In my wardrobe sits a pair of black-leather, high-heeled shoes that squish my little toes and make the backs of my ankles bleed. Despite the fact that they clearly hate my feet, I continue to love these shoes because, when I put them on, they make me feel powerful. It’s a sensation that I imagine the nameless, headless protagonist of Christina Ramberg’s 1971 painting Black Widow knows only too well. Cinched into a corset that gives her an improbably tiny waist, she looks every inch the dominatrix, in control of everything – except, perhaps, her ability to breathe.
The legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once said that clothes are ‘the armour to survive the reality of everyday life’ and, in Ramberg’s surrealist-inspired drawings and paintings, currently on display at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, this statement can be taken quite literally. In Tight Hipped (1974), for instance, hair strands are wrapped around the groin, shoulders, chest and wrists of a headless torso, suggesting both protection and constraint. This is one of many works on show that exemplify the late artist’s interest in how outside influences – societal pressure, standardization, socialization – impact and intersect with our bodies.
Neither a group exhibition nor a retrospective, ‘The Making of Husbands’ puts 23 works by Ramberg ‘in dialogue’ with pieces by 14 other artists. The obvious choice might have been to present Ramberg, who was an active member of the Chicago Imagists up until her death in 1995, alongside others associated with the group. Instead, curator Anna Gritz took a different approach, choosing a selection of contemporary artists whose practices are thematically rather than geographically connected to Ramberg’s oeuvre. Some pairings fit remarkably well: with its hints of violence and control, Alexandra Bircken’s Löwenmaul (Snap Dragon, 2017) – a dark brown wavy wig sewed to the seam of a bra, contorted into a new shape and pinned unceremoniously to the wall – has much in common with Ramberg’s practice. So, too, does Kathleen White’s performance The Spark Between L And D (1988), which shows the artist hitting herself until she bleeds and then proceeding to bandage her entire body – an action that is mirrored in the many preparatory drawings by Ramberg that depict bondage-style scenarios created from bandages, hair and women’s bras.
Other combinations are less expected: there’s a fully automated, sliding door by Hans-Christian Lotz (Untitled, 2015), a series of baby gates and mushroom-shaped night-lights by Ghislaine Leung (Gates, 2019 and Shrooms, 2016) and a work that covers a section of the exhibition wall in grey paper by Gaylen Gerber (Backdrop, no date). Crucially, these interventions – which all deal in some way with how infrastructure affects our day-to-day lives – help steer viewers away from a one-sided view of Ramberg’s practice as ‘only’ about feminism. While it’s true that the two earliest pieces in the exhibition (Black Widow and Probed Cinch, 1971) depict women contorting their bodies to appeal to patriarchal ideals, her later works seemingly do away with gender altogether. Bodies become more androgynous, mechanical and sometimes, as with the rusty metal frame figure in Wilful Excess (1977), turn fully cyborg. In doing so, they become much more surreal, connecting objects (‘torso head vase garden path inner rib cage’, Ramberg once wrote in her notebook) in ways that wilfully disregard distinctions between the organic and inorganic. In this game of exquisite corpse – a favourite of the surrealists – gender is just one of many elements to play with.
‘The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue’ runs at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, until 5 January 2020.
Main image: Christina Ramberg, ‘The Making of Husbands: Christina Ramberg in Dialogue’, 2019, KW Institute for Contemporary Art; photograph: Frank Sperling