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Radical Feminist Artist Renate Bertlmann Debuts Her “Phallic Caricatures” Stateside

Radical Feminist Artist Renate Bertlmann Debuts Her "Phallic Caricatures" Stateside 1

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If the symbol of popular feminism in the United States is a pink crocheted pussy hat, Renate Bertlmann’s is a diamante-studded dildo dressed in an evening gown. The Austrian artist, now 75, is a pioneering member of the Vienna Secession whose contributions to the feminist and avant garde canons are now finally being recognized in the wider world. In March, she debuted her “phallic caricatures” at Independent New York, her first-ever solo exhibition stateside. In addition to the dildo dolls of Enfants Terribles – Innocenz VI, 2001, there was a bright pink vibrator sprouting out of a cactus, a gold penis wrapped up in a shroud like a mummy, and photographs from a performance piece called Pregnant bride in wheelchair, 1976, in which the veiled, masked artist gives birth to a fake baby and walks away. “Lean in” it is not.

“Feminism has always had major problems with the phallus,” says curator and writer Alison Gingeras on Bertlmann. “It was the Dworkinian wing of feminism that contributed to the erasure of artists like Renate Bertlmann from the canon of art history because of her embrace of sexually explicit subject matter, and specifically her use of phallocentric imagery. Little did it matter that Bertlmann was very politically active in her native Austria and involved in the editorial committee for feminist journals such as AUF (Aktion Unabhängiger Frauen/Action of Independent Women) and later formed a women artist group called IntAkt (International Action Group of Women Artists). It was her transgressive embrace of phallic form in her sculptural, performative and photographic works that contributed to her being shunned from the emerging canon of feminist art history.”

Bertlmann uses the phallus as a weapon, she says, answering Vogue‘s questions in between trips to Venice, where she is installing her work in Austria’s pavilion at the 2019 Biennale—Bertlmann is the first woman to represent her country with a solo exhibition there. It’s been a year of belated acknowledgment; not only was her exhibition at Independent her first American solo show, but it was the first in a full year of 100 percent women artists presented by Richard Saltoun, her gallery in London. With mainstream feminist discourse pushing into subjects that artists like Bertlmann have long been tackling from the fringe, her work—especially its kitschy politics—is primed for rediscovery, as good-humored and infused with irony as it is challenging.

The discourse around your place in feminist art history has been one of reclaiming. Why do you think you’ve encountered resistance? Why do you think that has changed?

I felt a strong resistance against my work particularly against my way of addressing images of masculinity, which was a self-reflexive investigation and critique of gender roles.

A new generation of feminist female artists, art historians, and art critics are very interested in the achievements of the feminist movement of the 70s and 80s. They are taking a fresh look at the past and want to draw parallels against their own current situation. We all know that we must not give up fighting for equal rights and an empathetic world.

American audiences have a limited understanding of “feminist” art. A lot of it shies away from pornography, and from male bodies, which your work doesn’t. And yet the phallus is a dominant symbol of the moment, as metonym for power but also an object of ridicule as gender relations shift. (See: the MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump). How do you use the phallus in your work?

It was never my intention to shock. I was just choosing subjects that people were unfamiliar with and, as a result, it was disrupting the comfort zones of the audience. I realized in the 70’s that sexuality was central in the oppression of women. One way I found to deal with this was to use the phallus as a weapon; I used irony as a dissociation device, which helped me to have a fearless approach in the form of the “phallic caricatures.”

Renate Bertlmann; Ekstase II [Ecstasy II], 1977/2013; Black and white hand coloured print; 30.2 x 40.3 cm© The Artist; Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery London

Speaking of Donald Trump, as the women’s movement has become as vocal as ever, we still have authoritarian men taking power all over the world.

I am very scared and sometimes feel rather hopeless that something really fundamental could change concerning the phallocratic systems in place all over the world. Men still hold positions of major power and dominate in politics and social life, so it is very important that women speak out and claim their power and define it anew.

What do you think of the “feminist” label? Do you embrace it? Can it be limiting?

Rejection from both men and women has always accompanied the label of ‘feminism’. If you are really aware of the present global situation than socially-conscious women can embrace being a feminist and be proud of it.

Are there American feminist (or otherwise) women artists you admire?
I was especially interested in feminist artists who were using different media in a new and radical way, artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Eleanor Antin, Lynda Benglis, and Judy Chicago.

You’re part of Richard Saltoun’s year of women artists—how do you feel about this type of initiative?

As female artists are still under-represented in galleries and Museums, such an initiative is vital.

How did you react to the news that you would represent Austria in Venice this year?

I did not expect it, and therefore it was a great surprise! I love challenges and I am really enjoying trying to conquer the Austrian Pavilion; finding an authentic expression of my visions against the building.

Has the triumvirate of irony/utopia/pornography in your work shifted with technology? Have ubiquitous screens changed the balance?

Of course, I am a victim of the new technologies, but they offer also new and very exciting ways of investigating and expressing my main topics.

You use of audience engagement also seems prescient; what did you get out of performance art? What are your past performance works you feel are most important?

The most important performance for me was my first one, called Deflorazione in 14 stazioni, performed in 1977 in Italy. This was my first public confrontation with an audience and it was really challenging. The performances which followed were conceptualized in such a way that the audience could participate and therefore change it in a way which I could not always anticipate or foresee, and this was always very exciting!

Renate Bertlmnn; Schwangere Braut im Rollstuhl (Pregnant bride in wheelchair), 1978; Black and white photograph on Baryt paper. Vintage and unique; 40 x 30 cm© The Artist; Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery London

Was there a work you showed at Independent that you were particularly interested in debuting in the US?

I was especially interested in how the audience would react to my Enfant Terrible – Innocenz VI, because in this sculptural object I am touching upon two taboos: that of sexuality and religion, but in a rather ironic way.

How did you decide what to show?

It was difficult to choose which works, as we wanted to show the best and most iconic themes in my practice. I spoke with my gallery, Richard Saltoun, and we decided to show my early “worm” drawings from the 70s along with photographs of early staged performances, including Deflorazione in 14 stazioni. I often used latex in my works from this period, so we brought an installation of moulded latex ‘skins’, called Washing Day, and presented this next to my Enfants Terribles – Innocenz VI, 2001. For me it was exciting to choose for a new audience a collection of representative works that fitted together well.

Do you fear that radical aspects of your work can get lost with mainstream awareness/success?

Of course, there is a danger to be put into a drawer or pigeonholed, which is always a limitation, but as always – and success will not stop me! – I will express what is burning under my skin.



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