Birgit Jürgenssen

Teresa Koester

Teresa Koester

The search for a female identity

in: Schirnmag. 31. March

There are many layers to the highly ironic oeuvre of Austrian artist Birgit Jürgenssen, who, throughout her life, inves­tigated women's roles.  (ph16)

On Birgit Jürgenssen’s back the words come together to form the kind of catchy, ambiguous sentence that is all too typical of this Austrian artist’s oeuvre: Every­body has both their own way of looking at things and their own way of looking. And even these do not just arise of their own voli­tion, not without outside inter­ven­tion of any kind.

We are by defi­n­i­tion people who can think for them­selves – and this is at the heart not only of her 1975 photo­graph but also of the way that, as an artist, she spent her entire life ques­tio­ning things, over and over again. Yet never­the­less, society and our educa­tion always play a major part in shaping the way we think, we are and we look. As part of the femi­nist art move­ment, with her multi­media oeuvre, Jürgenssen grap­pled with this conun­drum. Simi­larly to Cindy Sherman, a kindred spirit of hers, (albeit someone who became dispro­por­tion­ately famous with work in a similar vein) partic­u­larly in her photo­graphic oeuvre Jürgenssen is usually both artist and model, both active and passive. 

Female stereotypes 

From the very outset, Jürgenssen (born in Vienna in 1949, the second child in a doctor’s family) worked in different media. Subtle, because it is multi-layered and ironic, her exten­sive oeuvre is fasci­nating, including, as it does, not only photog­raphy, but also draw­ings, sculp­tures, objects made of different mate­rials, collages, water­co­lors, work on canvas and prints. However, more than anyt­hing else, it is with her photographs that Jürgenssen made her most enduring artistic state­ments, state­ments that have remained rele­vant beyond her own death in 2003.

In her photographs, by assuming roles and disgu­ising herself Jürgenssen exag­ger­ated female stereo­types to such an extent that these spon­ta­neously reveal them­selves as just that. The house­wife, the woman as a wife and mother or, reduced to a thing of beauty and/or her phys­ical attrib­utes – all these are constructs created by a society with which Jürgenssen and other artists who formed part of the move­ment known as the femi­nist avant-garde took issue in the mood preva­lent in Germany in 1968: by alig­ning them­selves with the subse­quent women’s move­ment. 

The boundaries of social percep­tion 

The femi­nist avant-garde appro­pri­ated such roles and decon­­structed them, commenting on them in a mood that ranged from humorous to ironic, until the most impor­tant thing that remained was the ques­tion of iden­tity forma­tion. And for all their differ­ences, the main thing shared by all these artists is the way that they have inves­ti­gated human iden­tity, prin­ci­pally female iden­tity. They explored the bound­aries of social percep­tion and patterns of thought in order to discover how firmly anchored cultural constructs actu­ally are in every­body’s minds – for example, to what extent do shapes and stereo­types asso­ci­ated with women need to be abstracted until they are no longer recog­niz­able as such?

Works such as “Ohne Titel (Selbst mit Fell­chen)” dating from 1974, for example, focus on the corre­la­tion between women and animals as evidenced both in art and in myths; later work such as the series “Zebra” and Jürgenssen’s color photographs in a concave mirror (“Ohne Titel”, 1979-80) decon­­struct iden­tity to an even greater extent, dissi­pate it, even. The fact that for centuries now woman has been an object of projec­tion for society’s imag­i­na­tion is partic­u­larly evident in her “Körper­pro­jek­tionen”, dating from 1987 and 1988. Both these photographs of body projec­tions and the distorted images, shadow images and bathtub images incre­as­ingly go beyond the repre­sen­ta­tional, starting to func­tion as a stim­ulus for the imag­i­na­tion in the true sense of the word. 

“Ich möchte hier raus!” – Let me out of here! 

Then, in other works, Jürgenssen explic­itly high­lights the percep­tion of women anchored in society, or rather that of their bodies as a surface and object of projec­tion in everyday life, when she liter­ally creates roles – broa­ching, in her work, not only the subject of clothes, shoes, makeup, mani­cure, all that women’s frip­pery, but also that of the mate­rial mani­fes­ta­tions of women’s work. However, this does not mean that the latter are accorded a higher status but that they are placed in a new context and rein­ter­preted. Jürgenssen becomes a diva, an angel, a house­wife – only, after assuming these roles, to demand their liqui­da­tion. The title of one of her most famous works dating from 1976 speaks for itself – “Ich möchte hier raus!” (Let me out of here!)

“Woman is so often the subject of art but only seldom and reluc­tantly is she allowed to speak for herself or to produce her own pictures. Just for once I would like the oppor­tu­nity to compare myself not only with my male colleagues but also with my female ones,” wrote Jürgenssen in a letter to the DuMont-Verlag in 1974, voicing a request for an anthology of female artists. The publishing company turned down her request. As it did a second one. All the more reason for Jürgenssen and other female artists of her day, both Austrians and inter­na­tional ones, to make use of art to create a plat­­form for their concerns.