“Lonely Are All Bridges. Birgit Jürgenssen and Cinzia Ruggeri” at Galerie Hubert Winter, Vienna
Birgit: “My interest is not in the representation of things themselves, because they are only intriguing when the relationships they are in come to the fore.”
Cinzia: “Whether we like it or not, clothing is the spectacle (always intentional) of ourselves.”
Velvet, satin, leather, nylon, feathers, and a dress become a building, a hand, a sofa. In 1924’s “Surrealist Manifesto,” André Breton defined Surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought.” The Surrealists advocated transposing art into life, which meant taking a critical stance toward our understanding of reality and the systems of power that define it. From a feminist perspective, Surrealism can be a subversive and liberatory instrument of identity affirmation. mehr
Lonely Are All Bridges, a two-person exhibition dedicated to the visionary work of Birgit Jürgenssen (1949–2003) and Cinzia Ruggeri (1942–2019) at Galerie Hubert Winter, Vienna, is a fortunate encounter. Curated by Maurizio Cattelan and Marta Papini, it stages a posthumous fictional date between the two artists, who regrettably never met in person, celebrating their revolutionary approach to shapes, garments, and objects as instruments of personal and collective transformation. Thoughtful and light, scenic and audacious, the show surprises. Thanks to enlargements of Jürgenssen’s pencil drawings into separators and wallpapers, the artists’ works are activated as background and foreground, unfolding unexpected synergies and a collegial back and forth.
“Lonely are all bridges, and fame is as dangerous for them, as it is for us, yet we presume, to feel the tread of stars, upon our shoulders.” Taking its title from “The Bridges” (1953) by the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann—an homage to the writer’s use of language as a tool of emancipation—the show is imagined as a bridge between artistic discourses and positions, which are often conceived as individual endeavors even if that is rarely the true case. Built on assonances between objects and ideas, even ones that formed in distant geographical contexts, the female condition was for both artists a fight that, when approached through art, became a revelatory and politicized instrument of observation and discovery.
Mostly known as a designer close to postmodern architecture, Ruggeri infiltrated the everyday with absurd and eclectic forms. Directly associated with the Memphis Group, she transposed their bizarre shapes and geometries to the body in movement. Working at the intersection of industrial design, fashion, sculpture, and installation, her practice crossed as many borders as possible. “Whoever knows her well says that Cinzia is a bit crazy. Who knows what new and unexpected loves she is already plotting?”, wrote Dino Buzzati in one of Ruggeri’s first reviews.
Enjoying a career of more than forty years and working with photography, cyanotype, drawing, collage, sculpture, and performance, Jürgenssen employed the languages of Surrealism to question codified gender models related to nature, the body, and sexuality. She defeated social conventions with endless humor, and often made use of her own image. Upon entering the gallery, we are confronted with a theatrical scenario that divides the exhibition into four different sections or moments. The first is a discursive prologue framed by Jürgenssen’s hybrid drawing Untitled (1977–78)—repurposed as a curtain—and her graphic Äskulapnatter/Aesulapian (1978)—reproduced as wallpaper—offering an imaginative ground to Ruggeri’s iconic velvet sculpture Mano (Hand, n.d.) and the green tulle architectures of the building-dress Senza titolo (Untitled, 1985). Transformation between objects, genders, fields, the real, and the symbolic is key to understanding these artists’ militant practices, each devoted in its own way to escaping the suffocating burden of culturally instituted gender roles.
As we move through the long, rectangular gallery space, we witness Jürgenssen subverting the traditional dynamic of female representation by drawing on her own body and taking photographs of herself. The series Untitled (Body Projection) (1987–2009) and Untitled (1988) celebrate the female body as a site of primal, animalistic strength by hybridizing it with shadows and objects from nature such as feathers, stones, and cords while introducing the symbolic figure of the hand as the first device to encounter the world. In the same section, Ruggeri’s glove-sculptures appear in unusual spaces, suggesting an action—or a lack of it. Where is their owner? Gloves were a long-term passion of the artist, and here we see them employed with humor as beholders of possibilities: Borsa Schiaffo (1983), Guanto Sonoro (1986), Guanto con Perle (n.d.).
In a continuous game of assonance, the two practices erotically respond to each other. Reminiscent of Meret Oppenheim’s imaginative objects, Jürgenssen’s sculptures Head Sandal (1976), Nice Bird of Prey Shoe (1974–75), Relict Shoe (1976), and Lick-Tongue Shoe (1974) use the heel as a metaphor for oppression, and embrace Surrealism as a tool of liberation (between 1972 and 1979, Jürgenssen persistently investigated the motif of the shoe through drawings, objects, and photographs), while the photographic Untitled (Body Projection) (1987–88) devises imaginative motifs on skin, extending the body as a naturally photosensitive material as well as a political tool for observing the world and discovering new strategies to change it.
The third space in the exhibition is expressly dedicated to the shoe as fetish object, as explored by both artists. Ruggeri’s sculptural Scarpe scale (1984) appears to be climbing the central wall, while the velvet Colombra (1990), a human-shaped chaise longue, consigns power to the seated, suggesting a mutual desire between objects and individuals. A satirical critique of domestic labor appears in Jürgenssen’s drawing Housewives’ Work (1973), illustrating a woman intent in the act of ironing—not a shirt or pair of trousers, but the figure of a distressed man. Humor is endlessly employed to confront stereotypes by uncovering their absurdity. For both artists, feminism was a practice of consciousness-raising (autocoscienza)—to use a term dear to Carla Lonzi—and the profound changes that arise from it.
The last room, concealed by a wall, includes Jürgenssen’s little-known Wolford Company Series (1988), a group of twenty-four sketches proposed as a commercial collaboration with the Austrian company. The drawings embrace tights as a painterly tool to unify the body with the surrounding world. Merging drawing and photography to create galactic, spiderweb, or sand- and ice-derived motifs (to mention only a few), the series is a study of this typically feminine garment and its possibilities for poetic transmutation.