Birgit Jürgenssen

Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein

Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein

'Everything flows, conditions and permeates itself ...' Felicitas Thun-Hohenstein in an interview with Birgit Jürgenssen

In: let's twist again. Was man nicht denken kann, das soll man tanzen. Performance in Wien von 1960 bis heute. Eds. Carola Dertnig, Stefanie Seibold. Gumpoldskirchen/Vienna, 2006, pp. 272-279.

Felicitas Thun-Hohen­stein: Performance is a genre which has become well estab­lished in different forms of artistic production, as well as in your own work. Experimenting with different media and tech­niques has always been an important aspect of your artistic practice, in order to get to the core of thing, as you say. Could you describe your initial approach to the medium performance and what would be a valid defi­nition of this means of expression in your view?
Birgit Jürgenssen: To me performance means the possibility of putting a specific concern into artistic form, to show it and to evoke immediate reactions with its presentation. Isolation is the most terrible thing for me. Action or public performance is a communicative process, a process of lear­ning. My first public performance was with the "Damen", with whom I collabo­rated between 1988 and 1994. I couldn't imagine doing public performances in the seventies, I was too shy.

It seems to me that your early work was strongly formed by performative aspects. Do you agree?
Yes. The drawings, but of course also the photographs and objects resulted from private performances, which I then translated into the specific medium.

Could your drawings, photographs, and objects and their interaction be described as performative tools?
Absolutely. It has always been important to me to show the drawings and photographs together, which was a problem for a long time, since it took a long time until photography was acknowledged as an artistic form of production in Austria. The group exhibition curated by Valie Export 'Magna - Femi­nismus: Kunst und Kreativität'at the Galerie nächst St. Stephan in 1975 was my first opportunity to show my 'housewife' drawings (z402) together with my photographs and my 'Küchen­schürze'' (s51).

This exhibition is regarded as pioneer work in femi­nist communication stra­tegies. Do you cons­ider yourself a femi­nist artist?
Not within a categorization. I wanted to show current stereotypes and role models, which are attributed to woman in our society and which I have always been confronted with as well, and to point out the misunder­standings of everyday life. In the exhibition titled 'Wie erfährt man sich im Anderen,, das Andere in sich?' (how does one expe­ri­ence oneself in the other, the other in oneself?), at the gallery Hubert Winter in 1985, I summa­rized the basic intention of my work as dealing with a reflection of the outside perspective.

Your reflections are subversive acts of iden­tity constructions. They refer to the socio-cultural entity and are political actions in an aesthetic framework. This becomes evident in the cutting self-ironic gesture, which is a central element of your work that compromises and decon­structs the patriarchal challenge very effectively.
I could quote a long list of reactions on the effectiv­eness of irony. 'Woman and irony' is still a taboo, just like 'woman and humour'. The price of an ironic gesture in the art world is to not be taken seriously for a long time. For me however, self-irony is an autobiographic stra­tegy in order to communicate a subversive and decon­structive potential more easily.

Speaking of communication, to me you seem to be basically interested in showing the relati­onship of things, which you perceive as a pendulum between reality, illusion, and taboos, rather than as things them­selves.
It was always challen­ging for me to make some­t­hing fictional, irri­tating that goes beyond pure depiction. I started to deal with surrea­listic literature and art at a very early point in my life and my pieces of work deve­loped from the interplay between reading and every-day life. It was impossible for me to draw without having literature in my mind. 

What you're describing is an inner dialogue that runs through your entire artistic production like a red thread or a consti­tutive element of connecting and networking stra­tegies. Basically, the 'rhizomatic' quality of your work intentio­nally involves your viewers in a communicative process.
I think your 'spider model' is a pretty exact defi­nition of my working method. I am not interested in depicting things them­selves. Things only become exciting when the relations exiting between them move to the foreground.

In this sense, the 'Damen' can be seen as a group of female artists who wanted to start a communication process with their public actions.
In our actions we consciously engaged the audi­ence as part of the piece, in order to go against an obvious under­standing of portrayed cont­ents and to give the actual, the other, a chance to exist. The audi­ence was also challenged.

Did you have to cut back individual artistic positions in favour of the collective idea?
The 'Damen' were about communicating a collective statement, which required individual views to subord­i­nate them­selves to the intention of the collective. We also saw this as an alternative to the myth of the active male in art, a myth still cultivated today.

How would you evaluate the recep­tion of female artists today in comparison to the seventies?
I think that female artists have only been noticed by critics since the deve­lopment of computers and the boom of the music scene. Today, an ever-present problem is the fact that only certain social roles exist for female artists. A female artist is either accepted as a 'girl' or as a 'woman over sixty', the time in-between is hard work. My gene­ration is between Elke Krystufek and Valie Export and doesn't fulfil expectations.

With your photographic self-analyses you started to involve your body in your work. Since the sixties the advancement to the surface of the artist's body has been an internatio­nally known phenomenon. How would you define the social accep­tance in Austria in this respect?
The topic was very much related to the art world, in other social areas it was either scandalized or ignored. Female performance artists in the United States were much more radical at that time. Their performances were much more profes­sional. They consti­tuted subjective actions, which didn`t just aim at breaking taboos, as it was the case in Austria. That is why the audi­ence in this country has always felt the need to interfere.

In the seventies, the performance scene was very dense and comprised a lot more names than the ones known today.
Of course, but who under­stands the rules of history ... everyt­hing flows, conditions and permeates itself ...

Birgit Jürgenssen reacted as human being, artist, communicator, and corrective element in our society like few people have done before her. Despite the fact that she never really felt comfor­table in this society, she was never infuri­ated by it, because nothing else could equally challenge her razor-sharp intel­lect. Birgit Jürgenssen died on September 25th 2003, in Vienna.