Teresa Koester
The search for a female identity

There are many layers to the highly ironic oeuvre of Austrian artist Birgit Jürgenssen, who, throughout her life, investigated women's roles.  (ph16)

On Birgit Jürgenssen’s back the words come together to form the kind of catchy, ambiguous sentence that is all too typical of this Austrian artist’s oeuvre: Every­body has both their own way of looking at things and their own way of looking. And even these do not just arise of their own voli­tion, not without outside inter­ven­tion of any kind.

We are by defi­n­i­tion people who can think for them­selves – and this is at the heart not only of her 1975 photo­graph but also of the way that, as an artist, she spent her entire life ques­tioning things, over and over again. Yet never­the­less, society and our educa­tion always play a major part in shaping the way we think, we are and we look. As part of the femi­nist art move­ment, with her multi­media oeuvre, Jürgenssen grap­pled with this conun­drum. Simi­larly to Cindy Sherman, a kindred spirit of hers, (albeit someone who became dispro­por­tion­ately famous with work in a similar vein) partic­u­larly in her photo­graphic oeuvre Jürgenssen is usually both artist and model, both active and passive.  mehr

Female stereotypes 

From the very outset, Jürgenssen (born in Vienna in 1949, the second child in a doctor’s family) worked in different media. Subtle, because it is multi-layered and ironic, her exten­sive oeuvre is fasci­nating, including, as it does, not only photog­raphy, but also draw­ings, sculp­tures, objects made of different mate­rials, collages, water­colors, work on canvas and prints. However, more than anything else, it is with her photographs that Jürgenssen made her most enduring artistic state­ments, state­ments that have remained rele­vant beyond her own death in 2003.

In her photographs, by assuming roles and disguising herself Jürgenssen exag­ger­ated female stereo­types to such an extent that these spon­ta­neously reveal them­selves as just that. The house­wife, the woman as a wife and mother or, reduced to a thing of beauty and/or her phys­ical attrib­utes – all these are constructs created by a society with which Jürgenssen and other artists who formed part of the move­ment known as the femi­nist avant-garde took issue in the mood preva­lent in Germany in 1968: by aligning them­selves with the subse­quent women’s move­ment. 

The boundaries of social perception 

The femi­nist avant-garde appro­pri­ated such roles and decon­structed them, commenting on them in a mood that ranged from humorous to ironic, until the most impor­tant thing that remained was the ques­tion of iden­tity forma­tion. And for all their differ­ences, the main thing shared by all these artists is the way that they have inves­ti­gated human iden­tity, prin­ci­pally female iden­tity. They explored the bound­aries of social percep­tion and patterns of thought in order to discover how firmly anchored cultural constructs actu­ally are in every­body’s minds – for example, to what extent do shapes and stereo­types asso­ci­ated with women need to be abstracted until they are no longer recog­niz­able as such?

Works such as “Ohne Titel (Selbst mit Fellchen)” dating from 1974, for example, focus on the corre­la­tion between women and animals as evidenced both in art and in myths; later work such as the series “Zebra” and Jürgenssen’s color photographs in a concave mirror (“Ohne Titel”, 1979-80) decon­struct iden­tity to an even greater extent, dissi­pate it, even. The fact that for centuries now woman has been an object of projec­tion for society’s imag­i­na­tion is partic­u­larly evident in her “Körper­pro­jek­tionen”, dating from 1987 and 1988. Both these photographs of body projec­tions and the distorted images, shadow images and bathtub images increas­ingly go beyond the repre­sen­ta­tional, starting to func­tion as a stim­ulus for the imag­i­na­tion in the true sense of the word. 

“Ich möchte hier raus!” – Let me out of here! 

Then, in other works, Jürgenssen explic­itly high­lights the percep­tion of women anchored in society, or rather that of their bodies as a surface and object of projec­tion in everyday life, when she liter­ally creates roles – broaching, in her work, not only the subject of clothes, shoes, makeup, mani­cure, all that women’s frip­pery, but also that of the mate­rial mani­fes­ta­tions of women’s work. However, this does not mean that the latter are accorded a higher status but that they are placed in a new context and rein­ter­preted. Jürgenssen becomes a diva, an angel, a house­wife – only, after assuming these roles, to demand their liqui­da­tion. The title of one of her most famous works dating from 1976 speaks for itself – “Ich möchte hier raus!” (Let me out of here!)

“Woman is so often the subject of art but only seldom and reluc­tantly is she allowed to speak for herself or to produce her own pictures. Just for once I would like the oppor­tu­nity to compare myself not only with my male colleagues but also with my female ones,” wrote Jürgenssen in a letter to the DuMont-Verlag in 1974, voicing a request for an anthology of female artists. The publishing company turned down her request. As it did a second one. All the more reason for Jürgenssen and other female artists of her day, both Austrians and inter­na­tional ones, to make use of art to create a plat­form for their concerns.

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