Birgit Jürgenssen

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

Birgit Jürgenssen, von Linien begrenzt, über Grenzen hinweg

In: Gabriele Schor, Abigail Solomon-Godeau (eds.). Birgit Jürgenssen. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2009.

 Even before it denotes anyt­hing else, the hand-drawn line, marked but unbounded on a cave wall or inscribed on a rectangular sheet of paper, has a bodily analogy. Perceived as crease, fold, wrinkle, split, crack, cleavage—it is, however, this last word, cleavage, that is suggestive. In Eng­lish, as a transitive verb, it signifies a splitting, even a violent one: “To part or divide by a cutting blow; to hew asunder; to split” (OED). TheGerman word Spal­tung, equivalent to the Ang­lophone splitting, suggests the force of this action; the term Spal­tung or Ichspal­tung was ­ad­apted by Sigmund Freud to desi­gnate certain unconscious processes, a division within the psyche.1 Conversely, in intransitive form, it signifies an adherence, a joining, a mutual—even fatal—union; “to stick fast or adhere;” “to cling or hold fast to” (OED). This doublemea­ning is especi­ally resonant when cons­idering many of the drawings made by Birgit Jürgenssen from the nineteen-seventies through the late nineties, especi­ally those that depict parts of the body or bodies in relation to one another. As a remarkably gifted draftswoman, as an academically trained artist who used drawing and other graphic media as a mode of thought and thematic deve­lopment, there are many reasons to cons­ider Jürgenssen’s graphic production in and of itself. Although the themes and motifs of her work circulate freely from one medium to another, it is in the graphic production that one can perhaps best identify her “working through” of individual projects, which are typically conceived seri­ally.Drawings shemade could be executed in themost rigorously “academic” of styles (for example, the colored-pencil drawings based on her own body from 1978, fig. 95) or could morph into crudely “primitivizing” forms (as for instance in the Mama series, 1984, fig. 116 and in Schnee vom vergan­genen Jahr [Last Year’s Snow], 1986, fig. 109). They encompass modes of drawing that resemble scientific or technical illus­tration, such as the exquisi­te “bo­tanical” studies of plants (Verwelkte Blümchen [Withered Little Flowers], 1974, or Linienblatt UNMUSIKALISCH [Lined Sheet UNMUSICAL], 1977, fig. 96), or the 1978 ­se­ries to which Stein Schere Papier [Stone Scis­sors Paper] and Tag/Nacht [Day/Night] both belong (figs. 94, 99). Other series within the graphic work are characterized by an extravagantly ex­pressionist visual syntax (for example, an almost abstract series of works from 1986); still others resemble children’s book illus­trations, popular caricature, even at least one meticulous pencil drawing that uncannily duplicates the look of an old photograph (i.e., Spitzenfrau [Lace Woman/GreatWoman] 1976, fig. 69). Experimental in her drawing procedures as in her other media, drawings range in size from the lapidary to the monumental. They are drawn on the surface of photograms, music sheets, handmade papers, notebook paper, pages from glossy women’s maga­zines, and so forth. Somet­imes the drawings appear to have been made as elements for the construction of specific projects in other media, such as those made into ­trans­pa­rencies subsequently projected onto her body, as in the Körper­pro­jektionen (Body ­Projections) of 1987/88. But in whatevermedia, they are gene­r­ally identifiable as vari­ations on a central theme, comprising as few as three or four works, somet­imes dozens, even more. As se­ries, they typically work and rework a set of motifs that appear and reappear at different times of her life and in hete­rogeneous media, both experimental and conventional.

In cons­idering Jürgenssen’s work in relation to this notion of cleavage, however, it is import­ant to note that her various deployments of line—the trait—have meanings that far exceed the ­formal. In terms of the double meaning of cleavage, the mark or line immedi­ately estab­lishes the boundary limit of the object that it desi­gnates, distingu­ishing it from its ground or field. Within academic theory and practice, however, and for several centuries, the drawn line was exp­licitly privileged over the brushstroke, a principle estab­lished as early as Leon Battis­ta Alberti’s De la Pittura Artistic trai­ning inmost art academies was predicated on drawing, well before the student was permitted to advance to painting. The basis of this concept was, like so many other aspects of cultural production, implicitly gendered.2 Specifically, line was cons­idered as the signifier of individuation (of objects, of the body in space). Line is immutable, argued the academicians, whereas colors are affected by light conditions and subjective percep­tion. “Line is the probity of art,” J.-A.D. Ingres insisted, echoing gene­rations of academic ­theorists. As academicians were well aware, lines exist neither in natural vision nor in nature, but that is why they were believed to represent a higher form of percep­tion and visual re­p­resentation.

Like so many others, the line/color binary was in fact hier­ar­chical, line being associated with (masculine) reason, color with femi­nine emotion. But more important in my context here, line estab­lished the boundaries of the self as body, like skin, estab­lishing its separation fromit­s surrounding environment. It functioned to affirm the body as bounded, separate, and selfcon­tained. Needless to say, the aesthetic ideo­logies of linearity have been critically inves­tigated, mostly but not only by femi­nist art historians.

That said, one of the striking features of Jürgenssen’s use of line is how it contra­dicts this enclosure/ separation of object and ground, as, for example, in drawings such as her 1978 Umgrenzungs­li­nien eines einsamen Knies (Boundary Lines of a Lonely Knee, fig. 97). That “boundary” figures in her title suggests her acknowledgement of the artistic discourses of linearity, but as the drawing, and others in this particular series, also implies, the privileging of line has a (psychically) defensive motivation. Outside its form-defi­ning boundary stron­gly emphasized with black pencil quivers a force field of other lines, a kind of linear “static” that is a recurrent element in others of this group. These fields imply both the body’s separation from its spatial environment but also suggest the imposition of pressures radiating outward or upon the bodily limits, thus estab­lishing the equivocal nature of the boundary itself. In Auf der Suche nach einer gemeinsamen Linie (Looking for a Common Line, fig. 98), a drawing or­ganized through doubling and splitting, a dense thicket of lines consumes the upper parts of the mirrored bodies. All of which is to say that even in her most academic drawing style, Jür­genssen does not merely reverse hier­ar­chies, but “undoes” them, rendering them ­problematic, unstable, self-contra­dictory.

Many of Jürgenssen’s drawings reflect her knowledge (and subversion) of academic traditi­ons of which the privileging of linearity is only one. In a colored-pencil drawing of 1974 (“Gemeinsames Joch tragen”) [Bearing the Yoke Together], fig. 105), she harnesses together two semi-bestial heads derived from Le Brun’s Conférence sur l’expression des passions. In a pencil work of the same year, she adapts a neoclas­sical architectural ornament, trans­forming its head into a human skull (Auch das ewig Rätselhafte kann seinen Reiz verlieren) (Even the Eternally Myste­rious Can Lose Its Attraction, fig. 106). In 1980, in colored pencil (2 Krieger [Sammlung Vastos]) (2 Warriors [Vastos Collection], fig. 107) she twins a sche­matic profile of a helmeted Greek warrior with that of a woman licking a scythe, a shape rhyming with the helmet. In other works, such as the 1974 Der Panzer der Augustina (Augustina’s Armor, fig. 12), she takes as her motif a cuirass of Roman armor, “femi­nizing” its martial symbolism not only in the title, but with the addition of breasts and an ornamentation of stereotypic vignettes of female oppression. At the pelvis, she pointedly includes a stock­inged and corseted female figure, appar­ently doff­ing her hat. In 1984 she embarked upon a series of works in oil on paper, taking as her subject the rape of Europa (Europa, 1984, fig. 108). These clas­sical, or neoclas­sical, iconographies should be under­stood not merely as allusions or reference to academic procedures or to the subjects of history painting, but equally, as instances of their détournement, their rever­sals or trans­formations into an invented iconography oscillating between parody and nightmare.

Through text and image, using photography, drawing, painting, printing, collage, objectmaking, video, and performance, Jürgenssen pursued her artistic and critical project with unflagging energy and determi­nation. With specific reference to her enormous output of graphic work, her hete­rogeneity of styles makes it impossible to categorize outside of chrono­logical and/or thematic groupings. Indeed, her virtuosity as a graphic artist was such as to suggest that at a certain period, in the mid–nineteen-eighties, she sought to “unlearn” her remarkable skills, as though she cons­idered her proficiency and skill as a limi­tation, a barrier to alternate modes of expression that mili­tated against the meanings she sought to convey. 

As with Umgrenzungs­li­nien eines einsamen Knies (1978) where lines radiate from or exert ­pressure upon the stressed outline, there is throughout her graphic work a play of centripetal and centrifugal energies and forces, even as it is variously trans­formed formally. Especi­ally in those works that represent one or two bodies, there is often an alternation between violent sun­dering and suffocating compression of forms, cleavage in both senses of the word. Accordingly, certain graphic works imply the self-containment or isolation of the body (or bodies) others evoke melding or joining, couplings and fusions that are far from euphoric. In others, figures are cons­trained or immobilized, somet­imes by actual contraptions of restraint or impri­sonment. In one of her mixed-media works on paper from 1986, The lover wants the subjection of his object freely given (fig. 110), a sexually undefined figure (possibly two super­imposed), is bisected within an encompas­sing shield-like form, through which runs another line, dividing both halves within its contai­ning borders. Eight years earlier, in an entirely different illus­trative style, Jürgenssen depicted amale and female figure, encased in other ropes at head, waist, and feet (Ohne Titel, Unti­tled, 1978, fig. 111). Even their pedestals are roped together. This captive pair appears in an unti­tled drawing of 1975, three years earlier (fig. 112). There, they share the sheet of paper with another couple, barely clothed in ragged scraps of what seem to be letters. The woman looks at the man, while both are engulfed in a storm of black and gray pencil strokes, punctuated by small fusillades of red-orange. In an extra­ordi­nary ­se­ries of large-scale drawings, a heavily penciled pair of figures viewed fromabove and extended on a bed fuse ominously with each other (figs. 114, 115). In other series, generic male and female figures sprout fromeach others’ bodies, burden, entwine, devour, cons­train, efface one another’s bodies, meta­morphose into other shapes (figs. 113, 142–153). Division, in other words, has multiple meanings and articulations throughout Jürgenssen’s production: sexual division, psycho­logical division, division (or ambiguity) between inside and outside, inte­riority and exte­riority, all are variously suspended, transgressed, or otherwise put into question. In American speech, the word cleavage normally describes the division between a woman’s bre­asts, but cleavage can also describe the separating lines between toes, the buttocks, the join of thighs against each other, the folds of an arm bent at the elbow. Fragmented or cropped, parts of bodies can readily stand in for other parts, for the human body is a thoroughly semiotized entity. Cleavage can accordingly be read as a sign of sexual difference or function, more ambiguously, as an inde­termi­nate sign of bi-, omni- or uni-sexuality, fully available to the viewer’s projection. In visual representation, as in the psyche itself, the sexual is by no means limited to the genitals or even the conventional erotic sites of the body; its smal­lest fragment may function as a capacious field of investment, open to the viewer’s projection and fantasy.

With these possibilities in mind, cons­ider Jürgenssen’s Achselfält­chen (Armpit Wrinkle, 1978, fig. 93), another of her life drawings modeled on her own body. It depicts a quadrant of the ­torso, fromclavicle and shoulder, ending at the upper forearm. The vaginal-like slit at the join of arm to chest may be initi­ally read as the wrinkle produced as the flesh ages and slackens. But the fold appears pronounced or swollen, more volu­metric than the shadowed skin above the breast. This part of the torso, however, termi­nates before it becomes fully legible as a female breast, and is therefore not decisively rendered as femi­nine or female. Fostering the percep­tion of a labial crease is the longer penciled line emerging from the armpit deline­ating this division but extending too high on the chest, disconcertingly so. While still plausibly a fold in the chest tissue, it nonet­heless accentuates the effect of a swel­ling emerging below the otherwise ambiguously gendered shoulder and sternum. Its length further emphasizes this effect, sugge­sting the possibility of penetration into the body’s inte­rior, a little slit (American slang for a vagina). 

Such ambiguities of bodily surface, boundary, and form, frequent th­roughout Jürgenssen’s oeuvre, are often accompanied by visual and verbal puns, somet­imes in the works’ titles, somet­imes incorporated into the work. This recurring attraction to language and textuality, to the notion of work as text (and ­text as work), is an index of Jürgenssen’s love of language and li­terature but also a legacy of the influence of conceptualism. 

In this regard, her 1996 collabo­ration with LawrenceWeiner, I met a stranger, is not as improbable as it might initi­ally seem, given the programmatic disembodiment of his own art production. Indeed, there is some­t­hing of Jürgenssen’s distinctively dis­creet subversiv­eness in the choice of her body-based photographic images to alternate withWeiner’s texts. The rectangular cut-outs, like little windows, function to invoke the erotic voyeurism of the peep­show, an evident subtext of the ­project itself. Jürgenssen’s playful approach to figuration and language is important to bear in mind, for much in her oeuvre is distur­bing, violent, and occasio­nally, almost sadistic. This, how­ever, is not linked to her deployment of any one “style” or any particular media. On the contrary, her facility with all of them suggests that style was for her a kind of visual lexicon, a storeh­ouse from which she could pick and choose, depending on project, theme, or artistic intention. Such a workingme­thod exposes the rhetorical language of expressionism, its status as just another representational and stylistic convention within which an individual artistmight work. Jürgenssen’s appropri­ation of this most “masculine” of pain­terly or graphic procedures is another tactic of détournement, and is no more closely linked to her psychic or unconscious life than her most refined and technically proficient pencil work. Indeed, there is a distinctly analytic and critical element in those of her works that allude to primitivism and/or expressionist precedents associated with, for example, PaulGauguin and Pablo Picasso (Mama 6 and Ohne Titel [Unti­tled] of the same year, figs. 116, 117). This latter, with its unmist­akable allusion to Picasso’s studies for theDemoiselles d’Avignonmakes its deflationary (but mordant) gesture by trans­forming its ears into fetuses.

Overall, Jürgenssen’s artistic procedures collectively stymie the normative operations of lite­ral or figurative depiction, for, as Jacqueline Rose remarked in her important essay of 1986, “The fixing of language and the fixing of sexual iden­tity go hand in hand; they rely on each other and share the same forms of instability and risk.”

Which in turn suggests that the unfixing of language and iden­tity, an enterprise that characterizes so much contem­porary art by women, is a fundamental aspect of artmaking that seeks to resist the oppressive modalities of what, in the founding texts of modern femi­nism, was simply (or not so simply) under­stood as the ­structuring inequities and misogyny of patriarchal structures and the oppressive nature of the sex/gender system.

In keeping with the preoccupations of art made in the aftermath of the women’s movement, Jür­genssen’s work takes as one of its central motifs the image—both symbolic and lite­ral—of the female body. This image, however, as in the work of somany of Jürgenssen’s contem­poraries, is under­stood as highly charged, freighted, weighted, satu­rated with the sedimented ideo­logies of gender, over­de­termined both as fetish and as signifier of the carnal and the erotic. Like the female body itself, the image of femi­ninity is under­stood not as a given that pree­xists its representation, but as constructed in and through representation. In its various incar­nations as image, the female body therefore confronted Jürgenssen, as it did femi­nist theory in general, as a problem in and of representation itself. However—and here is where signifi­cant convergen­ces in femi­nist theories occur—re­p­resentation can be conceived as being always and already marked by the issue of sexual difference. This is one reason thatmany contem­porary artists have rejected rea­list or figural modes of representation altogether. Consistent with these formu­lations, and as Rose argues in the same essay, recognition of the determi­nations (and consequences) of sexual difference has had—and continues to have—profound implications for art production.

Jürgenssen’s art thus reveals striking parallel­swith theways thatmany varieties of femi­nist thought have sought to analyze, and potenti­ally reconfigure sexual difference in themany domains of its re­p­resentation. Jürgenssen was undoubtedly familiar with work produced in German, French, and English by philosophers, femi­nist theorists, aswell aswith psychoanalytic theories, semiotics, and critical theory. But Jürgenssen’s work reminds us that “theory” is not some­t­hing produced exclusively by philosophers or academics, and is not limited to the written word, but is also gene­ra­ted th­rough the work of artists. Indeed, the original occasion of Rose’s essay was an exhibition of artists and filmm­akers whose work was informed by both femi­nismand psychoanalysis: “One of the chief drives of an art which today addresses the presence of the sexual in representation,” she remarked, which seeks “to expose the fixed nature of sexual iden­tity as a fantasy also ope­rates in the same gesture, to trouble, break up, or rupture the visual field before our eyes.”

This “troubling” or “rupture” of the representational field, which Rose illus­trates with a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, is a recurring feature in Jürgenssen’s work. And like the subject of Leonardo’s drawing—an anatomical illus­tration of sexual coupling—it pivots ceaselessly on the female body as locus of de­sire and dread. But where Rose interprets the contra­dictions and ambivalen­ces in Leonardo’s drawing as a manife­st­ation of an unconsciously gene­rated symptom, Jür­genssen’s work is a highly conscious and conceptual enterprise. This is not to deny that herwork is also shaped by unconscious mechanisms (as is always the case in art ­production). Rather, the pervasive themes of femi­ninity, sexuality, gender, and subjectivity as problems of representation, are the chosen terrain of her art.

In her photographic work as well as her drawings, the body is recognizably hers. In this respect, Jür­genssen’s oeuvre in its entirety, across its different media, can be taken as a palimpsest that regis­ters her corporeal iden­tity (which includes her physical beauty), but that also marks her deve­lopment as an artist. More profoundly, the centrality of the body in the work regis­ters the cumu­lative artistic results of her critical inquiry into the spectacle of femi­ninity (and its myriad phantasms). As palimpsest, body or image might also be said to allude to the formation of subjectivity itself, the product of unconscious inscription and reinscription, of displa­cements and substi­tutions, just as the mortal body is progressively overlaid with the signs andmarks of its contin­gencies, its aging, its mortality. As palimpsests, these layers, like successive skins, register historical as well as artistic change, the ongoing processes of reflection, rethinking, reworking.

Often, Jürgenssen’s work is constructed lite­r­ally as a palimpsest, as strata of pencil, oilstick, paint, or other substances are super­impo­sed upon one another. In works such as her Körper­pro­jektionen of 1987/88, she employed slides made from her drawings or from appropri­ated images or objects. These were then projected upon the surfaces of her body, trans­formed into still photo- graphs, or into projections (figs. 119, 120, 122). In their mate­rial specificity, the Körper­pro­jektionen remind us that the body is a site—and of course, a “sight”—of projection, as well as the site of inscription, cultu­rally no less than psychically. In projections that figure vessels and vase forms—all objects of containment— Jür­genssen alludes to a long iconography of femi­ninity that imagines the body as a recep­tacle to be filled, just as the amphora, like violins and cellos, have been traditio­nally associated with an eroticized female anatomy. Cer­tain of the drawings produced contem­poraneously with the Körper­pro­jektionen (for example, Ohne Titel [Unti­tled], ca. 1986, fig. 118)make explicit this conventional analogy. But in the projections, the body becomes itself a kind of fantasia, variously distorted, dissolved, occulted. Formally and technically, it is demate­rialized so that flattened and abstracted, it functions prima­rily as a screen for projection, even as certain images make reference to particular kinds of inscriptions and fantasies. This dissolution of the body’s recognizable forms is also an important feature of the color photographs that comprise the Konkavspiegel of 1979/80 (Ohne Titel [Unti­tled], figs. 46, 47), the bathwater photos of 1980 (figs. 280–282), and the Ölbad (Oil Bath) series of the same year, 1995 (figs. 283, 284). Consistent with her rejection of the fixities of sexual and gendered iden­tity, one of the slides in the Körper­pro­jektionen, projected on her back, depicts the shadowed shape of a bespectacled man, whose parted legs produce a small vaginally shaped triangle (fig. 121).

Simi­larly, the works that present the female body as overlain or overwritten with texts, reveal that the body, notwi­th­standing its corpo­rality and its mate­rial substance, is itself ins­eparable from language, culture, and ideology. In works such as her Histoire naturelle / Naturge­schichte (Benjamin Péret), a black-andwhite photograph of 1979, these inscripti­ons­ are again physically staged and performed. Jürgenssen here enacts one of the central tenets of femi­nist theory, that is, that the body can itself be apprehended as a text in metaphorical and discursive terms: it is an entity that is written. In all two versions, Jürgenssen lies on her back, covered with a shroud-like white cloth upon which excerpts fromPéret’s text have been copied in black ink. In one, face hidden by Péret’s book, two ink bottles poised on her chest, the pen is placed suggestively the level of the sex, a recognizable synec- doche, or rather, its reversal, for the phallic author. In fact, “natural history” is a title that Jürgenssen used frequently. Its irony is self-evident, inasmuch as the claims tomas­tery and full knowledge informing those scientific discourses inaugurated in the Enligh­tenment and which still prevail) have been subject to ra­dical interrogation. As Jürgenssen was doubtless aware, the femi­nist critique of the putative neu­trality and objectivity of scientific discourse has exposed the historical nature of “objectivity” as well the patriarchal fantasies underpin­ning the chimera of totalizing knowledge. The skeletons of small animals she drew, somet­imes hybridized inventions, are possibly related to those femi­nist critiques of science (and scientism) in which knowledge is produced from what is dead, or even killed in the service of producing those knowledges.

Natural history, however, has yet another vector in Jürgenssen’s art, and this is her fascination with the living animal, expressed in her closely observed renditions of animal life (birds, rabbits, snakes,mice, beetles, etc.) and her refusal of the binary divisi­ons­ between the animal and the human. This too can be seen to have meanings informed by femi­nist critique, for the profound dualism of human/animal is analogous to other bi­naries such as those of mind/body, flesh/spirit, and no less vulne­rable to decon­structive parsing. More pointedly, the vene­ra­ble association of femi­ninity with animality is a motif that Jürgenssen explored through a range of media. Thus, the remarka­ble drawings of 1978 (fig. 34) are presaged in her 1974 photograph Selbst mit Fell­chen (Self with Little Fur, figs. 43, 44); the were­wolf drawings of 1975–79, and her evident fascination with the symbolic meanings of hair and fur (figs. 123, 124). These achieve their most distur­bing incar­nation in her emblematic use of the mouse as both symbol and metonym for the female sex organs, a motif to which I will re­turn.

The body and its parts, is almost always Jür­genssen’s own is not historically unprecedented; such a practice has a long, if infrequent, art-historical pedigree, although such depictions are rare before the twenti­eth century. Albrecht Dürer’s drawings of his naked body is one such precedent and clearly has little in common with the “public” persona and social iden­tity depicted in the typical artist’s self- portrait. This particular formof self-representation is an embodied self-representation, and as such, it figures the relations between inte­riority and exte­riority, between subjectivity and mortality, between seeing and being seen. Embodied self-representation stages the condition of inhab­iting a particular rather than generic body. This body has an objective external existence in the world of other bodies and objects, but its consciousness—the “I,” the “me,” the self,—is never entirely coincident with itsmortal substance or itsmate­rial state.

One neit­her simply inhabits one’s body nor is one identical to it. This recognition fueled women’s performance practice (and those of a fewmen) fromthe late sixties on, but is nevert­heless predicated on very different assumptions informing those of the Aktionists, such as Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, and others, who were, of course, well known to Viennese artists. But like Valie Export and other women performance artists contem­porary with Jürgenssen, their use of the body, and the meanings of their practice, could not be furt­her removed from the hysteria, self-dramatization and masochism endemic in Aktionismus. Moreover, like the appropri­ation of the rhetoric of Expressionism, the deployment of the naked body can be under­stood as an act of (self ) appropri­ation, taking the body as an instrument or medium. It thus functions neither to endorse a notion of the “real” or essential body, nor a bodily “truth” beneath a surface. More signifi­cantly, Jürgenssen’s artistic context in Vienna included knowledge of, and indeed friendships and collabo­rations with, women performance artists (including notably, her participation in the femi­nist group that with deadpan wit they ­named DIE DAMEN).

One of Jürgenssen’s most wickedly funny drawings depicts a group of Hausfrauen, washing, wringing out, and clea­ning house with the miniature figures of little men (fig. 37). This tableau was actually staged for the camera byDIEDAMENin 1974 (ill. p. 24). Des­pite the misogynist belief that “femi­nists have no sense of humor,” mockery, satire and ­parody, like “the revolutionary power of women’s laughter,” belong equally to the arsenal of femi­nist critique. But cons­idering Jürgenssen’s career-long deployment of herself as subject/model, it seems correct to characterize much of her photographic series as a form of per­formanceminus the audi­ence. In a published interview, she remarked that it was only her own shyness that prevented her from doing the kinds of public performance associated with contem­poraries such as Carola Dertnig and Valie Export, as well as her contem­poraries in Eu­rope and the U.S.

Once it becomes a question of the woman artist and her self-representation, and in whatever epoch, the issues, the stakes, themea­nings of the physical self-as-subject distinguish them­selves from those of the putative universal. There is, needless to say, no Vitruvi­anWoman. But there are few if any instances before the twenti­eth century when a woman artist under­took a re­p­resentation of her own unclo­thed body; as I have indicated, this was unusual in the self-representation ofmale artists.When, in the seventies, women artists like Jürgenssen deployed t­heir own bodies in their art, this should be recognized as a political as well as artistic act, ins­eparable from the reemergence of femi­nism and its attempts to “reclaim” the “real” female body from its visual as well as socio-cultu­ral co­lonization. In this respect, the act of representing the naked female body immedi­ately mobilized a set of terms that distingu­ished it from the idealized and reified conventions of the traditional artistic nude. But these practi­ces were not neces­sarily conscripted in the service of realism, however defined, and were equally directed at the fetishized femi­ninity purveyed in the mass media. Jürgenssen’s art reflects these two foci, and includes imagery appropri­ated from the former category, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Pygmalion (fig. 126), as well as appropri­ati­ons­ from the latter category. Jürgenssen’s sources were characteristically diverse, for example, Euro­pean and Asian pornographic graphics, kitschy fin-de-siécle nudes (for example, Le Jardin [The Garden] of 1975, fig. 125) as well as found snapshots. In its many guises, the depiction or staging of the “real” female body, particularly in the art made by women in the nineteen-seventies, consti­tutes a return of the repressed, for the strength of the taboo again­st the depiction of female sexual organs in the visual arts should not be undere­stimated. Somewhat more broadly stated, within elite visual culture, the somatic, corporeal realities of female embodiment, marked by sex as well as gender, had been offici­ally excluded, remai­ning far outside of the permissible bound-aries of representation.Hence, the various inves­tigations by women artists of the female body, so often idealized and fetishized within art, and so often abjected outside of it, should be under­stood as inher­ently political in its attempt to reclaim the territory.

Throughout Jürgenssen’s oeuvre, the use of labial, vulval, or vaginal imagery is frequent. In the nineteen-seventies, this was a common enough motif in women’s art, and even forty years later, is still capable of provoking discomfort. From the perspective of femi­nist art criticism, such imagery remains equivocal and within Anglophone femi­nist theory, there exists a persuasive critique of such representational stra­tegies linked to larger argu­ments about essentialism. There are good reasons for this and the controversies and argu­mentation around the use of such imagery are complex. I am more in agreement with this line of argu­ment than not, but like the problem of “goddess” imagery inNancy Spero’s art or of voodoo in Ana Mendieta’s, one is not obliged to take intended meanings as the defi­ning or hermeneutic last word. That said, it is nonet­heless a fact of art history that from Meret Oppen­heim to Louise Bourgeois, and well through the decade of the nineteen-seventies, different kinds of vaginal iconography have been regularly employed by artists in quite inventive forms. In the context of this essay, however, it is Jürgenssen’s strik­ingly idiosyncratic vari­ations on the biological specificities of the female body that are at issue. In this regard, it is worth noting that there exist at least a few works of hers from the nineteen seventies that, even more provocatively,make unambiguous allusions to mens­truation, for example, the stun­ning mixed-media construction Demen­stration of 1978/79 (fig. 128). At 113 centimeters high, it is one of her large-scale works, the center of which features a pubic-shaped triangle on a cotton bed, spiked with individually applied rose thorns, super­imposed on a gauze-covered ground, splattered with red paint. Another work of the same period, Ehren-Rede Vito dem heiligen Blutzeugen (Speech in Honor of Vito the HolyMartyr, fig. 127) features a blood-red stain on bandage gauze, laid upon lace, which is atta­ched to the 1747 book of the same title. Protruding from the gauze is a carved wooden finger, with a painted red fingernail. While the wound and finger are likely references to a real injury Jürgenssen sustained that year, this need not preclude the mens­trual reference. 

Jürgenssen, however, even in her most realist media (meaning photography) or realist style, was never a realist, and while there is in her work an abundance of vaginal imagery, there is, so to speak, no vagina, at least in the sense of anatomical description.What there is, however, is a syntagmatic chain of equivalences, substi­tutions, displa­cements,metaphors, analogical shapes and symbols that circulate between different series and media. Giant acan­thus leaves positioned in front of Jürgenssen’s pelvis, as in Ohne Titel of 1988 (Unti­tled, fig. 130); abstracted vaginal forms in the triptychon Angel’s Radi­ance:Moon in the Sky: Burning Torch of 1987 (fig. 87), even a diagrammatic watercolor of vaginal metaphoroses (Ohne Titel, 1981,Unti­tled, fig. 129). Hence the mouse. Small, quick, furtive, timid, the mouse stereotypically terrorizes women, but in Jürgenssen’s sexual bestiary, it is often a surrogate for the vagina. In a distur­bing colored-pencil drawing of 1979, the mouse appears to erupt from the innards of a flayed cat, emerging from a nest of pubic hair (fig. 131) or, from the same series, becomes a hybrid mouse-vagina; combi­ning hair, fur, and pinkened wounded-like vagina sliced into its body, burrowing in (or out) of a pristine bed (fig. 132). Vagina-mice nest within books or diaries (Ohne Titel, 1980, Unti­tled. fig. 133). Black-haired pubic triangles sprout between flexed fingers, as in Mrs. Chur­chill, 1976 (fig. 27), vivid broom/vaginal shapes flower between a hairy coat or its hairy aperture, as in Stras­senkehrer in Beglei­tung of 1980 (Accompanied Street Sweeper, fig. 134). Just as the vagina migrates from pubis to underarm in Achselfält­chen, so too can vaginas appear within the erect shaft of the phallus. In one of her most extra­ordi­nary large-scale drawings, Ohne Titel (Brautkleid) (Unti­tled [Wedding Dress], 1979/80, fig. 136), the vaginal orifice fissures the crag-like erection from which a frothy veil of water (or semen) descends. From a second opening, at the base,more fluid spews, emptying into a pond of orange fish upon whose surface are hair-like squiggles. At the left side of the phallus’s base, there sprouts a tongue shaped excre­scence. From the height of this thrusting monument, tiny women in bathing suits perform swan dives, but do not ever reach the bottom.

What is one to make of such a picture? Or its title,Wedding Dress? Delicately touched with washes of pale blue and green, with subtle touches of rosy pink, lacy froth and spume indicated in white opaque paint, Brautkleid is at once funny, uncanny, grotesque, and uncomfor­tably suggestive of the vagina as wound, perhaps a reference to deflo­ration. Simulta­neously male and female, phallic and vaginal, it figures the instability and mobility of sexual difference itself. In a second work from the same series, she invents an even more ambiguous concate­n­ation of forms (fig. 137). While the vaginal crevice seems unambiguous, it again is situated within a thrusting, vertical phallus.Which rises, however, from yet another cleavage, the surrounding forms of which are scored and marked such so as to imply a different surface texture.With its abruptly truncated appen­dage on the right, the drawing resembles a pre-photographic anatomical study, but one composed of discordant morpho­logical elements. Is this netted surface the lace of the bridal gown? A diss­ected organ? An homage to draftsmen of the sexual grotesque like Hans Bellmer or Felicien Rops? The unanswe­r­ability of such questions is, of course, the substance of Jürgenssen’s work, the meanings of which, like her iconography, are variously personal, art historical, hybridized, and hete­rogeneous, with wellsprings, like all art, in the social, the biographical, the cultural, and the psychic.What consti­tutes its artistic import­ance is not different from what in general terms defines any other signifi­cant artistic corpus; that is, its intelligence, its inventiv­eness, its capacities to surprise, to operate as a kind of thought, to give pleasure, to command attention. Its political, that is, its femi­nist implications, are not separable from any of these other attributes. These, however, do not operate as a message, a lesson, much less a polemical statement. In its most general para­meters, Jürgenssen defies the viewer’s desire that meanings be fully knowable, fixed, and determi­nate.Her art’s ability to disturb and to unsettle is fully part of that refusal and consti­tutes its power. This, it seems, is what Roland Barthes meant when he made reference to “the terror of uncer­tain signs.” To risk that terror, indeed to delibe­ra­tely provoke it (leavened, on occasion, with a sharp and satirical wit), is a sign of the complexity as well as the ethics of an art informed, root and branch, by the aporias of sexual difference.