A gaudy pink-plexiglass wheelchair and four photos of a cheeky young woman about to spit out brightly colored Lego bricks currently greet visitors to Verbund’s Vienna headquarters (where, in the publicly accessible foyer, stairwell, and corridors, the Austrian utilities company regularly showcases its art collection). These are among the roughly forty works by the seldom-exhibited artist Renate Bertlmann (b. 1943) that constitute her first major exhibition in her home country. The show, which spans from the early 1970s to the mid-’80s (Bertlmann’s most prolific years), includes installations, films, photographs, drawings, and scores for performances.
When Bertlmann first started out as an artist, her unique, witty work drew harsh criticism from other feminists for its use of sex toys and (hetero)sexually explicit imagery. She was condemned for putting masculine symbols to work for feminism instead of “doing the right thing” and foregrounding the female body—the same kind of critique directed at artists like Anita Steckel and Judith Bernstein.
At Verbund, Bertlmann’s work is exhibited under the title “Amo Ergo Sum” (I love, therefore I am), a motto she has used since the late 1970s for both her life and her work. Although the exhibition is not organized chronologically or thematically, it reveals how the artist has relentlessly pursued her chosen topics in different mediums, finding new ways to combine them. For instance, the aforementioned pink sculpture, from 1975, is one of many works involving wheelchairs. Originally inspired by Thomas Bernhard’s play A Party for Boris (1970), about an asylum for handicapped people who incessantly insult each other, Bertlmann started drawing wheelchairs in 1973 before actually building them. She went on to pursue the motif in other mediums, too, including in works that touch on a second play, Brecht’s A Respectable Wedding (1919), in which a wedding celebration for a pregnant bride and a good-for-nothing groom goes horribly wrong. Bertlmann’s works evolving from this topic highlight the discrepancy between society’s expectations of a woman and what she wants for herself, and center on the image of a pregnant bride in a wheelchair. In a performance presented in 1978 at Modern Art Galerie in Vienna and represented in video documentation in the exhibition, the bridal-costumed artist sits in a wheelchair that bears a sign asking onlookers to push. When the chair is in motion, a lullaby plays on a music box hanging from her neck. When it stops, a baby’s cry comes from her belly. After a while, she gives “birth,” allowing a tape recorder wrapped in gauze bandages to slip from her belly to the floor. As baby noises continue playing, the bride/mother leaves the scene, as if abandoning her baby to go on to pursue a life of her own.
The theme of people being held back by societal conventions appears throughout the works on view. The Wedding Guests (1974), for instance, is a drawing of nine phallic figures whose lower bodies, shown below a banquet table, display garter belts and erection-hugging underwear, while above the waist they maintain relatively proper decorum. The black-and-white photo series “Renée ou René” (1977) offers a slapstick take on machismo, showing the androgynously dressed artist making jerk-off motions and mounting a display dummy, among other activities.
Bertlmann makes explicit a belief that women should fight against oppressive forces in works like the sculpture Brus(t)kasten (Breast Incubator), 1984, where razor blades protrude from two breasts in an incubator. In Farphalla Impudica 4 (Impertinent Butterfly 4), 1985, exhibited on the building’s top floor, a dildo is used as the body of a butterfly with pink plexiglass wings. The almighty phallus is reduced to a tacky embellishment.