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Vaginal Davis: “My childhood libraries were not exactly welcoming”

We talk to the queercore drag legend about LA, Berlin and the 15 million boys who read her blog.

Image for Vaginal Davis: “I refer to myself as a sexual pariah”

Queercore drag icon Vaginal Davis moved from LA to Berlin 15 years ago. Photo: John Vlautin

A legend on the queercore drag scenes in her native LA and Berlin, we talk to Vaginal Davis about her latest exhibition and the 15 million boys who read her blog.

Your new exhibition The Wicked Pavilion at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi is a strange hybrid of a library, sexual fantasies and a display of personal mementos. Where did the idea come from?

I wanted to reimagine my childhood libraries that were not exactly welcoming to a person of colour. It is a Bibliothek installation, but not dogmatic, something that’s more fractured and a little bit more zany. I wanted to just go for it basically! All the vitrines and the walls of the installation I have lined with my unfinished books and with my own little portraits of well-known and not so well-known writers, highbrow and lowbrow. I had the vitrines made pink. In fact this installation is the most pink of all, it became sort of a vagina dentata. The toxic masculinities get their phallus bitten off and it winds up in a crib circling around on a lazy susan!

I was about to ask about the final room of the exhibition, which shows a bed spinning around with a giant penis on top. It all feels very Freudian…

Well, my actual bedroom looks very similar to that last room, a lot of the ephemera that’s hanging on the clothesline is displayed exactly as it is in my bedroom. And my bed is just like that, I sleep in a little single bed, tiny, because obviously I don’t have a lover, my sexuality is a bit like a pre-adolescent, a tween. I am still very childlike in so many ways: I have my little, tiny bed, I have my dolls and my stuffed animals around me – the only things that sleep with me!

What did Isabella Bortolozzi, the gallerist, say when she saw it?

Oh, she loved it and immediately started laughing and she said, “yes, yes, yes!” Isabella gets me, not many people do but she gets me and we just have a grand old time, laughing and giggling like young school girls. We’re like sisters from different mothers.

Is it your aim to shock people?

It is not done to shock, it is more about the fantasy imagination of a pre-teen, which I am, so I give an anthropomorphic quality to a severed penis! The artist who made it, Sharon Gault, is dead now, but she used her husband as a model for that penis. There used to be testicles that shot semen out when it was in its original form.

I used it once in a production I was doing in the mid-80s based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome’s Last Dance. But when Salome calls for the head of John the Baptist, instead of bringing his head on a plate, the executioner carries in this enormous five-foot penis. And when Salome sees it she says, “Oh, but that’s not the head I wanted!”

Image for Vaginal Davis: “I refer to myself as a sexual pariah”

Installation view, Vaginal Davis, The Wicked Pavilion, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, 2021. Photo: Graysc

Your career started in LA on the drag and punk scenes – what prompted your move to Berlin 15 years ago?

I first started coming over to Berlin in 2001 with the formation of the CHEAP art collective, but when I got gentrified out of my beautiful 1920s Streamline Moderne apartment in Koreatown I came over for good. LA used to be the most inexpensive of all the cities but now it’s just become like all these other boutique cities Paris and London and NYC and San Fran. It’s horrendous what has happened to LA.

People are saying Berlin is going the same way and becoming far less accommodating to artists…

Well now it’s become the focus of international speculation and media interest. I have always lived in the same area of Rote Insel in Schöneberg, the old leftist neighbourhood where Marlene Dietrich and Albert Einstein used to live – David Bowie and Iggy Pop lived on the Hauptstraße just round the corner. When I arrived, the Nazi airport was still in use and so no one really wanted to live anywhere near here because it was under the flight path. But it turned into this beautiful lush park, and then all these Bio stores opened – always the first sign of gentrification. So at least I moved to Berlin at just the right time.

I always refer to myself as this sort of sexual pariah because I feel like I survived the AIDS epidemic mainly because I wasn’t involved with anyone.

Coming from LA and being such a huge part of that queercore punk scene, did you experience the same issues of racism and discrimination in Berlin?

Well you know, those things never go away. For me it all comes down to my mother who was a Black Creole from Louisiana who left the South during the great migration and wound up in LA. Then it was one of the most racist cities in the world, with its horrible covenant laws, preventing people of colour from living in different sections of the city. My mother had to contend with so much and still always lived life on her own terms. She got together with my father who was a Mexican-German Jew and then I came: hatched from the primordial ooze of the La Brea Tar Pits!

You bring so much humour to your work, does it help to get your often serious message across?

I take my work seriously, but I don’t take myself so seriously, I can laugh at myself and all my chagrins. That’s why I always refer to myself as this sort of sexual pariah. I feel like I survived the AIDS epidemic mainly because I wasn’t involved with anyone – nobody was having sex with me. But that’s okay, not everyone is meant to be partnered with someone and have a thrilling sex life. It hasn’t happened in the last 40 years, so it doesn’t seem like that’s likely for me. But you never know!

You once said that you don’t see any difference between the masculine and feminine and attribute the distinction to a sort of commercial hype?

Well you know, I was always coming up with these commandments and pronouncements in the 80s. I was the queen of them! I guess at that time that seemed to make sense to me.

Not any more?

It’s all changed and I admire now how the generations that are much younger than me deal with gender and gender politics, they just seem to be so much more open. For example, one of my collaborators with the new show worked at Hampshire College where we met. After I left, he graduated and even though he was queer he got a girlfriend and she was a lesbian. And that’s not something that was a usual kind of thing for people of my generation.

This reminds me a lot of the very personal and detailed stories on your blog. Is it true you have 15 million followers?

Most of the people who subscribe to the blog do not know a thing about me. I think all the horny teenage boys are typing “vagina” into the computer and the Google algorithm – for some strange reason – leads them to my web page and blog. Nobody knows who I am, I’m like a complete nothing, a zero in the heavenly firmament of people doing whatever! I try to use the blog as sort of a forum for my writing, like when I first started out I was a poet and a spoken word artist.

The Wicked Pavilion Through Feb 19, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi and Eden Eden

Vaginal Davis was born intersex and raised in Los Angeles. In the 1970s she formed the band Afro Sisters and self-published the Fertile La Toyah Jackson magazine which helped establish the LA queercore music scene. Since 2012 she has been exhibiting her work as a solo artist including at the Participant Inc. Gallery in New York. In 2018, she received the Sustained Achievement Award from the non-profit organisation Queer|Art. She’s lived in Berlin since 2005 and is currently exhibiting work at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi and the Eden Eden.