated, and who met a tragic end. One of them was Lana Kaiser. To me, hers was a name I dimly remembered having seen in the morass of news stories that I scroll through daily on Twitter, although I couldn’t recall exactly when, or why. To Philipp, she was an inspiration, a star, and someone he could identify with, who became the subject of a video he presented at this year’s Oberhausen Short Film Festival alongside a zine, simply called Lana Kaiser.
Lana, I soon learn, became a TV star in 2002, aged 17, after appearing on the German version of Pop Idol, under her birth name, Daniel Küblböck. Openly bisexual and dressing androgynously she polarised audiences. After finishing third in the contest, she released music and performed live, and soon after published an autobiography about her childhood in a small town in Lower Bavaria, in which she discussed her difficulties in “project[ing] myself as fully male”. As her fame grew, she continued to be attacked for her appearance and identity, to which she responded by challenging her status as a “commodity” (as she put it in a 2008 YouTube video) and expressing hurt at the opprobrium directed at her. She only declared her chosen name, Lana Kaiser, in 2018, shortly before she disappeared from a New York-bound cruise ship, and was later declared dead. Despite Lana having stated on Facebook that she had started hormone therapy and intended to have gender affirmation surgery, news outlets reported this story using her birth name and male pronouns.
Philipp shares this sad story – about which I am surprised and slightly ashamed to know so little – and recounts how he met Lana after going to her concerts. He then shows me his 13-minute film: a combination of archive footage from her TV and stage appearances, interviews, and songs written for Lana by Rory Pilgrim. Interspersed are shots of Philipp dancing in drag, alone, seemingly trying to express something of the sense of liberation that Lana was only rarely able to enjoy. These are intercut with clips of Lana herself dancing during her performances, clearly feeding off the devotion of the crowd, energised by finding so much love, however fleetingly, in a space she had created. The film closes with images of Lana on a ship, talking but without sound, music playing over her words, before a fleeting glimpse of her, as a woman, on the beach: she smiles at the camera and then fades out, and the sadness that she will never live as she wished, let alone make herself understood to the wider world, washes over me.
Lana is also the subject of Philipp’s Quilt #26, a digital and silkscreen print of three yellow silhouettes over a variety of images of her. This choice of format recalls the AIDS Memorial Quilt, conceived by American gay rights activist Cleve Jones in 1985 and which now has nearly 50,000 panels dedicated to those who died of HIV/AIDS and related illnesses. Philipp’s on-going series, initiated in 2013, aims to focus more in-depth on a smaller number of people: having started with ones dedicated to German figures such as writers Gustl Angstmann and Hubert Fichte and musician Klaus Nomi, he also includes influential gay or LGBT magazines from the early 20th century to the present, such as Kraximo, founded by Greek writer, trans and sex work activist Paolo Revenioti; trans advocates such as transsexual performer Kirsten Nilsson (1931-2017); and historical figures adversely affected by prejudice against LGBT people. Each quilt invites considered contemplation, sometimes of the circumstances of their subject’s death, but far more of their life. Sadly, having met away from his Amsterdam studio, I am not able to see the actual quilts and experience their materiality, but in the artist book he gives me, which presents the first 30 editions in the series with accompanying texts (published 2020), I see how he abstracts the images, be they photo portraits or magazine covers, alongside fragments of writers’ texts or song lyrics that do not offer easy explanations of who these people were, but instead impel viewers to seek out their biographies and work for themselves.
Although Philipp and I were born at opposite ends of the 1980s, meaning we missed the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, we talk about how we were both affected by it, making realisations about our genders and sexualities in our teens and then seeking out inspirations and ‘possibility models’ (about trans actor/activist Laverne Cox put it), only to learn how much devastation the pandemic had brought to the generation before ours. Homophobia was a major factor in the US and UK governments’ slow reaction to HIV/AIDS in the mid-1980s and Philipp’s 2014 video installation Projection on the Crisis (Gauweilereien in Munich) deals with the measures taken (or, often, not taken) in his native Bavaria at the same time. The work’s title refers to Christian Social Union politician Peter Gauweiler, who presided over some of the world’s most brutal regulations in response to HIV/AIDS in 1987, including mandatory blood tests for sex workers, drug users, prisoners, applicants for civil service jobs and some foreign immigrants to Bavaria. The film itself takes the viewer slowly, meditatively through an exhibition of archive materials – collected from Forum Queeres Archiv München, of which Philipp is an active member – related to AIDS in the state, ordered by date, with audio and video recordings of Gauweiler outlining his policies, responses to them and to the epidemic more generally. Again, it’s a guard against forgetting, this time focusing more on those enacting discrimination than those being discriminated against. This feels especially prescient with the far-right on the rise across Europe, parts of which, in Poland and Hungary for example, has taken up an explicitly homophobic position.
Finally, continuing our conversation about the 1980s, we discuss the research he is conducting during his residency, which focuses on English footballer Justin Fashanu – famously the first black player to command a £1m transfer fee, but who now is best known as the first-ever openly gay professional in the sport and who serves a cautionary tale against coming out after his suicide in 1998, aged 37. Philipp tells me how he is considering to make Fashanu the subject of a quilt, and perhaps a longer project too. This subject is a welcome coincidence, as I tell him that the basic narrative around Fashanu had actually made me want to write a biography of him many years back, and in undertaking initial research for it, I had become aware how incredibly complicated his life story was. During his twenties, Fashanu was best known for the Evangelical Christianity to which he converted shortly after realising his homosexuality (or, more likely, bisexuality), and which was as integral to his conflict with Brian Clough, his manager at Nottingham Forest, as his sexuality. Fashanu was also a Conservative Party supporter – something that baffled his team-mates in Scotland in the early 1990s in particular – and his relationship with the press was more complex than him simply being the subject of homophobic, as well as racist attacks, although there were many, both before and especially after his death, as I remember all too well. Over this process, I realised it was important to stop Fashanu’s life being overly simplified whilst still remembering that at the most basic level, he suffered from oppression. Through his extensive work with archives, and acts of commemoration, Philipp’s work presents us with a powerful call to keep fighting that oppression, whilst also retaining nuance and shedding light on the complicated circumstances of those who fought before us.
– Juliet Jacques (b. 1981) is a writer, filmmaker, academic and broadcaster, based in London. Her short story collection Variations was published by Influx Press in June 2021.