Françoise Cactus

Anti-diva and all-round creative polymath, Stereo Total’s late Françoise Cactus caused something of a rumpus when, in 2004, she exhibited a life-size woollen sex doll… yup, you read that right

In the post-war years, Germans have earned themselves a reputation for being cautious and dependable – promoting a culture of “vorsprung durch technik”, not creating too much noise after 10pm, and making sure to separate the brown bottles from the clear bottles when recycling. It’s a stereotype that didn’t hold firm in 2004, however, when a life-size, blow-up doll made entirely out of crochet caused a sex scandal in Germany and sent everyone a bit doolally.

It all started out innocently enough, with an exhibition at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. The Bethanien is a publicly-owned art space situated on the site of a former hospital, built on the orders of King Frederic William IV of Prussia in the mid-19th century.

Curated by the Minneapolis artists Françoise and Stu Mead, the exhibition ‘When Love Turns To Poison’ featured paintings by Beth Love from the USA, sitting alongside works by a number of Berlin painters, installation artists and video makers. French musician Françoise Cactus, of Berlin-based electro-punks Stereo Total, was also asked to contribute something.

Françoise, who sadly died earlier this year from breast cancer aged 57, was full of boundless energy and mischief. As well as singing and playing drums in the popular duo with her partner Brezel Göring, she was an artist, novelist and journalist, who seemed to have an endless source of brilliant, bonkers ideas. After looking at the catalogue of artworks, she decided it was all a bit too two-dimensional.

“Françoise realised that there were no 3D objects at the exhibition,” says Brezel, “so she decided to knit a woollen sex doll.”

Wollita, a giant pink puppet with a mane of brown woollen hair, red crocheted nipples and a pair of blue pants with a heart on them, seemed like a good ruse at the time.

“It was very typical of her humour,” says Brezel. “To be fascinated by unusual sexual desires and to laugh about them at the same time. Not to make fun, but the absurdity made her laugh. The object of a woollen sex doll, which also had the look of a very naive and innocent toy – was a comment on dysfunctional relations between humans. And how the doll was created – because knitting is usually done by grandmothers – was a way of making fun of artists who take themselves too seriously.”

Cactus set to work with designer Hervé Lecouffe, who helped build the inner body structure. The crocheting she did all by herself.

“Even on the beach she was knitting,” says Brezel. “And she was amused by the people staring at her while she worked on one of the gigantic arms.”

Was the puppet based on anyone?

“Yeah, on herself. Same body size, same hair colour, the same huge blue eyes, the same concentrated, analytical look… she identified very much with her doll, and people recognised the doll as her mirror.”

What started as a facetious art prank became something much, much bigger, when the doll went on display at the gallery in April 2004. The tabloid press descended on the exhibition, and before they knew it, Wollita had somehow managed to become front page news. I interviewed Françoise for my book ‘Relax Baby Be Cool: The Artistry And Audacity Of Serge Gainsbourg’ back in 2019 – Stereo Total covered his song ‘Relax Baby Be Cool’, so it seemed rude not to. When we discussed the scandal Gainsbourg had caused with the song ‘Lemon Incest’, a duet with his 14-year-old daughter Charlotte, the offending anthropomorphic sex mitten inevitably came up.

“I had the same problem with my puppet!” Françoise told me over the phone, still flabbergasted some 15 years later. “She was called Wollita and I got into so much trouble for it. I exhibited her here in Berlin, and the yellow papers were like, ‘Scandal!’, ‘Puppet porno!’, ‘Child pornography!’ and stuff. It was completely ridiculous. A neo-nazi came and urinated on the building and started destroying stuff inside. The west wing was closed, and children’s charities came down and I had to explain myself.”

When I ask Brezel about the neo-nazi, he says, “All kinds of extremists – political and religious – came to destroy the exhibition.”

“Every day there was something in the newspapers,” Cactus told me incredulously. “It was a huge scandal, and people wanted to beat me up in the street. For a puppet, man!”

She had no regrets about creating Wollita, who she spoke proudly of.

“She’s great. She’s as tall as I am and made out of crochet. It was a contrary idea. You know, puppets, you blow them up and you can have sex with them… I wanted to make fun of that and make it out of crochet. It’s just wool! The way people interpreted it was completely ridiculous. It’s obtuse, they turned everything around and pretended I was making child pornography.”

The scandal was such that the museum closed temporarily while those in charge figured out what to do about the five-foot-something fibre effigy.

“And then they told me I could continue if I had a little text next to my puppet explaining the context of it. I couldn’t believe it. So now when you put on an exhibition, you have to explain to the idiots what they’re meant to think about it all. I had to do it, that was the condition.”

Cactus later wrote a book with Wolfgang Müller from Die Tödliche Doris about the doll, called ‘Vom Wollknäuel Zum Superstar’ (‘From Ball Of Wool To Superstar’). I ask Brezel why people were so offended?

“I am not a doctor,” he says. “But I think there is a lot of frustration in people that makes them react in such a way. Art is the subconscious mind of society, so people attack the artwork instead of solving the social problem.”

Is there anything they should have done differently in hindsight?

“Yes,” he says, impishly. “Next time the doll needs to be double the size!” 

Stereo Total’s ‘Chanson Hystérique 1995-2005’ is out now on Tapete

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