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In Conversation with Renate Bertlmann

Renate Bertlmann, a founding artist of the feminist movement, shares over 50 years of experiences in the art world and her never-ending need to create, and say what must be said with a brave poignancy.

Discordo Ergo Sum, 2019, 12 x 6,5 m, Murano glass, metal, scalpel, Installation view: Austrian Pavilion, Biennale Arte 2019, Copyright: Renate Bertlmann/ Bildrecht Vienna, Photo: Sophie Thun, Courtesy: Richard Saltoun Gallery, London


To hear the audio version of the interview click here.


Marjorie Martay–


I'm delighted to be talking to Renate Bertlmann one of the leading feminist artists of the 20th century, focusing on issues of love, sexuality, gender, and eroticism. I'm especially delighted that the Richard Saltoun Gallery helped us to make this connection, because I've admired Renate for many years as I've been in the art world for a while. I so appreciated what she has done in her career. She studied painting along with conversation and technology at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna from 1964 to 1970. As I mentioned, I've admired your work for a long time– it's been 50 years now! You work in so many, different mediums including painting, drawing, collage, photography, sculpture, and performance. I was also delighted to see you were representing Austria in the Biennale as the first female artists to represent last year with a solo exhibition. "Discordo Ergo Sum [I dissent, therefore I am]" that you've created for the Biennale and how your work defines social phenomena such as gender relations, role models, and power structures. Could you talk about the two exhibitions that you did there?


Renate Bertlmann–


My work as you already mentioned is all about love in its different meanings and expressions and dimensions. Not only love as a feeling, of course we can feel love, but more as a holistic experience of life. It includes everything. Forty years ago I found a title for my life project, my work, 'Amo Ergo Sum' [I love, therefore I am] as an enlargement of “cogito, ergo sum”. Of course we think, and we need our mind, it's a very useful tool. But, we are much more. Concerning my work for the Austrian Pavilion in Biennale Venezia 2019 the installation 'Amo Ergo Sum' on the front of the Pavilion and in the back in garden the Knife- Roses installation 'Discordo Ergo Sum [I dissent, therefore I am]' show the two poles, between my work is situated. And what does mean Discordo /Dissent? It means I stand against brutality, war, abuse, especially of women, arbitrariness and disrespect for human dignity. That is all very hurting and we obviously really need a crisis like Coronavirus to get a chance to reflect deeply our unhuman and cruel attitudes towards all living being and the earth.


Discordo Ergo Sum: AMO ERGO SUM, 2019, 481 x 2454 x 8 cm, Galvanized sheet steel, painted white, steel, concrete foundations, Installation view: Austrian Pavilion, Biennale Arte 2019, Copyright: Renate Bertlmann/ Bildrecht Vienna, Photo: Sophie Thun, Courtesy: Richard Saltoun Gallery, London


Marjorie Martay–


Absolutely. What were you trying to convey with the 312 red, Murano glass roses that appear with sharp steal blades? It was so impactful.


Renate Bertlmann–


The installation of knife-roses covering the pavilion’s entire courtyard, as “a precise grid of 312 roses, is a kind of red army standing at attention in the sun” (Beatriz Colomina) display a synesthetic artistic commentary that allows us to sensuously experience the dichotomy of our existence. And I am also using the sentiment of kitsch I have been dealing with this since the 1970s. Of course, a glass rose is a really kitschy object. It was most courageous to do it in Venice. But I also felt obliged to use a material of Venice. Murano has such a great glass history, and they have really skillful glass artists and I found the best. All of the glass roses are of one hand, It was such an enormous work, each rose is perfectly made. In combination with the knives, it expresses very clearly for me these two poles of my work– 'Discordo ergo sum' and 'Amo Ergo Sum.' I am using knife-blades in my work also since the 70s, for instance in knife dummy hands and Knife breast (ex voto).


Marjorie Martay–


I thought the piece was beautifully done and you're absolutely right– the way the rose was constructed was magnificent. Then, the span of it with having 312 roses lined up...extremely impactful.


Discordo Ergo Sum, 2020, 137 x 1125 x 460 cm, Murano glass, metal, scalpel, Installation view: Johannes Stoll / Belvedere, Wien, Courtesy: Richard Saltoun Gallery, London


Renate Bertlmann–


The guards in the Pavilion told me, that most of the visitors were very touched when they saw the installation, many of them actually weeping. That was also touching for me.


Marjorie Martay–


Well, to be able to have an installation causing that kind of effect is fabulous. That's why you do this, and it's really courageous. It took a lot of guts to do it. Yeah. You also took the work currently on view at the Belvedere as part of the Carlone Contemporary series where some of the art works are juxtaposed with these fabulous Baroque frescoes of the Carlone Hall at the Belvedere. Could you talk about contrast that you created?


Renate Bertlmann–


It was exciting to find a way to confront the Knife- Roses with the Baroque frescoes. Have you ever seen them on the pictures?


Marjorie Martay–


I have seen it, and it's absolutely beautiful!


CORPUS IMPUDICUM ARTE DOMITUM (Impudent Body Tamed by Art), 1984, Silicone rubber, gold leaf, gauze bandages, Perspex, 48.5 × 121 × 49.5 cm, Copyright: Renate Bertlmann/ Bildrecht Vienna, Photo: Claudia Rohrauer, Courtesy: Richard Saltoun Gallery, London


Renate Bertlmann–


Carlo Innocenzo Carlone was a great artist and shortly said, it's about the poem of Metamorphoses by Ovid– it's a contrast of day and night. It fits totally the idea of the installation. I decided for the Knife-Roses in the Garden of the Austrian Pavilion to have a white floor– to express somehow a sort of purity. But, for the Carlone Hall I have chosen a sharp, ray like system where the roses are fixed and it looks very frightening. It is also shocking for the people because they can approach the roses much more than in Venice. It looks very threatening and has a great erotic energy. It was a pity, that the exhibition had to close only some weeks after the opening, but it will open again on 1st of July 2020.


Marjorie Martay–


Amazing, and also the interplay between viewers since they are able to get so close to it. There is a sense of immediacy that was created. How are you doing with the coronavirus?


Renate Bertlmann–


Not an easy time of course. I try not to deny that I am scared that my husband could get sick, or my friends and myself. The fear is here and I have to face it. It is a very challenging time, time for fundamental change concerning how I lived and worked throughout these almost 77 years, especially the last 10 years where my career was improving very rapidly. My husband is a scientist and he is retired but still teaching at the university, and writing a book about Quantum Mechanics. We are both very busy, more or less day and night. We try now to come out of the treadwheels of our mind and days, to stop, become still and look inside. It's a big chance. This is important for everybody, but especially for artists who should not lose the connection to this level of consciousness, what I call pregnant ground, where all inspirations come from.


Ex-Voto, 1985, 92 x 87 x 40 cm, Polyurethane foam, oil paint, steel poling plate, perspex, Photo: Elfriede Mejchar, Courtesy: Renate Bertlmann


Marjorie Martay–


Have you found you've been able to actually create during this period? Have you thought about what you might want to do next?


Renate Bertlmann–


It took some time to get accustomed to the new situation. My brain feels still a bit foggy. It's really strange, my ideas are somehow floating away and dissolving slowly. I have to accept it and it will change. But the time gives me a chance to communicate more, to get more in contact with my friends I have been neglecting them totally the last years. I was only working, working, working. Now we communicate by Skype, telephone, email, WhatsApp. It is really beautiful, and new projects slowly appear.


Marjorie Martay–


It's so interesting that you said that because first of all, this sounds to me like there was a silver lining there for you. The fact that you could connect with people that you haven't been able to do for a long time. You've found the time now to do that and it's been so pleasurable, and it's feeding you in another way. It's terrific. I can only speak for myself; I'm here in New York City–pretty much isolated in my apartment. I thought that it would be beneficial to to do this blog "Women– We Create," because I wanted to have a connective tissue to all of these amazing artists like yourself. I wanted to create an opportunity for people to hear these incredible voices, and how they're feeling in this time– what they've done in the past and possibly, what they're doing in the future. So I think it's been a good thing for me as well, and I'm so happy for you in a more personal way, how gratifying it has been on a positive note. Are you planning any new exhibitions?


Renate Bertlmann–


A solo presentation of my new works were planned for May 2020 in Richard Saltoun Gallery in London, but of course it was postponed. I really don't know what will happen. The Knife-Roses-Installation in Carlone Hall will open again on 1st July 2020. In two years, I have an exhibition in Belvedere 21. But, overall, I really can't make detailed plans yet.


Marjorie Martay–


It's very difficult for all of us, we feel like our whole lives are on hold.


Renate Bertlmann–


Of course, it's is hard financially as well, because it's very difficult for the galleries to sell works, collectors are very slow and reluctant at the moment.


Marjorie Martay–


It's not an easy time for artists. Let's look back at your career– your first success came in 1975 when you were part of the "MAGNA. Feminism– Art and Creativity" exhibition curated by Valie Export at Galerie nächst St. Stephan in Vienna. I believe that in the show was also Birgit Jürgenssen.


Marjorie Martay–


Renate, what was so important about that exhibit?


Renate Bertlmann–


First of all, it was the first international female exhibition in Austria and to be chosen for this exhibition was very important for me. I was really not integrated into the gallery scene because I was not so good in communication and I never asked a gallery for an exhibition and nobody asked me, because I was working more or less in the underground, very shy and nobody inviting into my studio. When Valie Export invited me to this exhibitions it increased my self-confidence very much. I suddenly had the feeling– yes, yes, I'm an artist and I belong to the art scene." It was very, very important from me.


Renate Bertlmann, Rollstuhl (rot-groß) / Wheelchair (red-big), 1975, 80 x 100 x 90 cm, Perspex, Installation View Richard Saltoun Gallery 2016, Photo: Richard Saltoun Gallery, Courtesy: Private Collection, USA


Marjorie Martay–


It's not an easy time for artists artists. Let's look back at your career– your first success came in 1975 when you were part of the "MAGNA. Feminism– Art and Creativity" exhibition curated by Valie Export at Galerie nächst St. Stephan in Vienna. I believe that in the show was also Birgit Jürgenssen. Renate, what was so important about that exhibit?


Renate Bertlmann–


First of all, it was the first international female exhibition in Austria and to be chosen for this exhibition was very important for me. I was really not integrated into the gallery scene because I was not so good in communication and I never asked a gallery for an exhibition and nobody asked me, because I was working more or less in the underground, very shy and nobody inviting into my studio. When Valie Export invited me to this exhibitions it increased my self-confidence very much. I suddenly had the feeling– yes, yes, I'm an artist and I belong to the art scene." It was very, very important for me.


Die schwangere Braut im Rollstuhl (Pregnant Bride in The Wheelchair), 1978, Performance at Österreichischer Kunstverein, Vienna, Duration: 25:32 min, Photo: Margot Pilz


Marjorie Martay–


I know that's an amazing feeling when you all of a sudden feel like you're established. People recognize you. They want you as a part of something. It's an incredible feeling internally and it absolutely helps one's confidence. Some say your most famous piece is "Pregnant Bride in a Wheelchair," could you explain that performance piece for me?


Renate Bertlmann–


Yes, the topic of a woman as the highly pregnant bride has occupied me since the seventies until now. This performance took place 1978 in Österreichischer Kunstverein, Vienna. A bride, far advanced in her pregnancy, wearing a white dress - my own wedding dress - a mask, and a garland of pacifiers and a veil – my own wedding veil -, was pushed into the hall in her wheelchair, which has the words ‘PLEASE PUSH!’ written on the back. When she was not pushed, the baby in her tummy cried bitterly. As she was pushed around in a circle, one could hear a lullaby coming from the music box hanging around her neck. After a while the bride induced the birth, getting up from the wheelchair with difficulty, slowly letting out the baby, a recorder, which was wrapped with bandages and an umbilical cord made of latex. The bride disappeared, leaving behind the wheelchair and the baby, giving back the responsibility for the baby to the society which forced her to act like that.



Die schwangere Braut im Rollstuhl (Pregnant Bride in The Wheelchair), 1978, Performance at Österreichischer Kunstverein, Vienna, Duration: 25:32 min, Photo: Margot Pilz



Marjorie Martay–


What were you trying to accomplish with the piece "Salvation of My Sisters"?


Renate Bertlmann–


This is an homage of all tortured, abused murdered women and those who have sacrificed their lives for their children and their family.


Marjorie Martay–


Was it a piece that you really identified with?


Renate Bertlmann–


Yes, of course.


Marjorie Martay–


That's great. You were a part of the Inaugural Exhibition at the New State Gallery in Lower Austria in Krems. Talk to me a little about that.


Urn Wall, 1978/2019, 260 × 680 × 26 cm, Perspex, wood, cylindrical urns, funerary objects, Copyright: Renate Bertlmann/ Bildrecht Vienna, Photo: Claudia Rohrauer, Courtesy: Renate Bertlmann


Renate Bertlmann–


Yes, I was invited for an exhibition in this brand new Museum and was offered the whole ground flour, a wonderful big space, very challenging because of the modern architecture. And I could curate the show by myself, so I took the opportunity to combine the different contents of my work, such as feminism and spirituality. I tried to show works from the 3 parts of 'Amo Ergo Sum'– Pornography, Irony and Utopia. The central work of the exhibition was the Urn Wall, a space of tranquility, and archive, a place of rest. I was inviting 70 people to send me gifts for this urn wall. It appeared as a place of taboo for all, which guaranteed the highest degree of protection. Another central installation was the black room with the object CORPUS IMPUDICUM ARTE DOMITUM, a big golden phallus, wrapped in swaddling clothes like a mummy, as a parodistic comment of the phallus cult.


Marjorie Martay–


Your career has spanned over fifty years. During that period of time, you finally now are receiving the respect and accolades you deserve. But there were so many years where you didn't have that. How did you deal with that? I'm sure it was not easy.


Messerschnullerhände - Ambivalenzen (Knife Dummy Hands - Ambivalence), 1981, Black and white photograph, vintage, 24 x 17.8 cm, Copyright: Renate Bertlmann/ Bildrecht Vienna, Courtesy: Richard Saltoun Gallery, London

Renate Bertlmann–


I would lie if I said it was very easy. But my life is very blessed. I met my partner when I was 22 and he was 20. We married soon, and we always appreciated and supported each other in terms of our work. My husband is a quantum physicist and I was always fascinated by all of his topics. And he loved my work, took care of my work and supported me in all matters. This gave me great strength and self-confidence, but of course I was often very sad, when there was an exhibition without my works that would have fit so well. And this happened very often. But working in my studio made me happy again, totally happy and that was the most important thing for me. I was really obsessional and nothing was missing.


Marjorie Martay–


As a woman, to say that you found your life partner is really amazing. He's obviously given you so much strength, but you've given each other that. You've had a tremendous amount of resilience and courage as you've gone through your career. It has very definitely shown in your work.


Renate Bertlmann–


I hope so!


Marjorie Martay–


Absolutely. You've always dealt with radical content and aesthetics. You were willing to take risks where a lot of other people were not.


Renate Bertlmann–


When you say this, it's very amazing. Many people still say to me– "Oh, you were so brave in the seventies and eighties." I myself did not consider myself as brave, I did what I was forced to do, I just had to do what was burning under my nails.


Die Erlösung meiner Schwestern / The Salvation of My Sisters, 1985, 242 x 40 x 230 cm, Polyurethane foam, plastic, wood, fabric, gauze bandages, organza, Installation view: Sotheby’s Gallery, London 2017, Photo: Sotheby’s, Copyright: Renate Bertlmann/ Bildrecht Vienna, Courtesy: Richard Saltoun Gallery, London


Marjorie Martay–


It came from within and it was something that propelled you forward. Well, I want to say I'm so delighted today to have had this conversation with you. Over the years, I have admired you so much. I only hope that these continued accolades that you've received will take you to the future.


Renate Bertlmann–


I don't know!


Marjorie Martay–


One never knows! I very much look forward to the upcoming exhibit in England and the continuation you're going to have with Belvedere. Personally, I would love to meet you in one my travels to Austria!


Renate Bertlmann–


Please, contact me. That would be wonderful.


Marjorie Martay–


Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. It means a lot to me personally, and I think to all the other artists who have felt the same way that I have with complete admiration. Thank you very much for joining.


Renate Bertlmann–


It was my pleasure. You're welcome.

+++


Visit Renate Bertlmann's website at http://www.bertlmann.com


Renate Bertlmann is represented by Galerie Steinek / www.galerie.steinek.at

and Richard Saltoun Gallery / www.richardsaltoun.com


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