FEMALE STUDY: RENATE BERTLMANN'S PORNOGRAPHIC JOKES

Washing Day, 1976

Hi! It's been about 6 months since I wrote. I moved to New York and life got busy. But I'm fine now so let's see if we can pick things up.

I recently reacquainted myself with the artwork of Renate Bertlmann. What kept my attention this time around is the humor I see behind Bertlmann's work, and the simple messages that can be abstracted.

Bertlmann is a feminist avant-garde artist whose career began in the early 1970s. Born in 1943 in Vienna, Austria, Bertlmann studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Upon graduating in 1970, she lectured at the academy through the early 1980s. Throughout this time, she built a corpus of work using various media including drawing, painting, object art, installation, photography, film, and performance.

Touching mainly on the binary opposition of male and female roles, Bertlmann worked with phallic and breastlike shapes, using humor and hyperbole as a platform for discussion on a topic that is otherwise generally a sore subject for any thinking female.

As was en vogue in the post-minimalist time she began her work, Bertlmann often used ordinary objects. But in her case, this was to her advantage, as she worked with familiar household objects, a place where things are almost strictly divided between male and female genders. This by default made her a "feminist" artist, even without publishing a manifesto or saying anything about it outright.

Caress (Washing Day), 1976

The undisguised sexual nature of Bertlmann's work bends gender norms as much as it overtly acknowledges the dichotomy between the two. Her ability to blur the lines is well demonstrated in her close-range photographs of inflated condoms touching each other. Male gendered objects become reminiscent of the female body and hermaphroditic inuendos.

Tender Touches, 1976

Tender Touches, 1976

Likewise, hanging inflated condoms alongside flaccid condoms on a laundry line in her Washing Day series, Bertlmann juxtaposes the male and female figure using a traditionally male gendered object.

Washing Day, 1976

In a recent interview with the Tate Modern (2015), Bertlmann explains her subversive humor:

Pornographic jokes have always been a male domain, made at the exclusive expense of women. I consider my series of objects an accomplished example of an obscene female joke. This joke has hit home; it targets the deadly serious, male sexual arrogance. My works could be created only because I was obviously able, despite my anxieties, to discuss sexuality and sexual repression simultaneously through desire and ironic distance.

Especially at the time of her work, Bertlmann's pervasive use of 'private' parts of the human body were, and are widely still considered vulgar for women to discuss, let alone exhibit. I feel like her ability to avoid erotic notions while still using these symbols is a huge feat, and actually adds fuel to the outrage fire, as one might be able to accept an erotic "vulgar" female, the way society does with Anais Nin, but for Bertlmann's work, replacing eroticism with overt symbols of obscenity, the message is no longer palatable to social conformists.

Urvagina, 1978

Renate Bertlmann has explained that she identifies with "physically handicapped wheelchair-bound outcasts," which is partly influenced by their role in Thomas Bernhard’s play A Party for Boris (1968). This explains the presence of wheelchairs in her work since she started in the early 70s.  (A very "unfeminine" ordinary object, don't you think)? A wheelchair might seem incongruent with the rest of her work at first glance, but Bertlmann explains that she likes to use wheelchairs "to emphasize the tension between inertness, mobility, and bodily contact," which combined with gender norms, actually makes a lot of sense.

In her performance Pregnant Bride in Wheelchair (1976) (below), Bertlmann implies the handicapping outcome of a woman who is both pregnant and a bride. I can't find any interviews with her in English about this particular performance, but it seems like she assumes the persona of a pregnant woman who is made to marry due to social pressures of the time.

The pregnant bride is not only in a wheelchair, but her fingertips also appear to be nipples, exaggerating the exhausting and giving nature of the female body. Her face is also ghostly, perhaps alluding to the death of the young woman's freedom, or maybe done in effort to depict a grotesque figure in a situation where women are typically expected to look pure and beautiful.

After she finished lecutring in 1980, Bertlmann soley focused on her studio work and what she calls "freelance" work. I've never heard a working artist call themselves freelance but maybe she also did work for hire that is outside of her personal aesthetic.

Below, Bertlmann's installation 1984 piece, Breast Incubator has holes for hands to enter within the clear case, offering a means to fondle the breasts within. The nipples, however, have exacto knife blades sticking out of them, which to me symbolically expresses the instances where being groped is an unwanted experience.

Breast Incubator, 1984

Through today, Bertlmann continues to create work that sheds light on the objectification of the female body and using her humor to emasculate male gendered objects. 

Untitled, 2016

By hanging condoms that are used as bud vases on a towel rack with ribbon, I see Bertlmann making a multi-layered joke here. And hello, still at it in 2016! She was born in 1946. She is not faking this joke. She lives this thing and she is nailing it. Flowers and ribbons—so "girly." A towel rack—a domestic object, maybe gender neutral (though I think one could argue that almost all domestic objects are associated with females). Yes Ranate. Yes.


COURTNEY CADY, © BAGTAZO 2017