Dr. Katharina Koch
Co-director and chief curator of the feminist art space alpha nova kulturwerkstatt & galerie futura, Berlin
it goes on – and on – and on
is the title of the first solo catalogue of Renate Bühn, an artist who has made everyday sexualised violence against girls* and boys* – and society’s marginalisation of the issue – the focus of her work. The title highlights the persistance of sexualised violence, society’s failure to face up to it, and its continuing relevance today; and also the fact that the artist has shown unfailing commitment to raising awareness of the issue, by keeping it in the public eye for almost twenty years.
The family, the church and wartime are only some of the main contexts in which sexualised violence can be perpetrated over many years, often in secret and unpunished. The men* and women* who perpetrate this crime are mostly protected – specifically, by their own families or, more generally, by society’s tendency to turn a blind eye to the crime and accept sexist court verdicts that downplay its severity. Fear, a sense of shame and powerlessness, hopelessness about their situation ever being acknowledged, ever being changed, and, not least, the perpetrators’ threats compel many victims-survivors to keep quiet, or to mentally disassociate from their reality in order to survive. Others, by contrast, do speak out. But they often find that no one is prepared to believe them, that their words are ignored, their signals not recognised – or even that breaking the silence leads to their stigmatisation as “typical victims, crying wolf”. This puts them under an even greater emotional strain and yet the prospect of seeing their torturers brought to justice remains uncertain – or even highly unlikely, if a family member is inflicting the sexualised violence.
Which visual idioms can art deploy to get to grips with this complex issue? It is rooted in countless individual fates, personal experience, and histories; yet these in turn are rooted in problematic social structures, since, to this day, public acknowledgment, discussion, and effective preventative action are rudimentary at best.
It is vital to find an artistic idiom that does not reflect merely the solitary process of coming to terms with one’s own past as a victim-survivor but instead encompasses the urgent and pressing political dimension of sexualised violence; that inquires into intersectionality and overlaps; and that renders visible, indicts, and intervenes in the persistent structural sexism and patriarchal power relations of our allegedly emancipated society. Only then – and depending on the interaction with recipients – is art able to gain a resonance that fosters agency (capacity for action).
Which role can art assume in this context? How can it be more than a means to an end? What potential does it have?
Renate Bühn, who is herself a victim-survivor of sexualised violence, was involved for many years in building support networks and campaigns to raise public awareness, before becoming an artist. Because the spoken word was no longer enough, no longer made much sense to her, she turned to art, in search of other means of expression with which to bring hidden issues to the light of day. Artistic approaches are complex. They appeal to different senses, to different levels of perception, and their visual dimension has a more immediate impact than words do, and simultaneously eludes monodimensional interpretations.
In her installations, work series, objects, paintings, and participatory and interactive projects, Renate Bühn draws mostly on an at once radical, hard-hitting and, at times, also disconcerting visual idiom. She uses everyday objects, such as ties, white shirts, a rocking horse, breakfast boards, pins, and pocket calendars, which have symbolic significance in their respective narrative setting. In recontextualising the objects as art, mostly in combination with fragments of text, she robs them of their apparent inoffensiveness and innocence.
Thus in her early work “Krawattenbuch” (“Tie-Book”, 1998), she uses the tie, a symbol of masculinity that can be taken to mean both male power and decent middle-class respectability. On garments speared on butcher’s hooks she sticks words and phrases – “childhood” or “a completely normal family man”, for example – which likewise connote normality, but are far from it. Rather, they turn the spotlight on the everyday threat to the family, posed in most cases by male perpetrators, as well as on society’s conscious and common practice of turning a blind eye. Another position that takes everyday familial abuse in its sights is “Frühstück mit Papi” (Breakfast with Daddy, 1999): two halves of a bread roll spread with dead flies are a metaphor for the horror and unutterable disgust which children are confronted with time after time, each and every day, given the unavoidable presence and proximity of the perpetrator. In the work “Schweigen ist tödlich” (Silence Is Deadly, 2001) the pink rocking-horse, symbol of a sheltered childhood, comes to signify alienation: the supposedly innocent rocking motion here evokes sexual assault; and that the crime is downplayed makes this all the more disturbing. Moreover, Renate Bühn’s rocking-horse bucks mechanically and much too fast, connoting dysfunction and violence. Two empty chairs in the background represent the silent accomplices: those who are in the know, but do not intervene.
Earlier in her artistic career, Renate Bühn examined sexualised violence in the Catholic church and the blatant protection afforded perpetrators within that institution. Since 2014 she has developed a number of works in which lavabo towels, in Catholicism symbols of purity and of washing one’s hands, are stuck full of pins. Pins, in the work “Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas” (2014), spell out the Latin claim to innocence of the title (“I will wash my hands in innocence…”); and they serve furthermore both to highlight the never-ending suffering of victims-survivors, and to prick the conscience of society and the church, saying: Look! Make this public! Intervene! Also in other positions, such as “Beichte und Gebet” (Confess and Pray, 2014) or “Er sagte, wir seien jetzt in Liebe verbunden” (He said, now we are united in love, 2014), the artist spells out in pins some of the victims-survivors’ statements published in the Final Hotline Action Report of the German Bishops’ Conference on Victims of Sexual Abuse (2010–2012).
Not only the alienated everyday objects themselves carry symbolic meaning – which the artist, in recontextualising them (i.e. in taking them out of their usual setting), accentuates and takes ad absurdum – but also the colours that Renate Bühn uses for her installations, objects and arrangements: white, red and pink, predominantly. Yet in their specific deployment here, the colours’ usual connotations prove to be rarely apt or even dangerously misleading: white is a synonym for innocence and purity as well as for intactness. Red stands for danger and violence. Pink, the fusion of the two, is associated with girls* and suggests the carefree days of childhood.
The choice of media for each individual work is the outcome of preliminary research, which Renate Bühn always undertakes before tackling the various aspects of an issue. Every new focus calls for a fresh pursuit of the materials that the artist deems appropriate to the matter in hand.
Bühn is meticulously precise in her research. Figures, statistics, and hard facts are always scientifically proven. In many pieces, they mark a sober contrast to the visual idiom, which tends to take a more complex, sensitive and metaphorically richer approach to an issue and yet is no less the realistic for that. Works such as “2000 = 100 = 15 = 3 = 10 = 2” (1999) and “9 250 000” (2014) draw specifically on statistics pertaining to victims-survivors and perpetrators, court verdicts and acquittals, and show up the discrepancies between them.
Since the very start of her artistic ventures, Renate Bühn has repeatedly left the sheltered space of art and exhibition venues and shown her work instead in public space, actively seeking confrontation, exchange and interaction also with chance passers-by. And doing so is not so much a choice as a natural response to her urgently felt need to keep this social reality in the public eye.
“geHEIMnis” (HOME secret, since 2001), a slide installation projected in various public spaces, prompts annoyance and unease. Another work in progress consists in “Die Hemden der Vergewaltiger weiss” (Telling Garments: The Rapists’ White Shirts, since 2001) and, to highlight sexualised violence perpetrated by women*, “Die Bluse der Vergewaltigerin weiss” (The Blouse of the Rapist – White, 2016). White shirts and blouses stand, at least in western culture, for innocence and purity. Bühn prints on them in bright red lettering: WHITE FACADES – BEHIND WHITE CURTAINS – AT WHITE FAMILY TABLECLOTH – THE SHIRTS OF THE RAPISTS – WHITE. She also translates these statements into different languages and performs with the “Telling Garments” in public space. Through this direct, confrontational approach, which is impossible to ignore, she brings conflict and protest out into the open.
Likewise in the “art happening” tradition: the protest signboards the artist created, which bear statements taken from the Final Hotline Action Report of the German Bishops’ Conference on Victims of Sexual Abuse. In 2016, together with other victims-survivors and supporters, she organised a protest in Leipzig city centre on the occasion of the Katholikentag (German Catholic Congress), and engaged in discussion with passers-by and visitors to the Congress.
“Ich werde nie wissen, welche ich gewesen sein könnte, davor” (I´ll never know, who I could have been, if...) is a long-term participatory project, on-going since 2004. So far, around fifty women have sent prose and poetry about their experience of sexualised violence to Renate Bühn, for her expanding archival work of art. As part of her installation, the artist wraps the victims-survivors’ words in a see-through tulle quilt cover. These individual stories wrested from the past stand as a memorial: witnesses to society’s failings, but also to anger, courage and strength of will.
Conversation, exchange, discussion, and the written word in interaction with the visual idioms of Renate Bühn’s art produce in their respective settings a space that makes palpable both the personal and social dimensions of sexualised violence, and calls upon each and every one of us to assume personal responsibility. The principal concern of the artist runs like a common thread throughout her entire œuvre and is reflected, more or less explicitly, in each individual work. In order to put an end to sexualised violence, we must never forget it. And we must take action to prevent it every day.
Individual histories and experience are the foundation that make the ordinariness, the sheer banality of sexualised violence apparent; but a critique must constantly look beyond them, and tackle structural problems, if it is ever to bring about change in social attitudes and responses. Art is in this regard an effective means to raise awareness. Thanks to its visual idiom, which can provoke, touch, and inspire people, or make them furious even, it has a unique power to appeal to various levels of consciousness. Art is able to transcend intellectual understanding and make things tangible; it gives us the bigger picture. This transformative potential lays the groundwork for new ways of thinking and acting. There remains still much to be done. Renate Bühn’s consistently topical works of art contribute enormously to consolidating that groundwork.