Birgit Jürgenssen

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

The Fine Art of Feminism. In memoriam Marcia Tucker, 1949 - 2006.

In: Gabriele Schor (ed.): Exh. cat. HELD TOGETHER WITH WATER. Kunst aus der Sammlung Verbund (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2007), pp. 32-45.

Which brings me to the work of Birgit Jürgenssen.1 

I begin my discussion of certain of the Verbund artists with her, because I was entirely igno­rant of her work until invited to cont­ribute to this cata­logue. The question as to why I did not know of her work is worth my (rhetorical) asking. While one can assume that Jürgenssen, a professor of art at the Vienna Academy, an active and productive artist, an intel­lectual and a cosmopolitan, was highly aware of all the contem­porary production from the art world metropolises in Western Europe, U.K., and the Americas, the opposite was not the case. One of her works - I met a stranger (1996) was a collabo­ration with Lawrence Weiner, and I assume that Jürgenssen was interested in the work of other American Conceptual artists. Here too, the reverse is not the case. Such are the determi­ning conditions of being situated either in the artistic center or periphery.2 Because Jürgenssen's work was only shown briefly and episodically outside the German-speaking world, and because the New York art world of the seventies and eighties was far less "global" than today, it is an open question as to how many other women artists await rediscovery. Because of the circumstances, my knowledge of Jürgenssen's work is based itself on photographic reproduction, although her artists' books are made to be seen in that form. 

Here is a work from the Verbund collection consisting of four photomat-type photographs by Jürgenssen (Ohne Titel (Selbstporträt)  (ph670), 1973/2006). They are of her, relatively straightforward, frontal, pres­umably taken one after one in a delibe­rate sequence. Her coiffure is variable; the spit curl sported in the top second picture, a flirtatious cedilla, appears in the third as well, but to different effect. Within each frame there are subtle - and not so subtle - vari­ations. The face presented to the viewer in the first bears an alert, interested, almost amused expression, head slightly cocked in coun­terpoint to the elbow. To the right and adjacent to this image, however, is the same young woman, slim, attractive - perhaps a bit austere, given her somber clot­hing. Below and on the left, the woman in the third photo seems haggard but also grimly resolute. The rouged cheekbones, evident in all four pictures, are them­selves rich in meaning; commedia dell 'arte, high fashion make-up, masquerade, kewpie-doll faces, anorexia - all have their own associations. A change of hair­style, even a minor one, prompts a different reading of the woman, here sparked, in the fourth picture, by a feathery row of bangs (style ingénue). Four pictures, four women, four images, four stories; as with any photographic encounter the spectator interprets the nature of the "real" woman represented in the photo in relation not merely to what is "in" the picture, but to his or her own circumstances, psychology, expe­ri­ences, and the context in which it is seen. But presented with the multi­p­licity of "portraits" where will we find the "true," the correct, the theo­logical representation? That this is more or less the same tactic as that employed by Sherman in the film stills she began to produce in Buffalo, New York a few years later is appa­rent immedi­ately. Such stagings of the artist were in fact wides­pread in the period, and can be seen in photographic work by Suzy Lake, Sanja Ivecović, Friedl Kubelka, Valie Export, and many others. Moreover, this interrogation of notions of femi­nine iden­tity seems far more prevalent than its putative bad other; the affirmation of an essential femi­nine.

Judith Williamson's bril­liant discussion of Sherman's film still pictures of 1978-84 are no less apt a description of Jürgenssen's.3 My point here is not to argue for the precedence of Jürgenssen or to estab­lish her as a "precursor" to Sherman, but to remark on the spon­ta­neous appe­arance of certain procedures, working methods as well as shared thematics. These provide an interesting coun­terpoint to the current vogue for "pumped up" non-portraiture that has been so well received in the U.S. 4 In any case, a partial list of women artists who photographed them­selves for their own artworks (with or without auxillary staging, costumes, or other trans­formatory elements) would include Eleanor Antin, Linda Benglis, Valie Export, Lynn Hersch­mann Leeson, Sanja Iveković, Friedl Kubelka, Suzy Lake, Ana Mendieta, Katharina Siever­ding, Hannah Wilke, and Fran­cesca Woodman and this is apart from the numbers of women artists appearing in their own films, videos and performance practices. 5

Clothes, Shoes, and Make-Up

It seems that one of Jürgenssen's most well-known works exhibited in her lifetime was a chair-size chair in the form of a high heeled shoe. I have not seen this other than in a book reproduction, but fort­un­ately, there exists a lite­r­ally sensational artists' book/cata­logue of Jürgenssen's Schuh­werk. 6 In this beautiful book, covered with a lipstick-red suede mate­rial, the tactile surface, like the color, announces its fetishistic appeal. In Schuhwork: Subversive Aspects of "Femi­nism", are found Jürgenssen's dazzling vari­ations on the theme of the shoe. In the form of sculpture, drawing, photography, collage, and other media, Jürgenssen's shoes are made to enact the rituals of domi­nation and subord­i­nation (see Unter dem Pantoffel(z418), Schuh­maske(z406)), but are also mobilized for conte­station (see Gret­chen von Faust (ph1541)). As it happens, in San Diego, more or less at the same time, Martha Rosler produced a text/photo installation work using shoes enti­tled She Sees Herself a New Woman Every Day. And in many of Hannah Wilke's photographs of herself, she wears nothing but high heeled shoes. All of which is to indicate, that begin­ning with Meret Oppen­heim's trussed high-heeled shoes on their platter (Ma gouvernante, 1936), women artists have recognized that there is much to be mined in footwear. But unlike the laboring shoes of Vincent, or the Pop shoes of Andy Warhol, Jürgenssen's are alternately horrific (Reli­kte­schuh (s1), with its bloody footprint, crab claw, teeth, and sinew); uncanny and distur­bing (for example, Zun­genleck­schuh (s16), 1974), or imaginatively bizarre (and funny), as in Netter Raubvogel­schuh (s9) (1974/5). Drawings that are included likewise range from the bril­li­antly diabolic to the nightma­rish incar­nations ofDomi­nion in the Everyday (this is the title of a videotape by Martha Rosler, 1978). 

What seems evident in Jürgenssen's work, as it is with many of her peers, is its engagement with the trivial and the debased, its tireless and inventive elabo­rations on the patriarchal if not misogynist imagin­aire. If women have been associated with the animality, why not re-present this particular cultural fantasy with all the seriousness it deserves? (See Jürgenssen's Ohne Titel (Selbst mit Fell­chen) (ph679) ,1977/78) where her face is masked with that of a [dead] fox? The foxy lady, but also lady inside fox, long a myth in Nort­hern Europe and doubtless elsewhere. 7 If women have been thought to be captive of their own narcissism and captivated by their "own" image, why not work with mirrors, with one's self image, with one's "looks", with one's makeup, diet, and, of course, one's femi­nine love of clot­hing and fashio­nable display (see Cindy Sherman's pictures for Dorothée Bis). These were working methods as common in the Los Angeles Women's House as in London or Vienna. The rituals of femi­nine main­tenance, from crucifying manicures (see Alexis Hunter, Valie Export's excruciating video) to making-up (Antin, Wilke), to marking the body with writing or image (see Valie Export's tattooed garter, Body Sign Action), 8 to the ultimate art of making-up - the work in progress that is Orlan). Such art practices based on rever­sals of hier­ar­chical binaries might be characterized as the initial decon­structive move of femi­nist practice. So too the artwork dealing with the main­tenance of daily life, including urban sani­tation (see Mierle Laderman Ukeles), although again, this moves us to another medium. Clothes, shoes, make-up, manicures, all the frippe­ries of femi­ninity or the mate­rial activities of women's labor are not in these works re-valorized but repositioned, re-signified. Because femi­ninity-as-image (as ideal, mystique, refuge, object of knowledge and inves­tigation) is itself a fetish, if not the fetish, it is chime­rical, multiple in forms, hydra-or medusa-headed. Like the women in Freud's audi­ence to whom Freud redirected his question about the enigma of femi­ninity, "you are yourselves the problem," the woman artist working with the imagery of an always-already fetishized femi­ninity occupies a position both inside and outside the psychosexual and cultural staging of fetishism. In this respect, it is possibly of some relevance to note that certain of those artists who most directly used them­selves and their bodies to explore the imbrication of fetishism with femi­ninity - Benglis, Jürgenssen, Mendieta, Wilke, Woodman - were all them­selves quite beautiful women and thus lived their femi­ninity in a particular way. Alternatively, certain work where the artist used herself as a model, as a physical medium as did Cindy Sherman, Eleanor Antin, and Lynne Hershman Leeson, the woman artist as individual face or body is vacated, withdrawn, and replaced by her own inventions and personae. 9 "Roberta Breitman," Leeson's alter ego, or "Eleanora Antinova," Antin's eponymous black ballerina from the Ballets Russes, are as real or unreal as femi­ninity itself. 10 In France, Sophie Calle was indepen­dently orchestrating - directing - herself in her daily life as an artist in relation to her own invention. The speculative presence or absence of the artistic subject within either image or photograph or performance, and in work such as this, echoes the parallel question as to whether there exists an authentic and autonomous iden­tity "behind" the representation. 

In the theater of fetishism, one of the most ubiquitous props is the stiletto high-heeled shoe, although this is only one possible template from which to articulate the fetishism of feet and shoes. The three-inch lotus foot, the ideal form of the Chinese woman's bound foot, is perhaps the ne plus ultra of this formation, but the logic of the fetish is the same in both cases. 11 Doubtless this recognition is what prompted Oppen­heim to make La gouvernante just as it prompted other forms in these other instances. 

Exploring the fetishism of the erotic and the eroticism? of the fetish, Jürgenssen's own shoe work is as ingenious as it is unsettling. In keeping with the magical qualities of the fetish, these are embodied, incar­nated, in a commodity form (the shoe as shoe). Jürgenssen's Relikte­schuh (s1), resting on its white satin pillow, remind us that the ballerina's silken slipper, like the bound foot lodged in its gorgeous slipper, deny the mutilation and the wounds, and the blood that are their cost. It is thus an example of the work of artistic de-subli­mation, and unveiling the fetish is therefore one of the preoccupations informing work as nomi­nally disparate as that of Annette Messager (Mes vœux), Hannah Wilke, and Linda Benglis (Unti­tled, 1974, first published in Artforum); as disparate as that of Fran­cesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman. One might go further and see even in such work as that of Doris Salcedo (Los Atabillos - the shoe reli­quary work) a related preoccupation with fetishism, both as a form of longing and loss, a reli­giously or ritua­listically invested object, an uncanny memorial to some­t­hing missing or disappeared.
The shoe fits, as it were; it served these artists well as a mate­rial, it served equally well as an emblem of femi­nine sacrifice pain and redemption (e.g. the stories of Cinderella and Hans Christian Andersen's little mermaid). The shoe is both utili­tarian and quasi-mystical, it can be appended to the Bataillean notion of ba­sesse or elevated to aesthetic heights. It can function quite lite­r­ally as the most precious and revered of objects, but it may be also highly tabooed; for example, the hand-embroidered slip­pers that women in China made for their lotus feet. That it was women who bound the feet of their daugh­ters and granddaugh­ters and that it was women too who fabricated and embroidered their own exquisite shoes is suggestive in several ways. It reminds us that patriarchy is not some­t­hing imposed by outside forces but some­t­hing internalized by all its subjects. The shoe may also be an icon, and that in two or three dimensions, and it can easily be, as we have seen, a sculpture. It is, as well a ready-made, an already-made, an already-made, ready-made fetish. In this respect, it is the achievement of Jürgenssen's Schuhwerk (and its accompanying drawings and graphics) to have invented yet another unimagined form, one that operates to unmask, to de-subli­mate, to de-fetishize the fetish itself. 


1) See also Edith Futscher´s essay "Clow­ning Instead of Masquer­a­ding: Birgit Jürgenssen´s Photographs of the Nineteen-Seventies," in this publication pp.106-125.
2) Irit Rogoff has many interesting things to say about the geographies of the art world. See Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography´s Visual Culture (London, 2000)
3) When I rummage through my wardrobe in the morning I am not merely faced with a choice of what to wear. I am faced with a choice of images ...; This seems to me exactly what Cindy Sherman does in her series Un­ti­tled Film Stills photographs. To present all these surfaces at once is such a superb way of flashing the images of 'Woman' back   where they belong, in the recognition of the beholder." Judith Williamson, "A Piece of Action: Images of 'Woman' in the photography of Cindy Sherman," in Cindy Sherman, ed. Johanna Burton (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 39-52, here p. 29.
4) I refer to the very large color photographic portraits by Thomas Ruff and others.
5) This division between performance work and photography, especi­ally what might be called performative photographic practice, tends to obscure many shared themes, topics, and preoccupation between the different mediums and forms.
6) Birgit Jürgenssen, Schuh­werk. Subversive Aspects of »Femi­nism«, exh. cat. MAK, Vienna 2004.
7) A modernistic version of this folk tale is David Garrett, Lady into Fox (London, 1922).
8)  For two excel­lent discussions of this work see Regis Michel, "I am a Woman/ Je suis une femme," in VALIE EXPORT, exh. cat. Sammlung ESSL Kunst der Gegenwart, Klost­erneuburg/Vienna (Vienna 2005) and Mecht­hild Fend, "Zeichen in der Ober­fläche: VALIE EXPORTS Body Sign Action," Psychoanalyse im Wider­spruch, vol 15, no. 29 (2003), pp. 51-59. See also the exhibition cata­logue VALIE EXPORT: Mediale Anagramme, Neuer Berliner Kunst­verein (Berlin, 2003).
9) This is a central issue in performance work where the "presence" of the artist as individual subject and the "role" the artist in her performance are entwined but not reducible to one another. In other works is it the individual artist Yoko Ono who submits to having her clot­hing cut off her body in Cut Piece or does she become in the performance The Performer who stages the work of the Artist? For an excel­lent discussion of the complexity of subject position in performance practice see Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance (London and New York, 1997).
10) Antin´s imperso­nation, if that is the correct word, of a woman of color who is also a ballerina who is also an expatriate is one of the few works I am aware of besides Cindy Sherman in her Bus Riders ­se­ries to have dare to work in "black face". It was artists of color, for example Adrian Piper, Howardina Pindell, and Bettye Saar who directly engaged with race in their art. In the U.S., it was at least another ten year than in Europe for artist of color to be truly "visible" and many of the women of color who become prominent in the nineteen-eighties (i.e. Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Renée Cox, Renée Green, Lorraine O'Grady etc.) would be cons­idered "second-gene­ration" artists.
11) A bril­liant discussion of Chinese foot binding is Wang Ping, Aching for Beauty. Footbinding in China, Minneapolis 2000.