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Issue 204

The Body Electric - The Necessary Effrontery of Miriam Cahn

Writer Jörg Scheller considers her practice in light of contemporary political debates and artist Juliette Blightman delves into Cahn’s recently published texts

BY Jörg Scheller AND Juliette Blightman in Features , Thematic Essays | 02 JUN 19

The Body Electric – by Jörg Scheller 

I visited Miriam Cahn’s retrospective ‘Ich als Mensch’ (I as Human) at the Kunstmuseum Bern together with an older relative. As I pushed her wheelchair towards the ticket office, I noticed a trigger warning next to the cash till: ‘This exhibition could hurt your feelings.’ Never mind, we’ll give it a try, I thought, knowing that my relative, who was born two years after Cahn, in 1951, grew up with the ’68 generation. Despite not having actively participated in the student protests, living a rather bourgeois life and having a more or less conservative taste in the arts, my relative shares many of the progressivist – particularly feminist – values of that time. And, after all, Cahn’s art is well established; it has been exhibited in Switzerland and abroad for decades without caveats.

As we went through Cahn’s exhibition, my relative became increasingly annoyed. ‘What’s all this?’ she asked, as we stood in a cabinet filled with some of Cahn’s recent colourful paintings (2014–18), each executed over a brief period of days: rough or violent sex scenes in thin, radiant layers of oil paint portray bodies wedged together, some smiling, others suffering. A rape scene, in which a man and a woman hold down a veiled woman, probably points to the atrocities of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (untitled, 2016). Another veiled woman, exposing her vulva and her breasts, alludes to and transforms Gustave Courbet’s infamous L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World, 1866) (le milieu du monde schaut zurück, the middle of the world looks back, 2017). A black man – or is it a woman? – gives oral sex to a white man (weiss fickt schwarz, white fucks black, 2018). In another work, a man presents his erect penis (schauen, looking, 2018). ‘Can’t we go see something beautiful?’ my relative asked. ‘Does this hurt your feelings?’ I asked back. She looked at me in surprise. ‘No, of course not. I’m not hurt. I just want to see something beautiful.’

Miriam Cahn, le milieu du monde schaut zurück, 18.12.2017 (the middle of the world looks back, 18.12.2017), 2017, scan, coloured pencil, 26 × 19 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Meyer Riegger, Berlin/Kalsruhe 

The warning in front of Cahn’s exhibition, the show itself and my relative’s reaction give a perfect example of a development in art over recent years. When Cahn started out as a second-wave feminist artist in the late 1970s in Switzerland, much art, feminist art included, was, in fact, all about hurting feelings. Full nudity, body fluids, self-exposure and performances such as Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975) or Marina Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974) were not ends in themselves. Art was supposed to cause discomfort among men as well as women in order to challenge norms of how women were expected to think, dream, feel, behave, dress and act in public.

Today, the globalized art system – and not only the art system – tends to move in the opposite direction. Rather than embracing discomfort, it treats heterogeneous audiences as customers whose satisfaction is paramount. Shock is avoided and unexpected encounters are made difficult through pre-emptive communicative or educative efforts. At the same time, paradoxically, the art system is protective of the progress achieved in the modern and postmodern era. Yet, it is impossible to halt progress. Static progress has a name: conservatism. Moreover, the warning in Cahn’s show turned out to be misleading. My relative was not hurt. A woman who refuses to be infantilized, she simply did not like what she saw.

Cahn’s retrospectives this year come at the right time. Hers is an in-your-face, take-no-prisoners oeuvre, not an aesthetic-didactic embassy. Cahn’s approach is bold, direct and uncompromising. Viewed against the backdrop of current debates about group identity and gender politics, language regimes and culture wars, the Swiss artist gives testimony to a feminist art that cares less about the ‘ism’, or conceptual purity, and more about personal freedom. This is the classical liberal, and genuinely Swiss, side of Cahn’s stance: for her, social justice and personal freedom are not alternatives but two sides of the same coin. ‘I am a feminist concerned with justice,’ Cahn stated recently in an artist talk at Kunsthaus Bregenz, where, parallel to the Bern exhibition, another large retrospective is on display. The artist, who supports the #MeToo campaign, disagrees with those who argue that the immoral behaviour of artists automatically devalues their work: ‘For me, Harvey Weinstein being a bastard does not make him a bad producer.’ In the catalogue for her 2016 exhibition at Kunsthalle zu Kiel, she states that, given the choice of whether to side with l’art pour l’art (art for art) or what she calls ‘the art of concern’, she would opt for the former. When asked by a visitor at Kunsthaus Bregenz whether she had hope in #MeToo, she replied: ‘I don’t have hope. I simply work.’ 

Miriam Cahn, Mare Nostrum, 2008 + 27.06.17 (Our Sea, 2008 + 27.06.17), 2008/17, oil on canvas, 1.9 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris, and Meyer Riegger, Berlin/Kalsruhe; photograph: Markus Tretter 

‘Ich als Mensch’ is the largest exhibition ever held at Kunstmuseum Bern for a contemporary artist. Spanning two floors, the show includes around 150 works from the 1980s through to the present day, mainly paintings and drawings in various dimensions, a few small-scale computer printouts, some carved and hollowed-out pieces of a tree trunk and eight small flat-screen monitors showing videos of Cahn working on sculptures, among them a clay penis that she puts between her legs and rubs (Schlachtfeld/Alterswerk, Battlefield/Late Works, 2012). As in previous exhibitions, Cahn arranged and hung the works herself in a quick, spontaneous manner. There is no coherent chronological order and none of the exhibits is labelled with a title or a date. For those who know Cahn, this freewheeling, self-curatorial style will not be a discovery. But for those who are not yet familiar with her life and work, it allows for comprehensive access to its most important phases so far.

Under the high ceilings on the second floor of the late-19th-century building, Cahn presents her early, monumental, black and white chalk and charcoal drawings, executed on the studio floor in a quick and rough manner that she calls ‘performative’. The iconography engages deliberately with gender divisions: a monstrous warship or skyscrapers (weltstadt, world city, 1987) symbolize the traditional culture of ‘masculinity’, while a bed or a house (das blaue haus, the blue house, 2012) represent the ‘feminine’ sphere. The overpowering, gloomy drawings are juxtaposed with smaller colourful paintings and computer printouts as well as sketch- and notebooks in showcases. The experimental writing in the latter sheds some light on Cahn’s personal philosophy: ‘No keeping of cats but being a cat, living here and there, catlike.’

In 2016, Cahn moved to the Swiss village of Stampa, close to the Italian border. It is telling that she chose not to live in one of the art-world hotspots that intersect with centres of political, cultural and economic power. Stampa, formerly home to the Giacometti family of artists, is a tiny village of 600. Cahn lives and works in a modernist-brutalist, three-room studio house built specifically for her by a local architect. The brick-shaped concrete building is characterized by the typical dialectics of ‘Swissness’: ascetic and high-quality, simple and sophisticated, local and global. 

Miriam Cahn, schön! (pretty!), 2016, oil on canvas, 2.5 × 4 m. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Markus Tretter 

In the 1990s, Cahn began working in oil paint, which she had previously avoided, considering it a quintessentially masculine medium. These paintings – variously sized, brimming with strong, bright colours – fill the light-flooded rooms of the museum’s first floor. Cahn mainly focuses on nude individuals or groups of people in vast, empty, abstract spaces. Her painterly style seems to derive from children’s drawings, outsider art and cartoons, often leading characters into atmospheres of threat, uncanniness and discomfort. Women sink their hands into their vaginas; fists punch faces; shadowy human figures fall through a blue void (BLAU, BLUE, 2017). Refugees stray across a grid structure in no man’s land or flee from what seems to be an explosion (an der grenze, on the border, 2018). Occasionally, landscapes and animals mingle with humans. A small, inconspicuous drawing shows a geometric, gestural composition; on the second floor, a complementary large-scale work reveals that it depicts the outlines of an aircraft carrier.

Through the first-floor windows, visitors can observe people strolling along the banks of the Aaare river. On the steep hillslopes, there’s the botanic garden and the turn-of-the-century buildings of the Lorraine quarter, unharmed by the world wars of the 20th century. It’s an almost clichéd image of Switzerland. Just like her home country, Cahn has been spared by the immediate effects of the great geopolitical events that inspire her work – be it the recent migration and refugee crisis that she addresses in the painting series ‘Mare Nostrum’ (Our Sea, 2015–ongoing) or the impact of nuclear weapons that she reflects on in her famous ‘Atomic Bombs’ series (late 1980s to early ’90s), the sheer horror of which she portrays as alluring clouds of form and colour. These watercolour drawings are both typical and atypical of Cahn’s approach. At first glance, they look like innocent, even decorative, abstract works. Bouquets of gestural drippings and colour fields in varying shades of blue, yellow, pink, green, red. No genitals, no war machines. Closer inspection, however, reveals that these artworks are even more radical than her hard-hitting, figurative depictions of sex and violence. Cahn translates the unimaginable horrors of the nuclear bomb drop into alluring imagery, conflating the purportedly conflicting aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime. It is precisely through producing beautiful images that the artist suggests that beauty offers no escape from reality.

Miriam Cahn, hausbau, 02.03.2005 (housebuilding, 02.03.2005), 2005, oil on canvas, 1.4 × 2.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Meyer Riegger, Berlin/Karlsruhe; photograph: Serge Hasenböhler 

The longer we engage with Cahn’s art, the more it becomes obvious that her work from the 1990s onward is not compatible with today’s new waves of particularism which, once more, tie down human beings with the ropes of sex, skin colour, nation, culture, family and social status, instead of untying the corsets of identity and history. In this regard, the exhibition title is telling: ‘I as Human’ – ‘human’ comes first, notwithstanding the specifics of, for instance, violence perpetrated by men against women, which Cahn vigorously acknowledges and attacks. In fact, Cahn’s mentality is closer to the agenda of the 19th-century liberal John Stuart Mill, who was a trailblazer of women’s rights, than to today’s mixture of neoliberalism, identity politics and progressivism.

A focus on identity tends to de-politicize politics by confounding it with culture. Cahn, for her part, avoids this. Her paintings and drawings are genuine, some would say conventional, works of art. They point towards the political, they comment upon the political without being a means to a political end. As a citizen, however, Cahn has been actively involved in feminist activism, the peace movement and the anti-nuclear movement. This differentiation is crucial. In the late 1970s, around the same time that Cahn started her career as an independent artist, her fellow countryman, the Swiss poet and novelist Max Frisch, stated in texts and interviews that the task of the artist is to subvert the ideologies we all inevitably and unconsciously carry with us. Yet, this was not to be achieved by simply replacing them with new, purportedly ‘better’ ideologies. Artists should, instead, open up unforeseen poetic spaces. Putting works in the service of activism, even if it is noble and urgent, turns art into an instrument of power. In Frisch’s view, art is not a different kind of power but occupies a position contrary to power. This is a view to which Cahn would likely subscribe. 

A Charged Particle Moves Faster – by Juliette Blightman 

Cherenkov Radiation is caused when a charged particle moves faster than light would in a medium. The shorter the wavelength, the bluer the light appears. For her 1986 exhibition at Kunstmuseum Bonn, Miriam Cahn showed a violent body of work emulating the light caused by an atomic explosion. Everything is glowing – the figures, the buildings – all is surrounded with a nuclear film, a reactor glow. In her review of the exhibition, art historian Annelie Pohlen drew on Theodor Adorno’s dictum, from Cultural Criticism and Society (1949), that ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. For Pohlen, Cahn transformed Adorno’s statement, asking: ‘Is it still possible to make significant art in a world threatened by the nuclear bomb?’

Thirty-three years after Pohlen raised her question in relation to Cahn’s exhibition, I ask myself: is it still possible to make art when the coral reef is losing its colour, a garbage island has formed in the Pacific Ocean and we enter into climate emergency? Is it still possible to make art when the UK government cannot come to an agreement over leaving the European Union at an astronomical expense to Britain, not to mention the complete waste of everybody’s time?

miriam cahn

morsbergerstr, 52

4057 basle/CH                                                                           basle, 15 March 83

dear Heidrun Schimmel,

many thanks for your letter. i will not, however, be applying for this professional post. and i will give you my reasons – firstly the personal ones: neither do I wish to become a professor with a fixed position, nor are painting and graphic arts my medium. now to my reasoning concerning solidarity: it is clear to me that i would not get this post, or have only a very slight chance. that, however, would not be a reason not to apply. for me the reason is rather: is this post worth my solidarity?

your call for solidarity seems to me a little like the call for equal rights for women in the army – not so dire, of course, but similar. the impressions i have gained so far of german academies are so bad that the only remedy i see here is to shut down these things left over from the nineteenth century and to re-open them with an entirely new system adapted to suit today’s technology – and, of course with a teaching body based on gender parity [...] if i now apply for this professorial post out of wrongly conceived solidarity i am cementing the present structure more than performing a revolutionary act in solidarity: i am cementing

the idea that this institution of the academy is worth us women striving to become a professor in it – i am cementing the idea of men that such a position is so utterly ‘important’ that now even women apply for it. we should boycott it, just as we boycott the military.

[…] well i could write pages and pages on these problems, but i hope that you understand me – warm regards

your miriam cahn1

Is it barbaric to express our thoughts and opinions over a variety of different media that disappear into other people’s feeds or archives? Does anyone care? Will a million people peacefully marching through London protesting the people’s vote, asking for another people’s vote because now the people would know what they were actually voting for, make any difference at all? 

Or is it more successful to rage, to get arrested for locking yourself to a lorry on Westminster Bridge? 

Miriam Cahn, Mare Nostrum, 19.04 + 09.05.15 (Our Sea, 19.04 + 09.05.15), 2015, oil on canvas, 3 × 2.2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Meyer Riegger, Berlin/Kalsruhe 

Recently, Cahn published Writing in Rage, a 300-page book, in conjunction with the exhibitions happening over the course of this year and next at Kunstmuseum Bern, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Haus der Kunst, Munich, and Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw. The book is made up of Cahn’s own writing as well as letters between the artist and many different institutions, academies, friends and lovers since 1978.





wanted to be a woman

and and and

to live like a man

work like a man

serve nobody ever

never never never

want to become to be

a wife mother muse girlfriend female partner


never ever



became a woman artist

and first learn

then forget

the entire world as it presents itself2

I remember reading Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World (1932) in New York, on the roof of a friend’s apartment, whilst watching the steady stream of planes land at JFK – relevant aside – whilst pregnant. I couldn’t quite fathom that so many people flew through the air and landed every few minutes.

Towards the end of Brave New World, one character, John, is taking part in an orgy and, as a crowd gathers, starts to whip himself. When the protagonist Lenina arrives, he whips her too. The next morning, when John wakes, he is overwhelmed with guilt and shame and kills himself. The novel argues that it is better to seek truth, even if it involves suffering, than to accept an easy life of pleasure and happiness. When given the opportunity and freedom to seek truth, which involves self-sacrifice and suffering, John instead seeks pleasure in an orgy.

Significant events destabilize production on many levels, while raising questions as to whether we should continue in the same way, or shut down and start over. Cahn’s Writing in Rage tells her truth. Reading through the texts and correspondence, I discover the specific issues Cahn wasn’t trying to illustrate at the time but was dealing with anyway: by living through events, as a female artist making work, raging against the system, with the intelligence not to seek immediate gratification in an orgy.

1–2 Letter and poem by Miriam Cahn, included in Writing in Rage, 2019, Hatje Cantz, Berlin

Main image: Miriam Cahn, meredith grey (gestern im TV gesehen), 15.07.15 (meredith grey, seen on TV yesterday, 15.07.15), 2015, oil on wood, 28 × 26 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Jocelyn Wolff, Paris, and Meyer Riegger, Berlin Karlsruhe; photograph: Markus Tretter 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 204 with the headline ‘The Body Electric’

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist, musician and contributing editor of frieze. He is a professor of fine arts and art education at Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland.

Juliette Blightman is an artist based in Berlin.