Since the 1970s, Renate Bertlmann has been creating striking works that explore sexuality, gender, and eroticism, as well as their social context. Her practice has stretched across two- and three-dimensional media, including performance. In sculpture, her diverse materials include latex, polyurethane foam, silicone rubber, epoxy resins, plaster, acrylic glass, glass, tulle, silk, velvet, organza, linen, tinsel, pearls, sequins, gauze bandages, gold leaf, various types of wood, aluminum, stainless steel, PVC, clay, and rubber. Bertlmann has exhibited in numerous solo and group shows over five decades, mainly in Western Europe. She is currently representing Austria at the 2019 Venice Biennale with Discordo ergo sum, a two-part, site-specific installation on view in the Austrian pavilion through November 24, 2019.
Robert Preece: Why did you choose to use dildos as a subject and material, and to make explicit depictions of female genitalia and breasts? Have you found that reactions to these works have changed since the 1970s?
Renate Bertlmann: The intense discussions about male and female sexuality in the 1970s led me into sex shops. The wares that I found inside, such as condoms, dildos, vulvas, rubber clothes, S&M furniture, lingerie, and pornographic magazines, were a great inspiration for me—both formally and in regard to content, because they mirrored mostly male sexual fantasies. I collected many of these objects and enjoyed the ambivalent feelings they aroused in me, such as lust and disgust, attraction and repulsion.
I was especially interested in latex, because it most closely resembles human skin in color and texture, and I started to collect (baby) dummies, which naturally led me to the breast and the nipple. Since I was also concerned with sounding out female aggressive potential, the image of the knife soon appeared within me; and I proceeded to add pointed knives to both the phallus and the nipple during the next two decades. Both men and women took offense to this. Men felt threatened; women saw the insertion of the knife into the nipple as masochism or self-mutilation. Today, works such as Bru(s)tkasten (1984) or the knifed heart Ex Voto (1985) are no longer criticized; on the contrary, they are applauded as highly aesthetic, feministic works of social criticism.
RP: Are there personal backstories behind these works? To what extent is your work intellectual, and to what extent personal?
RB: I never saw my artistic work as separate from my private life—they are an inseparable entity. One of the primary concerns of the women’s movement was to show that the private is political. It was vital to me to keep reflecting not only my emotional reactions, my fears, my conditioning, but also my utopian ideas. Everything that I experienced privately and processed intellectually through intensive participation in artistic and cultural-political discussions and activities inevitably entered my work. I have always been interested in the analysis of power structures, and in this aspect, sexuality, as the core issue for the suppression of women, was one of my most important areas of research. I wanted to subvert the violence and the aggression that came my way with subtle irony. This is how, for example, Diverse Farphalle Impudiche (1983) came into being.
RP: Who would you describe as your artistic influences, and what particular aspects of their work? Have there been any writings that influenced you?
RB: Everything in life, and in art, develops in conscious or unconscious reference to things already in existence. Sartre’s demand that we should be “really and truly ourselves” is not always achievable on account of this unconscious referencing, but we can make our conscious references selectively. For this reason, I very rarely empathized or identified with the biography and the work of another artist, unless I felt a strong inner resonance, a draw, within myself. This has occurred with René Magritte and Agnes Martin, even though neither of them made sculptures. I was drawn to the obsessive exploration of their inner spaces—the surreal spaces of Magritte and the spiritual spaces of Martin—and to the consistent, authentic materialization of their inner images.
With text, it is similar. In the 1970s and afterwards, we obviously devoured Virginia Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Luce Irigaray, Betty Friedan, and Kate Millett. Millett was the first woman to radically understand the relationship between man and woman as a relationship of domination, which worked well with my interest in hierarchies.
RP: Where does “sculpture” fit into your diverse practice?
RB: Even though I can describe myself as a multimedia artist, deep in my soul, I am mainly a “three-dimensional person.” By this, I mean that I love expansion, inside and outside, the experience and exploration of a space within space. For example, I wanted to expand the skin to infinity in Waschtag (1982/2014) and in Urvagina (1978), with its umbilical cords that spill into space. Mouth, nose, and eyes protrude from Schnuller-Maske (1976) in the shape of various dummies.
I almost always circle the finished “sculpture” with the camera, both in its expanse within the space and on a macro level, in order to explore hidden layers of meaning. In the search for the right artistic medium, photography and object often merge into one another, as in Hidden Parameter (2017), an X-ray viewing device showing my pelvis. In the 1970s, I started to draw abstract wheelchairs on transparent paper. The association with Perspex soon became so strong that I started to build three-dimensional wheelchairs in different-colored Perspex, such as Rollstuhl (rot-groß) (1976). I also made construction kits, filled with all the parts needed to build a wheelchair.
RP: How do you typically go about the initial stages of a work? Do you make a lot of drawings or models? Does this process vary?
RB: I only ever start on a work when I have the inner image clearly in my mind. Then the often long and laborious road to realization begins, which requires a lot of discipline. I start with detailed, true-to-scale drawings and also build a model if it is for an installation, as I did for Waschtag (2014) at the Gwangju Biennial. I then start to research materials and, when I need them, the right readymades, such as the leopard handbag for Revenge 2 (2010) or the different dildos for Diverse Farphalle Impudiche.
RP: What connects the elements of your recurring subject matter?
RB: Amo ergo sum, the maxim that defines my practice, with its three parts—pornography, irony, and utopia—is always applicable. This is why the phallus, the breast, the skin, and the heart keep reappearing in my work, and with them, the materials—Perspex, latex, metal, and several plastics.
RP: Could you tell me about the juxtapositions in Innocenz VI (2001) and Viagra (1998)?
RB: Both objects depict potentates, a pope and an emperor. A black phallus protrudes from the magnificent gown of Pope Innocent VI, and his tiara has shrunken to a sparkling ribbon. The emperor, in the form of a sugar-pink dildo, rests on a golden cushion, his virility supported by a Viagra tablet that rests between his testicles. We know that popes didn’t always lead such holy lives in terms of sexual innocence, which is why I wanted to make a phallic monument to Pope Innocent VI.
RP: With Impudicus Body Tamed by Art (1984), are you making reference to historical Japanese sculptures of the penis? How is the form “tamed by art?”
RB: Several associations led to this work. Most importantly, the ancient practice of infant care, in which babies were wrapped so tightly in bandages that they could no longer move—and were thus tamed. The babies’ reactions to being swaddled were very different: many fought against the swaddling at first, but they soon gave up and became passive.
I was also inspired by votive offerings, which have often been the subjects of my sculptural work. As early as antiquity, votive offerings depicted swaddled babies, such as a Jesus in swaddling clothes. The work also references the cult of the pharaohs, the Egyptian kings laid out in the burial chambers of the pyramids. The Japanese penis cult, with its veneration of the penis, also plays a role, obviously, but it was the smallest influence on these works.
RP: Do you always make your own work? And which materials do you especially like to work with—and not work with?
RB: When a project is very big, the support of a team becomes necessary. To realize Waschtag, I had to cast more than 150 latex skins with the help of four assistants. This took many months. I have always been ambivalent about working with latex. Natural latex has to be dissolved in ammonia, which releases a strong smell and is harmful to the health, and we had to work with filter masks at all times. The liquid has to be poured into the plaster casts, then the solid latex-skin has to be pulled out, powdered, and put up on washing lines—a lengthy process. On the other hand, the finished, dry product is so interesting in feel that all the labor of the production is forgotten. Arranging the nipple forms on the washing lines is the greatest pleasure, a composition in space.
RP: How do you know a piece is finished?
RB: There are two kinds of success for me—external and internal. External success means the recognition of my work. I speak about internal success when I manage to realize a work from first idea to completion in such a way that it is congruent with my inner image. Then I see and know that the work is finished.
RP: Your use of clear Perspex cases is interesting. At times, they seem to have a shop-display quality. Do you consider them a key element in your work?
RB: The Perspex case is an integral part of my work. Encasing the object in Perspex separates it from surrounding space and protects its auratic remoteness. The box is a protective house, preventing the intrusive touch, but it can also be a prison, into which the object has been locked away due to its potential danger, as in Diverse Farphalle Impudiche, Bru(s)tkasten, or the knifed-breast heart Ex Voto. I become angry at photographers who remove the Perspex case, just because it is easier to photograph the work that way, and at curators who feel compelled to present the object alone, because they see these cases as nothing more than dust protection.
RP: Your recent works seem to be moving in a different direction. Where are Hidden Parameter (2017) and ARTIFEX GALLINA AUREA (2015) taking us?
RB: With Hidden Parameter, I took up the X-ray as a medium for the first time in decades. I made a series of paintings in the early 1970s, which were collaged with X-rays of my body. This time, the X-ray is tucked into an X-ray viewer, such as the ones used by radiologists, and lit from behind by LED lights. In terms of content, the X-ray picks up from the vagina dentata, a threatening symbol of female power and male fear. ARTIFEX GALLINA AUREA is an ironic comment on the financial side of success in the art market and the value of artworks. To paraphrase the Latin title: the artist is a hen that lays golden eggs.
RP: How did you feel preparing your presentation for the Austrian pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale?
RB: The amount of work was challenging, but it gave me great joy, because I was accompanied and supported professionally by my curator Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein and a wonderful team. Expectations were very high, since I am the first female artist to put on a solo show in the pavilion. But because I love challenges, I used the chance to radically implement my vision. A quotation from Ingeborg Bachmann has held validity for me for decades, and it has found expression in the Austrian pavilion: “Aber die Darstellung verlangt Radikalisierung und kommt aus Nötigung,” or in English, “But representation demands radicalization and comes under duress.”