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Heidi Bucher, Floor Skins, 1980-82

An imprint demands pressure, thus it asserts force. An imprint is the residue of that force.

My grandmother was born in Vienna in 1922 and left in 1938. Her grandmother stayed until she was forcedly removed and later, murdered. What remains—the residue of this force—is imprinted on our collective memory and later, on the wall outside her apartment building in a small bronze plaque that reads:

Flora Rosanes

Geb. Ehrenzweig

She was a poet.

Inhabiting the city of Munich in Southern Germany, feels illicit and familiar—as if I were returning to the scene of a crime perpetrated as a child, that I do not fully comprehend. I am a stranger here and yet, the City’s complicit past—as Hitler’s former stronghold—his perfection—tugs at my deepest organs and at the shared narrative and familial trauma buried within.

An imprint demands pressure, thus it asserts force. An imprint is the residue of that force.

Artists Heidi Bucher and Bea Schlingelhoff inhabit the City in my real time and space, occupying major institutional structures that once galvanised Hitler’s complete force and are indicative of the ideological structures that continue to hold us—down, or in, or under.

In Glitch Feminism, Legacy Russell writes that institutions require ‘not dismantling but rather mutiny in the form of strategic occupation.’ For a brief moment, Bucher and Schlingelhoff assert pressure in simultaneous and proximate exhibitions—taking up space and leaving residues. Bucher by painting latex onto walls in an intensive, unapologetic methodology, and peeling it back—Schlingelhoff by mapping history’s violent configuration onto the perpetrator’s walls in dark shadows where the works once were.

Swiss Artist Heidi Bucher spent much of her thirty five year career, occupying highly ambivalent institutional spaces, making latex skins of their architecture through a physically demanding labour. Heidi Bucher. Metamorphoses at Haus der Kunst, is the artist’s first and long overdue full-scale retrospective, situating these works in, and imprinting them on, the most ambivalent of institutions. The large, ageing latex Floor Skins (1980-82) that hang from the colossal central atrium refer to an altogether different architecture, but operate as a haunting and corporeal reminder of institutional violence. As the leading art institution for Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist party and the venue for 1937’s Great German Art Exhibition, Haus der Kunst’s indomitable architecture belies Hitler’s intent. Towering interior doors that make demands of the human body and gargantuan colonnades that hinder entrance, speak of a utopian vision built on access and refusal.

The Great German Art Exhibition’s gentile depictions of, and works by, the ‘aryan race’ were exhibited in concurrence with the Degenerate Art exhibition, held some meters away in what makes up part of the current premises of Kunstverein München, at that time the Museum für Abgüsse Klassischer Bildwerke (Museum of Casts of Classical Sculptures). In proximity to but outside Haus der Kunst’s sanctified walls, the exhibition presented confiscated works by Max Ernst, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky among others.

In her installation No River to Cross, Bea Schlingelhoff confronts her host, Kunstverein München, for its historical involvement with the Nationalist Socialists and its shift in cultural policy from 1933. In doing so, she is also confronting the history and ideological structures that held up the building, thus imprinting the architecture with layers, like palimpsest. For No River to Cross, she painted the walls in muted institutional green and mapped the original layout for the Degenerate Art exhibition in a darker shade. Crowded together, chaotically hung, and fuelled by Nazi slander, the works in the exhibition were intended to reveal the debased nature of its contributors. The single row of high windows in Kunstverein’s gallery spaces omit external distractions and limit daylight. This narrowing of one’s senses was the Nazi’s their desired effect, emphasised here by Schlingelhoff’s dulled green. When the sun does filter in, casting blown branches in animate shadows on the walls, I am haunted not by the work’s placement but by its absence.

For Bucher and Schlingelhoff, institutional architecture becomes an apparatus—an exposed frame from which to hang their works, like laundry, like bodies.

Born in 1926, Bucher spent her working life engaged with the ‘body in space’, from the latex skinnings of rooms to the fabrication of shimmering pearlescent Bodyshells costumes, and through the intense physical labour of making. Bucher wrote ‘Rooms are shells, they are skins. Peel off one skin after the other, discard it: the repressed, the neglected, the wasted, the lost, the sunken, the flattened, the desolate, the reversed, the diluted, the forgotten, the persecuted, the wounded.’ By skinning the confines of a room in latex, Bucher exposes a body ill-at-ease—her body and a collective body. At Haus der Kunst, I take the long corridor to the bathroom to escape this magnitude, seeking the intimacy of its wiped-clean tiles and aged Formica cubicles, and the lost irony of gender neutral signage that reads ‘for everybody’.

Charged by feminism, Bucher occupied spaces that blurred the line between public and private: a Swiss hotel resort and former state internment camp for Jewish women and children on Lake Maggiore; the Bellevue psychiatric clinic on Lake Constance where Freud treated the supposed hysteria patient Anna.O; her own family home heavy with the ideological institutions of marriage, patriarchy and bourgeois values. The lacquer-stained latex skins of these interiors are imprinted with the formality and rigour of wood panelling and floorboards, endemic in bourgeois homes. The scale of ‘Gentleman’s Study’(1978) and the ochre ‘Skin Room’ (Rick’s Nursery, 1987), communicate an institutional force but, in the wood’s grain and cracks, expose their substance as paper thin, or latex.

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Heidi Bucher, installation shot, Skin Room, Rick’s Nursery, 1987

Beyond these inanimate skins, Bucher stretches out. One hundred and fifty works and archival footage of the artist—straining and mobilising the latex skins or dancing iridescent on the sand in the retracted form of a shell—is pure metamorphosis. Sculptural works such as the Embalmings series transform quotidian textiles like nylon tights, quilts and dresses through liquid latex. The elasticity of latex and opacity of iridescent paint obfuscates the surface and makes fluid forms and imperfect replicas of objects, exposing the construct of femininity. ‘Bodyshells’ (1972), in which Bucher and friends sway and tumble in amorphous pearlescent costumes on Venice Beach, articulates the artist’s desire for a fluid world beyond gender. Other works such as ‘Hatching of the Parquet Dragonfly’ seek transformation close to the skin. For the 1983 Triennial Le Landeron in Switzerland, Bucher and five female performers in men’s underwear and bodices occupied a castle keep and rubbed pink liquid latex and pearlescent paint on one another. In muddied feminine hues of bruised blues and violets, worn and dirtied from bodily demands, these skins survive. That all the bodies described in Bucher’s performative works are female is significant and, in this real time and space, sit uncomfortably with her desire to stretch beyond gender. This contradiction is indicative of the context she was working through—a 1970s feminism that was yet to untether from the dichotomy of gender distinctions.

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Bea Schlingelhoff, No River to Cross, installation shot, 2021

Bea Schlingelhoff has dedicated her twenty-year practice to ‘remembering forgotten female biographies and the dissolution of patriarchal structures, and also traces the continuities of fascist structures.’ She does so by confronting the histories and architectural spaces of institutions like Kunstverein München for their political involvement with the National Socialists in Germany and their reorientation of national cultural policy from 1933 onwards.

Like Bucher, Schlingelhoff seeks to transgress the institution’s physical parameters and make immediate and direct demands of it. For No River to Cross, she goes beyond the gallery space, infiltrating the administrative and bureaucratic processes of the institution by proposing an apology and bylaw amendment from the Kunstverein for its cooperation with the National Socialists, as well as the recognition of their joint responsibility for the injustices committed. The artist does not stop at exposure but also demands a permanent commitment, in the form of a new ‘preamble’, to the principles of non-discrimination and equal rights. These amendments and additions to statute were discussed, challenged and finally voted on at an assembly of the Kunstverein’s 1300 members in August 2021. The letter of apology, edited and signed by the current director Maurin Dietrich and curator Gloria Hasnay, is framed and displayed at the beginning of the exhibition. Thus, policy becomes practice,making permanent Schlingelhoff’s imprint.

An imprint demands pressure, thus it asserts force. An imprint is the residue of that force.

Administrative paperwork is an imprint made twofold in Schlingelhoff’s bespoke typeface, dedicated to the deported and murdered artist Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler. In her ongoing series Women against Hitler, Schlingelhoff honours forgotten or murdered female resistance fighters, against the Nazi regime, in bespoke typefaces, some of which are made available to download during her exhibitions so that we might inscribe our pages with their stories. While outside the entrance to the Kunstverein are four illicit plaques in brass, listing the names of the only female artists whose works were shown in Munich’s Degenerate Art exhibition so that we might inscribe those structures with their names:

Maria Caspar-Filser

Jacoba van Heemskerck

Marg Moll

Emy Roeder

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Four plaques on the outside of the Kunstverein building naming the only female artists of the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich: Maria Caspar-Filser, Jacoba van Heemskerck, Marg Moll and Emy Roeder. Typeface Marianne Baum, designed by Bea Schlingelhoff

Despite divergent aesthetics, both Bucher and Schlingelhoff engage with the dichotomies of space—are you in or are you out, are you full or are you empty–and transgress those parameters. The space looks empty—blank walls, silent corridors and the cavities of institutional narratives lead to art histories bound in this same broken logic. By deconstructing, retracting and exposing these structures, Bucher and Schlingelhoff generate new skins, unearth narratives, re-pen statutes—fill the space with it, assert pressure.

An imprint demands pressure, thus it asserts force. An imprint is the residue of that force.

And so I return to my own skin, Schlingelhoff’s illicit plaque and Bucher’s wounded rooms, her shells—their scars, our imprint.

***

Rose Higham-Stainton writes about art, literature and aesthetics through feminisms. Her work is held in the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths College and published in PIN—UP Magazine, MAP Magazine, Skirt Chronicles, Ache, SPAM, Worms, Sticky Fingers Publishing. Herēma was published by Sticky Fingers Publishing in June 2021. She co-runs DEVOTION writing workshops with poet Sophie Robinson devotionworkshop.net

Heidi Bucher, Haus der Kunst, Munich, 17 September 2021-13 February 2022

Bea Schlingelhoff, Kunstverein München, 11 September-21 November 2021