This essay originally appeared in the the second volume of Anglo-German arts journal Verfreundungseffekt published in January 2015.
When you are young you think of being an activist, a political activist. This raises the question of whether you really want to do something for other people or to demonstrate a kind of self-admiration. When I started to work on Brigitte Bardot that whole discussion came back because she is such a controversial figure—and she recalls Mother Courage. [i]
The drawing is not so much startling as it is strange and unexpected. In fact, the longer one looks at it, the more eerie it becomes. The features of a man and a woman merge: plump lips meet spindly spectacles and gently tousled hair sprouts from behind large ears. A second drawing pairs kohl-lined eyes and a gap-toothed pout with thinning hair and a drab suit jacket and shirt. These hybrid images present the bizarre amalgamation of Bertolt Brecht and Brigitte Bardot: two vastly dissimilar cultural icons whose similarities seemingly stop at the mere shared status of their initials: B.B.
These drawings are among a number of works by the Cologne-based artist Rosemarie Trockel that feature the absurd collision of these two prominent public figures. Many of these pieces play on the significance of their mutual initials, bringing about an incongruous union between the two B.Bs. For example, a grainy book draft depicts a bouffant-haired Bardot, toting a gun with the caption, ‘B.B/B.B. Mother Courage’ overhead; thereby uniting Bardot with Brecht’s most famous work, Mother Courage and her Children (1939).
Trockel’s dual interest in the Hollywood starlet and the German Marxist playwright and poet exemplifies her commitment to making art based on multiple contradictions. One such work, a short film, Manu’s Spleen IV (2002) makes both direct and indirect reference to Brecht and Bardot. Trockel’s film restages Brecht’s Mother Courage, modelling the production on a 1949 performance of the play by the playwright’s Berliner Ensemble. Dressed in a white shift dress and 1960s patent boots, Manu Burghart, an art director and illustrator who lives and works in Cologne, assumes the title role. While her sons, in peachy-flesh body suits, pull her cart onto the stage, a close-up reveals two Bardot look-a-likes, or wannabes, with blonde beehives and inky-lined eyes singing along to music. Among this motley crowd of characters, a chainmail-clad Joan of Arc as Courage’s daughter Kattrin tunes a radio as a funereal Jackie Kennedy polishes a canon.
By re-imagining Mother Courage in terms of this absurd collage of characters and peculiar activities, Trockel is challenging the way in which we consume and understand the world. In particular, the predominance of female figures in this film suggests a certain interrogation by Trockel into the archetypal identities adopted by women.Throughout her career, Trockel has quietly questioned the legitimacy of expected female roles; specifically, the sacred triad of female identities – the Mother, the Virgin, the Whore – has come under significant pressure from the artist. In her characteristic enigmatic style, Trockel problematises the so-called ‘universality’ of these identities, instead reconfiguring them into complex concepts that resist simple definition or pigeonholing.
Against a soundtrack featuring some of the 20th century’s greatest hits, both musically and otherwise, including Bardot singing ‘Contact’ and Brecht claiming to have never been a member of any communist party, Trockel’s weirdly oneiric and disjointed scene unfolds. As with the bulk of her work, we cannot say what Trockel’s intention is, but the use of diverse female figures suggests a determined refusal on the artist’s part to depict the expected or the conventional. While dramatising aspects from Brecht’s original play, Manu’s Spleen IV offers an exploration into the dynamic multiplicities of womanhood, particularly the identity of ‘Mother’, and in doing so, dismisses the authority and legitimacy of the norm.
Similarly, in a second short film, Manu’s Spleen III, Trockel presents footage of a glamorous birthday party. This time Manu plays the role of a pregnant woman. In a loop, we witness the mother-to-be ‘pop’ her pregnant bump repeatedly. Amid the laughter, innocuous music and Champagne, the bursting of her swelling belly with a needle is both completely compelling and deeply disturbing. A balloon protruding from her stylish dress this may be, but somehow, that does not quite negate the comic-grotesqueness of that initial pinprick. In one quick and painless motion, met with whoops and laughter from the crowd, the expected identity of the mother is once again irrevocably shattered, if not ridiculed.
In light of this, Bardot comes to represent another archetypal identity, one in which she helped formulate in the mid-20th century: the sexually liberated woman. Known for her unkempt pile of blonde hair, bee-stung lips and as the ultimate ‘sex kitten’ wrapped in a bed sheet in And God Created Woman (1956), Bardot is an icon in modern female sexuality and liberation, even celebrated in Simone de Beauvoir’s 1959 essay ‘The Lolita Syndrome’. Of course, in later years, Bardot would become notorious for her controversial beliefs, transforming from being, what de Beauvoir calls, a ‘locomotive of women’s history’, to a highly contentious public figure ill-known for spouting racist and homophobic views. Thus, Bardot is a figure riddled in contradiction herself. Her public identity has been dramatically undone and altered throughout her lifetime: her liberated, anti-bourgeois bombshell persona marred and disrupted by her own doing.
Returning to the hybrid drawing of the two B.Bs, Trockel’s image presents a troubling duality. While Brecht is the epitome of the politically-engaged artist, Bardot is, in her own controversial way, a politically-engaged figure. As such, are Brecht and Bardot not as unlike as they initially appeared after all?
On occasion, Trockel’s work has been associated with a Brechtian distancing effect whereby her work thwarts passive abandonment before an artwork, provoking, much like Brecht, a sort of active, politically-charged thinking in the mind of the viewer. As a divisive figure within public memory, Bardot provides perfect material for the artist in this sense. For better or for worse, Bardot exemplifies the shifting and multifarious nature of identity so central to Trockel’s work. Untitled (1993), a Beuysian vitrine filled with Bardot ephemera and fandom, is just one piece that embraces Bardot’s unsettling contradictions. In displaying random commemorative souvenirs and newspaper clips from Bardot’s career, the vitrine celebrates Bardot but with complete and exacting knowledge of the discomfort her veneration incites in the viewer. Among this Bardot bric-a-brac, the B.B/B.B Mother Courage book draft can be found.
In short, the precarious intermingling of Brecht and Bardot pivots on the problematic issue of political engagement. For Trockel, Bardot resembles Mother Courage: she is both determined in her animal rights activism as she is opportunistic in her racism – recalling Mother Courage’s equally conflicted political involvement. As Trockel says: ‘While Brecht, in order to educate, points out the infamy of it all, Bardot simply is infamous’.[ii]
[i] Rosemarie Trockel, in Cooke ‘Introduction’, Dia Art Foundation http://www.diaart.org/exhibitions/introduction/25.
[ii] Rosemarie Trockel, Goetz Collection, Munich, 2002, p. 23.