Renate Bertlmann

In conversation with Vincent Honoré

Renate Bertlmann has explored since the ’70s the representation of sexuality in a male-dominated world. In her work tenderness stands alongside aggression, lasciviousness alongside asceticism, the feminine alongside the masculine.

Vincent Honoré: I would like to start our conversation in 1957, when at 14 years old you were offered a camera by your uncle. Photography and image-making would later become very important aspects of your work. What were your first contacts with art? Your mother was an artist, wasn’t she?

RB: My mother was an artist. She was half Italian. She was very gifted. She started to study but when the war and all the chaos happened, her parents lost their money: she had to quit her studies to start working in a photo laboratory, doing retouch. She married and had two children. Of course she never lost her dreams of being an artist. She always tried to draw and to make photos, but also focused all her dreams on me, encouraging me to apply to the academy of fine art and to study there.

VH: Did your father support you as well?

RB: No, not so much. For him being an artist was a very unsecure position and he wanted me to earn some money after high school.

VH: That’s why you first graduated in hotel management?

RB: After high school I wanted to travel abroad. I wanted to have another vision of the world. My mother said I could do it only if I would achieve some “decent study.” I was looking for the shortest one, and there was a school where you could learn how to run a hotel in only two years. After I finished that, I immediately applied to be an au pair in Oxford where I experienced my first year of freedom. It was wonderful.

VH: Did you have any contact with the art scene in the UK?

RB: No, not truly. I was too young and the family I lived with was not involved in art at all. It wasn’t so important for me. Near Oxford, there was the Abingdon art school, where I prepared my exam to enter the fine arts academy in Vienna.

VH: In 1964, at 21 years old you entered the academy. How long did you study there?

RB: Relatively long because my professor died: I had to change class. I was very unhappy, I didn’t know what to do. We were very lonely. I knew hardly any female artists, or female professors. I had no role models and no help. I managed to obtain my diploma but felt that I was not a real painter. I am a sculptor, but I had a lot to learn about it. So I studied three years in a restoration class… Quite a long time but I really did learn a lot. And then a professor invited me to be his assistant and to teach different artistic techniques for his class. This was a stroke of luck: for the first time in my life I earned some money, I was independent, and had enough time to work on my own art in my studio. It was wonderful: I could invest all my money and my energy into my work.

VH: Were you following the artistic scene in Vienna at that time, like the Actionists, for instance?

RB: The Actionists appeared before the feminist movement in Vienna, which became very important after 1970. We – women artists – weren’t interested at all in Actionism since it was very masculine… it wasn’t about us… I was looking for feminist artists in Vienna who had the same ideas and dreams and questions and fears. Many female artists were looking for other like-minded ones to work with and to discuss these topics. We quickly created groups, organized actions, as well as political, cultural and social activities. Fighting for our existence, for our dreams. Around 1972, the first women activist group was created, AUF [Platform of Autonomous Women], a very political group. I started with them: we published a newspaper in which I wrote articles and designed layouts. I left after two years because I really didn’t feel appreciated as an artist. It was a very tough political group, but not so interested in art.

VH: Was it challenging to show your work at that time?

RB: It was never easy to show my work. My themes were very controversial: I was very interested in sexuality and eroticism, which I investigated in a very obsessive way. Dealing with sexuality is always frightening when you do it openly and directly.

VH: In 1969 you created Transformation, a series of self-portraits in which you borrowed your mother’s clothes. Would you consider it as your first artwork?

RB: Yes. The medium of photography was and is one of my most important mediums. I always returned to it. This was my first self-timer work. I was dealing with the conflict with my mother who was very dominant, forcing me to wear clothes she liked, forcing me to do this and that… This was a way to mark a distance with her and to investigate the role of a mother and a daughter.

VH: Transformation is the first work from a group of works from the ’70s and the ’80s that you called Staged Photographs. Can you explain the difference you established between Staged Photographs and live performances?

RB: The Staged Photographs happened only in the intimacy of my studio. It was always a self-timer project. Totally alone, because the topics were very intimate, like masturbation, or rape, or seducing, topics I would never be able to stage in front of an audience. At that time, in other parts of Europe and America, many performances were happening. I realized I should also confront myself with an audience. I started working on performances in 1975. In 1977, I performed Defloration in 14 Stations in Bologna, during a performance festival. This was my first public performance, it was frightening and exciting. It was necessary to expose myself.

VH: In 1970 you were hired as an assistant at the academy of fine arts. This liberated you by providing you with a financial independence. This independence quickly led you to create a strong body of works on paper in 1973-74: the Stele, the Escape and the Touch series. You said that you are not a painter, indeed you never created a painting as such, but rather you preferred in these works to experiment with different papers, color pencils, pastels, etc.

RB: I wasn’t interested particularly in painting… It was not my medium. My professor was a painter but he couldn’t convert me, and thanks God he died very soon. I’m not someone who is crazy about big brushes or thick layers of oil colors. But I like very much pencil and collage, tracing paper and all this sort of stuff. Using these materials naturally led me to use other materials such as Perspex and latex.

VH: The works I am referring to are crucial in your trajectory as they helped you to define your vocabulary and themes (the figure of the bride, the wheelchair, the penis began to appear), but also show how you explored different materials. In 1975 your core vocabulary was already structured and it will resurface in your entire work.

RB: I was switching between different media: drawings of course, but also sculptures and photography were equally important for me.

VH: In 1977 you staged your first performance, followed in 1978 by the Pregnant Bride, and in 1979 by Let’s Dance Together. What prompted you to use the medium of performance?

RB: I had to expose myself to the public. It’s not easy to make a performance: you are very vulnerable and you never know how the audience will answer. The audience can be very aggressive, interacting or asking stupid questions… I was first invited to be part of a performance festival in Bologna, where famous artists like Abramović, Nitsch, or Gina Pane were also invited. It was a very important step for me. Somebody saw my performance in Bologna and invited me to perform Let’s Dance Together at De Appel. There someone saw Let’s Dance Together and invited me to perform Sling Shot Action in New York, a very aggressive performance for which I used rubber dolls purchased in sex shops… I frequently used sex shop’s items in my work. I also included an obscene text from a porno magazine as a soundtrack.

VH: Your performances are often quite elaborated. How do you conceive them? Do you start with a script?

RB: Yes, but there is also an important element of freedom and improvisation for me and for the audience since most of my performances are interactive. Only Deflorazione in 14 Stazioni, my first performance, did not ask for audience’s participation. For my other works I invited people to interact. In Sling Shot Action in New York I asked the audience to dance with two rubber dolls. In Pregnant Bride in the Wheelchair the audience had to push the wheelchair in which I was sitting dressed as a highly pregnant bride. I was entering the site of the performance in a wheelchair, wearing my own wedding dress (I always used my own wedding dress for all my performances) with a mask made of pacifiers. The baby inside my belly was crying until somebody would start to push the wheelchair. It took a very long time before somebody had the courage to do it. After some time I started to give birth to the child. I stood up and pressed it out of my body until it fell… and then I left the room. I left the child behind me giving it back to the society who forced me to act that way.

VH: I know that’s a question you have been asked a lot: could one of your performances be re-enacted?

RB: It’s a very interesting question, because all these topics date from the ’70s. So why should they be re-enacted in 2017? Why, and how? I would never perform them again myself. One could re-enact performances the way Marina Abramović did it at MoMA in New York, where she invited actors to re-enact the performances exactly as they happened in the ’70s. Why not? I already saw them in the ’70s, but perhaps for you it could be interesting to see them. As for my work, it would be more interesting to find an artist who would consider these topics and ask herself why they are important nowadays. And perhaps she would then think: “How can I do it? How can I transform it? How can I use my own art? How can I convey my own ideas?” Merging together my history and the present could be interesting.

VH: In 1978 you started to use the sentence Amo ergo sum [I love therefore I am] to define the structure of your work. Can you explain this sentence?

RB: For me Amo ergo sum is a more complete way to understand life than Cogito ergo sum. Amo encapsulates the wholeness of life: body, soul and spirit. If these are united you can be strong, authentic and capable of having revolutionary ideas. It’s about Eros, the power of living, the creative power of life.

VH: You also started to classify your work with three categories: pornography, irony and utopia.

RB: In 1989, after twenty years of intensive work, I felt the need to look back and reflect on my creation. The best way to find out was to make a publication. Suddenly these three categories appeared without me even deciding about them. Pornography is about the battle of the sexes, Irony is about skin, and Utopia is not about dreams but the wholeness of life, an authentic and loving relationship with the world. This division appeared and suddenly the publication became a trilogy of books.

VH: I would like to discuss some particular images or materials you have been repeatedly using. Maybe we can start with the wheelchair that appears for the first time in works on paper from 1974, perhaps even in a drawing from 1973, as a sculpture in 1975 and in a performance in 1978.

RB: Why wheelchairs? There must be so many influences. I was absorbing a lot, especially in 1975 when so many things were happening around me. You absorb then it works underneath, and you don’t know how it happens: inhaling, inhaling and exhaling. There are different reasons for the wheelchairs. A wheelchair of course is an image of being weak and being helpless without any chance to escape your situation. I wanted to be a medical doctor, I studied both art and medicine for a short time but it was too much. I chose art.

VH: I didn’t know. That’s interesting considering the scalpels you include in your work…

RB: Most people are frightened by scalpels, but I love them.

VH: What about the pacifiers?

RB: I investigated sex shops in Vienna and New York, where I could explore males’ fantasies. I usually tried to find out who designed these objects and I discovered that they were designed by men but produced by women. I used them as ready-mades in my work, I never molded a phallus by myself. I also collected condoms: there were wonderful forms of condoms, full of fantasy, aggression and obscurity. A blown up condom sometimes looks like a breast. And quite naturally I made the association from breasts to pacifiers.

VH: What about the heart?

RB: It was just a sign: I was using it as a kitsch element. Some thought it was about love but that was never the point. The heart is a symbol for that, but what is behind it?

VH: Humor and kitsch were always present in your work, but became prominent in the ’80s, as seen in a work such as Breast Incubator from 1984. Why did kitsch become so important?

RB: I was always interested in eroticism and of course kitsch is also an expression of eroticism and erotic objects are often on the borderline between kitsch and art. It is a social phenomenon. And a political one, of course. Kitsch can also very much stimulate the fantasy. I’m very addicted to material, with kitsch you can use materials, even cheap ones, in a very liberated way, allowing for all sorts of experimentations.

VH: In the ’80s and ’90s you diversified your materials and started working on a larger scale. I am thinking of When Will Theologians Finally Tell Us Something About Tenderness from 1980, Voices of Longing from 1982, or Washing Days which was shown at the Gwangju Biennale in 2014. How and why did you move from more intimate works to larger ones?

RB: All my objects are part of bigger installations. I was always thinking rather big. But I never had the opportunity to create and show these installations. They were all in my head.

VH: What about your relationship with theatre? Theatricality is an important aspect of your work, not only in the performances, which have an obvious theatrical aspect, but also in your installations and sculptures. Rosemary and Rosemary’s Babies, for instance, looks like a stage… You also used costumes and created masks (Pacifier Mask from 1976), puppets, or dolls. I know you were influenced by Bertolt Brecht.

RB: In the ’70s, there was a very profound and strong underground theatre scene. I became interested in it. Brecht, but also Thomas Bernhard, influenced me very much. Their authenticity, strength and directness: they explored many topics, which are very close to me, to my life and to my work.

VH: Finally, what is feminism?

RB: Feminism is the great dream of the social, political and economic equality of men and women. Feminist activism is the struggle for this equality.