Birgit Jürgenssen. I am. GAMeC Bergamo
Birgit Jürgenssen worked in an astonishing range of media: Polaroids, cyanotypes, rayographs and analogue photographs (colour and black and white), collage, drawing but never painting (in postwar Austria that medium was the angst-ridden male preserve of Actionism), digital imaging, sculpture, printing, slide projection and performance. A more or less constant element, however, was her own body as object/subject. Her images o!en projected back to her audience masculine fears and wishful thinking through a feminine presence that need not always be benign. In 1981 she wrote that ‘the identity of the woman disappears, only a fetish object remains, which is the focus of men’s desires’. With her recurrent theme of anthropomorphism, Jürgenssen often represented the female figure as masked by or merging with an animal identity, transformed in drawings into a lioness trapped within the cage of domesticity or as a rat that effaces the boundary between woman and animal. She becomes both simultaneously, two species that are sometimes reviled and sometimes prized as exotic, but both equally oppressed. In the photograph Self with little fur, 1974, Jürgenssen covered her face with the pelt of a fox’s head and pinches her lips into a snout; and in several hybrid sculptures, she altered everyday objects with readymade elements to create unsettling unions. The most intriguing are shoes that she perceived as a languid tongue on a high-arched heel in Lick-Tongue shoe, 1974, and in another as a toothily sharp animal-jawed slipper. mehr
With the pungent mix of self-irony and humour, this Austrian artist directed at prevalent patriarchal structures a highly analytical sensibility imbued with the surrealist skill of wringing psychologically charged new meanings out of unexpected combinations. Conceived with appropriately Freudian insight, her disarmingly simple compositions posed against featureless backgrounds concentrate an acerbic critique involving constant metamorphosis into richly layered iconography. Although Jürgenssen is not as well known by name as many of her contemporaries, in Europe or North America, from the first wave of feminist cultural production in the early to mid 1970s, her subversive strategies nonetheless appear familiar, as if encompassing the zeitgeist. That may be because a few works from her highly prolific career frequently appear in connection with that combative decade. One of them is I want out of here!, 1976, in which a neatly dressed woman with a lace collar and brooch has her face pressed uncomfortably, and at risk of injury, against a window. Her cheek is distorted by the pressure and breath collects on the glass across which her appeal is handwritten for the viewer to read.
That image, and others from those years, has arguably hindered as much as aided Jürgenssen’s critical reputation by being compared with better-established peers. Their use of similar metaphors of social entrapment and gender stereotyping may have occurred earlier or achieved greater awareness. Ana Mendieta’s series ‘Untitled (glass and body imprints)’, in which the artist’s features, such as her nose and lips, appear misshapen and exaggerated by the glass pane held against her, was made in 1972 while Cindy Sherman’s narrativedriven, staged self-portraits were appearing by mid decade. Such visual juxtapositions perhaps led some commentators to glide over the European’s career, in spite of her work expressing notably different intentions. For instance, rather than articulated personal representations of feminine experience in a specific time or place, Jürgenssen’s performances in front of the timer-controlled camera lens (another glass wall that assigned roles to women) pitched imaginary role-playing against representational politics.
Nonetheless, her position was being regarded as peripheral (even exclusively Austrian) to a hardening list of transatlantic pioneers. In the years since her death in 2003, aged 54, this opinion has been revealed as an oversight as art history is slowly altered to admit the women’s movement in art into the canon as a distinct 20th-century avant-garde. This selective but substantial retrospective, which began in Tübingen in Germany and continues to Louisiana in Denmark a!er this showing, is further evidence that revision is well advanced in Europe, where arguably feminist art-making took more diverse, psychoanalytical and theoretical forms than elsewhere. By surveying Jürgenssen’s professional life, and dividing it into nine broad themes, the show highlights both the vast amount she produced and its technical range. The studio was central to her quiet, poetic feminism focused on communicating awareness and deconstructing theories and systems of representation: ‘I am much more [interested] in experimenting … than in devising a brand,’ she said in 1988 and anxieties about fame or acknowledgement probably did not allay her. ‘It is personal achievements that count. In the end, there are only good drawings, good photographs, good pieces of work.’
Her work was at its best in photography and the hybrid combinations of media that superimposed layer upon layer of image and meaning into single pieces. In her series of ‘Body projections’, 1987-88, words and outline drawings are beamed onto her lower abdomen (by then, she tended not to show her face) that symbolise the fertility that connects her body with the wider cosmos expressed in the immateriality of light. Text also related inherited language to women’s subjugation: in Frau (Woman), 1979, her silhouette in black leotard fits into each letter of the word to personify the compliance society requires. In Everyone’s got his own point of view, 1975, those words of the title are written across her back in lipstick. Here her target was credibly the rigid factions within feminism who criticised the artist for employing her fashion model looks and femininity in her feminist repertoire, a rebuke also levelled at some of her American peers, such as Hannah Wilke.
For Jürgenssen, self-portrayal and role-play asserted the artist’s individual right to represent herself. ‘To me,’ she said, ‘performance means having the opportunity to put a concrete issue into an artistic form.’ Again, she combined media: the woman in Housewife’s kitchen apron, 1975, is as much a functional object as the oven she wears round her neck; they merge into a hybrid machine programmed for house maintenance and reproduction (a baguette sticks phallically out of the oven door). The work is directly comparable with films on housework themes by Martha Rosler and Chantal Akerman from the same year and, when first exhibited, the wearable stove was hung as equal artwork next to the diptych of photographs showing the woman-cum-cooker frontally and in profile, formats associated with product sales and criminal records. Jürgenssen was integral to the emergence of the feminist avant-garde. She worked with Maria Lassnig and was championed by VALIE EXPORT, and continued a tradition alongside Louise Bourgeois and Meret Oppenheim that started with Pablo Picasso, her first inspiration. She told an interviewer that ‘my works have been created … out of the interplay between literature and everyday life’, which could mean they link fiction and reality through imagination and narrative – each one is a short story, maybe, succinct but multifaceted. This show’s title comes from an object that supplants the figure altogether with text. In Ich bin, 1995, the two words are written in chalk on a palm-sized blackboard from which hangs a rubber by a decorative cord as an intimation of mortality poised to erase the phrase. But the script, at least, is still there. More than 40 years on from Jürgenssen’s earliest e"orts, her subversive spirit appears undimmed and no less relevant to current struggles.
Martin Holman is a writer based in Penzance.