“Female Executioner” is the first solo exhibition in London by Glasgow-based artist Jamie Crewe.
Comprising newly commissioned video, sculpture, print, and text-based works, the exhibition focuses on French writer Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus: A Materialist Novel. Exploring what is at stake in historical reclamation, Female Executioner investigates what happens when a queer, transfeminine artist tries to touch, reflect on, or rehabilitate an historical work of fiction which seems to offer them ancestry.
First published in Belgium in 1884, Monsieur Venus describes a relationship between Raoule de Vénérande, a masculine aristocratic woman, and Jacques Silvert, a working class boy who becomes her mistress. Together, aided by Jacque’s sister Marie and Raoule’s friend the Baron de Raittolbe, the couple invert their genders, acting out a love fuelled by perverse innovation and tinged with sexual jealousy, conservatism and class power. In the end, however, the novel’s overarching Victorian morality falls upon its characters, and everyone is punished for their transgressions.
For Jamie, the novel’s frequent and nuanced cruelty complicates any wholly positive identification with the lead characters, who may at first seem like prototypes of modern-day transgender figuration. However, aspects of the novel still speak lucidly to contemporary trans experience, touching on issues that remain urgent, such as fraught relations with visibility and authenticity, pervasive experiences of trauma, and the threat of punishment and harm. Grappling with this painful ambivalence, Female Executioner stages, reworks and misreads the positive and negative, radical and moralising aspects of Monsieur Venus in relation the artist’s own personal history and experience of transness. In Jamie’s own words, “seething under its own references” the exhibition“tries to touch the past, and is struck by the past in response.”
The video Adulteress, for example, stages the moment that Jacques slips away from Raoule to walk the streets in a black velvet dress and attempt to seduce a ‘real man’. Focusing on Jacques’s excited journey instead of Raoule’s jealous rage, chronology, setting and performance are unhinged from Rachilde’s original description of the episode, which scrolls along the bottom of the screen. This text juxtaposes with and contradicts the footage it accompanies, building to a tentative and optimistic visual ending which synchronises with the promise of duel to the death scrolling below. Through these and other strategies of wilful misinterpretation — as well as impartial editing, working together with close friends, and displacing the novel’s events to modern-day Glasgow — the radical potential and fundamental judgements of Monsieur Venus are made to trouble a new context.