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.