'The world has become so serious. It's shocking'
As she prepares for the Venice Biennale, Regine Bartsch talks art, cancer, relationships, life in Ireland, and filthy jokes, writes Emily Hourican
There is a lightness, elegance and charm to Regine Bartsch's work. Ultimately, no matter the subject - landscape, seascape, still life - there is wit, effervescence, and a willingness to try something new. Small wonder that in person - an impossible-seeming 68 - she makes me laugh constantly as we discuss her life, and her appearance at the forthcoming Venice Biennale.
"It's three weeks away!" she says, "It's great to talk about it, but to do it… I can't think about it! I have practised, but not enough."
So how did this performance piece come about, for someone who has been primarily a visual artist so far? "I have an amazing gallery in England - Caroline Wiseman Modern & Contemporary. She believes in pushing her artists beyond their limits. She was picking artists for the Venice Biennale, and she started by asking artists to submit one-minute films. Mine had an element of performance, and she said 'you can be one of my artists in Venice if you do performance…' Well, you'd do anything to be in Venice! Caroline could have said 'you can be in Venice if you cut off both arms,' and I would have said 'OK, which surgeon?'"
And so Regine said yes - "I always say yes. And afterwards I say, 'oh my God…'" She has devised As It Is, which includes a 12-minute performance, repeated throughout the day, and involves singing (Bach's Christmas Oratorio), dance (Nigerian hip-hop), slow-motion ballet, a staged retreat into an on-stage coffin and Tibetan yoga, among other elements, culminating in a three-minute Dervish spin.
"I love talking about it," she says, with the emphasis very much on 'talking'. "I'll never be a perfect singer and dancer, that's not the issue. It mustn't look totally ridiculous but I'm not going to show my skill as the perfect dancer or whatever; it's the trying. There has to be humour."
She is right - there has to be humour. "The world has become so serious. It's shocking. Sexist jokes can be really funny," she says, "and if you can't laugh about it, it's your loss. I love filthy jokes, I don't know why… it ticks something."
Her costume is made of recycled plastic; "I have been gathering for years already all this rubbish and using it somehow. So I am wearing plastic bags that I have made into an overall. It's thick and transparent and I've studded it with tiny halogen lights. But in that I am naked, which has a significance in Buddhism, that we are all pure from the beginning."
Her practice of Buddhism began when she was an art student.
That said, the costume caused her some hesitation at first. "I went to rehearsal in England and my gallerist said 'OK, get into your costume now and I'll call everybody in', and I thought, 'gosh, no, I think I'm going to say I can't do this…' These were people that I knew, and I would be stark naked in my little see-through suit. Then I thought, 'that would be even more embarrassing because discussion will ensue, so I think I'd better do it'. So I got into my suit, and I went down, and I realised I didn't feel naked. I felt totally dressed. The fact that it's see-through kind of leaves your mind…" She laughs, and when I ask if she thinks we begin to care less about such things as we get older, laughs even more. "No. I have been dieting. I don't want to be blobby!"
The meaning of the show "is based on this illusion that there is any solidity in cultural concepts or language. A part of the whole project is going into quantum physics - everything is energy to begin with. If you go from there, then the concept of saying 'you can't do a Nigerian dance because it's cultural appropriation' becomes more and more bizarre."
As indeed does the idea of 'normal'. "When you move around and grow up in different countries, you see that there is no normal," Regine says. "Each society has its own ideas, own moral and social views and habits. Normal is created by our minds, and yet we get terribly hung up on it. It needs to be challenged."
The moving - Finland, Turkey, Syria and Germany (where Regine was born) - came about because her father was director of the Goethe Institute, and so moved his family around the world. After finishing a BA and MA in fine art in Helsinki and Hamburg, she moved to Ireland, to work with the Ballinskelligs Tapestry Workshop.
"It was the first job offer I got," she says. "That was in 1978. I was 27. I had a small child, and I thought, what now…?" From Ballinskelligs, she moved to Cahirciveen, where she still lives, and had a second daughter. "I found it very difficult to deal with grey and wet," she says, "but I wanted a stable base for my girls. I feel very at home with Cahirciveen people, they are very good to me and always have been. As you can imagine, a struggling artist with two children, it wasn't the financial highlight."
She is, rightly, proud to have brought up her two daughters largely alone, and quotes something which her father once said to her: "Earn your own money".
"That's very important for me. I think every human wants to know that they can fend for themselves." The father of her daughters "joined me [in Ireland] for a while, we separated soon after. I've been a solo flyer all my life." One daughter now lives in Cork and is finishing a degree in Fine Art, the other lives in Sydney and runs two galleries.
When it comes to relationships, Regine, who has a long-term partner, a Kerryman, says with a smile, "I'm basically in a relationship with life, and all living organisms. I wish humans would recognise all the close relationships we have rather than single out and compartmentalise."
She is very disarming, even overly modest, about her career: "I was so lucky. I think the art scene was smaller, I was very lucky that I got to know Pauline Bewick very early on, and there is no one more generous than her. She took me along everywhere, introduced me to everyone."
In 1999, Regine was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had a lumpectomy, followed by six months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She shows me the scar, a kind of hollow puckering of the skin that is discreet but not invisible; "you don't show cleavage any more", she shrugs.
The diagnosis, and her reaction to it, surprised her. "I was really surprised because I was very steeped in Buddhism - the whole philosophy that life is impermanent, it is constant change. I thought, if ever I got a bad diagnosis, I'd be totally at peace with myself. But when I did, it was such a shock. An incredible shock. It was as if someone there and then had pulled the rug from under my feet. I was stuck in this paralysis 'I'm going to die…'."
Shortly after the lumpectomy, she got a call to say there was still the possibility that she would have to come in for a mastectomy. "I was in bits," she recalls. "Pauline's late husband, Pat, such a charming man, he said 'you shouldn't worry about it. You have always been like an Amazon - think of the Amazons, they actually took one breast off so they could shoot better…' It was so lovely. He reinforced that idea of strength and warrior women."
Back then, "people didn't talk about having cancer. It was quite shameful, they talked about 'the big C' - all the whispering. But," she stresses, "most people were very good to me," adding, "You prefer the cheerful people to the ones who say 'ahhhhh…' with their head tilted on one side. Now, if a person approaches me like that, I say 'I'm fine, but how are you…?' Passive-aggressive, there's nothing like it!" she laughs.
The lifestyle advice Regine was given then was well-meaning but, to her, useless. "I was told 'maybe you should think of a healthy diet'. My diet couldn't get any healthier. 'Maybe you should take up yoga?' I'm a teacher. 'You could try meditating.' I've done that too… What have you got for me?," she asks rhetorically, "I do all that stuff already…"
Twenty years on, she goes for regular check-ups "but I really have to push myself because I don't want to think about it". And even now, she believes her energy is not what it was. "I had high, high energy - people say that about me still, but since my treatment I feel, to a degree, tired."
It is, perhaps, a slight disconnect in perception, one that surfaces elsewhere too: "The amount of things I actually do and achieve is pretty massive, but if you ask the nearest and dearest around me, they see me sort of as an airhead," she laughs. And yet, she points out, rightly, "Raising my daughters while being an artist in Cahirciveen doesn't gel with being an utter airhead…" It certainly does not.
Regine Bartsch 'As It Is' runs from 10am-6pm on May 27, as part of 'Alive In The Universe' at the 58th Venice Biennale. www.aliveintheuniverse.com www.regine.bartsch.ie
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