Gespräch mit Doris Linda Psenicnik
Conversation between Birgit Jürgenssen and Doris Linda Psenicnik
This conversation between Birgit Jürgenssen and Doris Linda Psenicnik took place on December 21, 1998. The first in-depth interview to be conducted with the artist served as the basis for Doris Linda Psenicnik’s thesis, which was submitted to the University of Graz in 2001. Psenicnik transcribed the interview tape and sent it to Jürgenssen. The artist then edited parts of the transcript and added comments. For this monograph, Gabriele Schor included these modifications and carefully shortened the new version. Since this conversation was not originally intended for publication, it is marked by a refreshing directness. Jürgenssen speaks spontaneously and follows her intuition. The editors have decided not to apply a normative approach to iron out this informal style, instead retaining what Roland Barthes calls the “grain of the voice.” The beginning of the conversation was not recorded, so it starts rather abruptly. mehr
Doris Linda Psenicnik: A fox face as a self-portrait with a fur mask over her face …
Birgit Jürgenssen: I did that when I was eighteen. Things went on from there. These stories … it’s like a loop that just keeps going.
DLP: You say you have a stock of materials. You make things that are in your stock. Do you take them out again and keep working on them or do you also revamp them?
BJ: Yes, both. The one approach is technical and the other is about certain themes, like this dressing-up game, that I’ve really always worked with. There was also this series of black-and-white photos that I made objects for. Because I often use textiles and existing objects, which I then play around with. The drawings are an intermediate stage and then come the experimental photographs. So there are three aspects.
DLP: Namely, drawing, found objects, or objects that you see or discover.
BJ: I think to myself I could use this for something or other. But it might also be that I have had the thing lying around for years. Then there are my notebooks, where I’m always writing down either what I’ve been reading or my thoughts about it.
DLP: So totally casual …
BJ: In one respect yes, but, because I read Sloterdijk afterwards, also working with bubbles, water, and other things I’ve been interested in, as well as figurative elements …
DLP: So again there’s this layering or rather various layers that appear in your photographs and work, like in your series of interiors, where different layers are created by the direction of light and shadow and reveal themselves on closer inspection.
BJ: The play of light and shadow is also a story. I like working with natural light, and not with artificial. I always take advantage of the sun and actually use it as a spotlight. Appearing and disappearing, light and shadow—these are the poles.
DLP: Also this act of withdrawal?
BJ: Yes, that too. Because I always say, when you cover something up, you actually see it better. It becomes more visible.
DLP: That reminds me of that portrait photo of yours, where you have something opaque over the face.
BJ: There I put a piece of transparency over the photograph afterwards. Again, there are these two levels. I also add to photos after the event. That’s what I did with the interiors.
DLP: Do you actually try things out in advance and take what you like best?
BJ: No. It has to hit the spot. I can’t repeat photos. I can do series that I produce in large quantities, but I can’t make replicas. That’s not humanly impossible for me. It doesn’t work. That’s because I operate in a very spontaneous way, because I’m quite simply opposed to the act of “So now I’m doing art.” Actually, it all merges together. It has a lot to do with what I’m reading. In the 1970s I read a lot of surrealism. When I was seventeen, I was in Paris with my boyfriend, and his cousins put on some very revolutionary theater. That’s what brought me to Artaud. It was very close to stuff I had read before. Things like Alice in Wonderland. So it fitted right in somehow. Writers like Michel Leiris, for example, Artaud, Breton, Laure, Marguerite Duras, ethnology and philosophy, etc.—also those books by Matthes & Seitz, which give a summary of certain topics I’ve always been interested in, and that’s a way of getting back to the original literature. Dreamtime by Hans-Peter Dürr, Fichte, Edgar Wind, the Aby Warburg school, Roland Barthes … I read these things and then I notice a sentence or some story or other, and I zero in on that, as it were, and try to connect it with my daily life and the things I experience. So one thing feeds into the other. It has a lot to do with literature per se.
DLP: So, language—or rather literature—is a very important element in your work.
BJ: Literature, certainly.
DLP: My last seminar at the university was on Marina Abramović, which led me to study her work in greater detail. In the process, I noticed parallels between her work and yours.
BJ: We are more or less the same generation, and there are definitely some similarities. It’s like with the girls I have at the Academy now. The topics that interest today’s eighteen- to twenty-year-olds repeat themselves to some extent, and they’re different from what the boys go for. It’s a ridiculous thing to say, but that’s just how it is. Particularly at the age when, typically speaking, people start getting properly stuck in. The girls experiment much more and tend to jump around between media. A bit of photography, a bit of drawing, a bit of “tinkering around” or trying something out, whereas the boys try to get validation and follow through with one thing.
DLP: “Exploring the depths” to the max?
BJ: I think this playful approach is still there in today’s generation of women students. You hardly ever see boys doing self-enactments at twenty, although it’s more of a trend today. They tend to photograph the face, unless it’s Matthias Hermann or guys who come from the homosexual angle and thus deal with the body in a different way. So, if anything, you tend to get self-portraits from men of this age, while the girls might well take nude photographs of themselves at home in front of the mirror and act out all these stories.
DLP: For me, this special kind of outward-directed self-presentation has to do with the way masculinity and femininity are represented in society.
BJ: Yes, that’s right, of course. Something one also tries to examine, the outward gaze directed at the woman, and the fact that not much is changing there at any great speed—that’s still the case.
BJ: Right now, I have the feeling that there is a kind of revival of the performance art that women were doing in the 1970s. At the Academy, a woman student from London has recently been admitted—she made a video of herself cutting onions, doing a household chore, that is, and then eating the onions and crying. Or she takes an apple and pierces it with a syringe and injects it with other fluids and talks in English about her own identity, in fragmented form: “That’s me now, isn’t it?”
DLP: But that’s not the kind of thing you did, right?
BJ: For me it was too soon then, both technically and in terms of my own possibilities. I was more concerned with myth. At that point, I didn’t have a video camera. I had Super8 with a self-timer, which wasn’t all that easy to use. Though I should also say that I make a point of doing all my photos on my own, with a self-timer, in other words. There are just a few photos “of me,” where I pose for someone I’ve worked together with. Otherwise, all the pictures are done with a self-timer. Because I find it hard to say, “Please take a photo now!” You say things like, “So let’s make some art!” or whatever. The funny thing was in New York two years ago, there was a group of young people doing performances, around twenty people in parallel. There was also a Korean woman there who sat at the kitchen table in her underwear, cutting onions and carrying on an imaginary conversation with her mother, and next to her she had a trash bin full of tissues. The performance went on for two hours and she had to keep it up the whole evening. [laughs] And at the time all I had was a piece of paper and the ability to draw—those are what I call my everyday illustrations, my “housewife drawings.” It’s all pretty similar in terms of direction. Like founding DIE DAMEN later on in 1988. I don’t know if you remember the calendar? I can show you it now. Because my technical options were fairly limited at the time, the only possibility was drawing. Though I’ve been doing staged photographs since 1968. In some cases, I didn’t have the confidence to do certain photos.
DLP: So you had some reservations about it?
BJ: Sure, it wasn’t usual for people to take photos of themselves like that, and I wasn’t abroad somewhere. If I had been, wherever, I would have had a completely different relationship with it. But I had a really normal upbringing here and wanted to study medicine. I never dreamed one could or would be allowed to do something like that. I started out with the Polaroids, and they gave me some confidence because it’s another kind of privacy.
DLP: You mentioned that there was nothing else being done by women …
BJ: Yes. Take America, for example. That’s why it always intrigued me, because it was far more common there for women to start working with media at a much earlier stage. Like the women TV presenters. They came across differently and had a different kind of self-confidence. In the German-speaking world, it wasn’t so easy, and if you did do it, it was always an immediate scandal, which is a major difference. There you had artists like Carolee Schneemann and other women who would often appear stark naked and do extreme performances. Or Linda Benglis and women like her. You had some distance to things there. People really saw it as art, as performance, as theater. In Austria, if you wanted to do something like that, then the first question was where? In America there were these alternative spaces. But in Austria, where can you perform? And if you did perform, the Kronen Zeitung newspaper was there right away, as happened with VALIE EXPORT. There were different issues in play too because for us it was always about, how shall I put it … about life, death, and religion. In America it was more about emancipation. [Birgit Jürgenssen shows one of her housewife drawings.]
BJ: I did this in 1974. If I were to pose today as a twenty-year-old sat on a table with a dress that I then iron myself, it would be a similar performance to what young women artists are dealing with today, and if I make a video, I have the video and don’t need to draw it. You know what I mean?
DLP: So, you only drew because you didn’t have other resources.
DLP: You see your housewife drawing as a kind of sketched performance?
BJ: Yes. You could do that with it now. Or in the 1980s.
[DLP comments: In all the remarks on the artistic difference between men and women, I notice—not only in the course of the conversation but also looking back at it now, listening to the tape—that Birgit doesn’t like talking in these categories of strict separation, but nevertheless it was the experience she had with it and which she still has today. But I think she always had the idea at the back of her mind that if you talk so rigidly about a separation or take it as read and see it as such, you’re also supporting it, which makes the whole thing so difficult.]
BJ: Arnulf Rainer always said, “Women can’t draw and paint. They can only express themselves through other media.”
DLP: He said that? That’s terrible!
BJ: Yes. [laughs] It’s a generational thing: Pichler and people like that—they all subscribed to that view. At the time, I was dealing with these people. There was Kurt Kalb’s Galerie Grünangergasse 12. I wanted to exhibit my work there. At the time he was only showing male artists. Bruno Gironcoli and Walter Pichler were on show there and they somehow blocked it. [laughs] That’s a true story.
DLP: There must have been some fear involved.
BJ: Yes. Whatever. In any case, it was very peculiar. Even today things aren’t always easy if you exhibit somewhere with a gallerist. It’s getting better, but not necessarily easier.
DLP: It’s fascinating to hear that from you. You do hear these things, but ….
BJ: But no one really voices them.
DLP: Yes. It’s often the case that young women artists, in particular, clearly distance themselves from these things. Along the lines of “That kind of thing doesn’t happen to me. I get seen and people take me seriously purely on account of my art.”
BJ: Sure. They have to. I can really understand, because the moment they admit it, they’re already back in the position of the victim.
DLP: And it gets passed on. When it’s expressed, it becomes defined and is given significance.
DLP: It’s been said and then it’s difficult to get rid of it again. The “woman paradox.” I think as a woman you have to operate much more subtly and eclectically, above all in terms of what, from the outside, determines “images of women” and “images by women.” It’s a positive if a woman can use it subtly and play with it. If it’s fraught, it’s a negative.
BJ: That’s for sure. It always bothered me too that there was and is this difference. In the past it was extreme. Women artists were taken seriously as prototypes. No makeup, only dressed in a certain way. If, like me, you wore lipstick … It was just something I enjoyed. It was part of my work that I made almost all my own gear. That’s how I dressed at the Academy too. I had my tiger pants, my hot pants and pink stockings, I painted my shoes or pasted things on them. But I also humped the heavy lithograph plates around. I was there at eight in the morning and was very hard-working. The assistant always used to say, “Ms. Jürgenssen, why are you putting in so much effort? You’ll be getting married soon!”
DLP: How did that feel?
BJ: Well … I just worked that much harder. I didn’t want to have it taken away from me, because it was just so much fun. Like the way I started on my shoe objects. I felt provoked. For the first exhibition I made about ten pairs, some of them with a woman cobbler. [Unfortunately, the cassette ends here …]
BJ: [...] as always happens in surrealism and in film, the man drinking from the shoe. In my own way, I tried to make fun of it. The big shoe chair is actually a quote of a young girl putting on her mother’s shoes. I don’t think a man would ever try on his father’s shoes at that age.
DLP: It does happen! A little girl putting on her father’s shoes! [laughs]
BJ: If they fit … [laughs] to borrow them, but not to slip into the father role, as it were. Whereas a little girl tries to imitate her mother and takes her things and tries them on to make herself look pretty—that’s something different.
DLP: As a young girl, you figure out early on that being pretty is very important.
BJ: You can say that again.
DLP: With boys, it seems to me that behavior is more important, and the things they’re interested in too. As I see it, kids try to fulfil this image. A little girl with the attributes she sees in her mother.
BJ: Yes, of course. I was in a class with thirty boys and six girls.
DLP: That all plays a role. I’m working on gender research and my focus here is on identity building through gender roles, which, in the context of gender research, seem to be strongly influenced by society. A male and a female identity, if such things really exist.
BJ: That’s an assumption we should question …
DLP: Feminism or emancipation was, as you say, represented in a much more radical way in America.
BJ: A classic example here would be the role of women artists in surrealism. It was a slow process. It was only when the women made a forceful appearance as “muses” and were at the same time great artists themselves that it gradually came to be taken for granted. Whereas Lee Krasner, who was together with Jackson Pollock, was relatively accepted at the time. Although she was in his shadow, she was perceived as an artist.
DLP: Yes, but she was seen that way because she was Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend, right?
BJ: No. Dealing with the outside world was difficult of course, which is why she was in the background, but she was very much accepted as an artist. For us in Europe, meanwhile, it was a long time before any of this began. Witness the terrible fate suffered by women who were great artists and simply got ignored. You probably saw the Claude Cahun exhibition in Graz. You couldn’t say she wasn’t active at the time. She was politically engaged and known to a small circle of intellectuals but not to the outside world. She’s only being discovered now, which is a real joke.
BJ: I have the book she did. Is it called Le Coeur du pique? I’ll need to check. It always seems like I’ve got something and then things come full circle again, because of something from the outside.
DLP: I think I know what you mean. But to rewind a bit, don’t you also think that in America the image of the woman, her media presence, is merely decorative and tends to be sexist, also in relation to the Hollywood movies that convey the image of the conventional housewife, Doris Day style?
BJ: Yes, it’s ambiguous, more so than here, but there are other aspects too. Mae West, for example. For me, there was always another side to American film as well. The Chandler stories that I love so much, where the woman is pretty much equal to the man in terms of the language that is used, or in Dashiell Hammett’s dialogues. Maybe not in the story in the screenplay, in the narrative, but in the language, with all the wisecracks, irony, and repartee.
DLP: As per Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy?
BJ: Yes. Dietrich too … in the way The Blue Angel was shot. The women were emancipated by the dialogue or put on an equal footing with the man. The man was often much dumber than the woman in what they said. She showed a certain sophistication, a little bit of superiority in some situations in language terms.
DLP: You mention sophistication … Didn’t “the sophisticated woman” have certain negative associations?
BJ: Yes, I also made some personal corrections in that respect. [both laugh]
DLP: One approach that can be found in feminist research is to get away from ideas like “female aesthetics” or “female discourse.” But from your experience and what you’re saying, I gather that they are very much present.
BJ: Yes, they’re there subliminally, absolutely.
DLP: The “female” aesthetic can’t be defined in that sense, but you think it’s there.
BJ: A photo is something subjective. For me, it’s not necessarily something documentary because you choose the moment, you take the picture in a particular light, you select the subject and the feel of it yourself.
DLP: How come you don’t work with a computer?
BJ: Because, for me, it lacks immediacy in the working process, the matter-of-factness. It bugs me. If you sit in front of it for long enough, it’s like in the darkroom, you get completely immersed. But the computer’s too inflexible in terms of options. I’ve used it for a couple of pieces of work, though I’m not happy with it yet. [laughs] I’m still waiting for the time when it can maybe respond to your voice. [both laugh]
[pause: Birgit is on the phone]
BJ: Film is very important to me and I think it’s important for visual artists. […] I wouldn’t call surrealism a theory but rather inspirational poetry. Theory is more these kinds of books. It’s also great that between times I read someone like Buckminster Fuller or Marshall McLuhan on the media, or Vilém Flusser on gestures, or Sexuality in Western Art. These are books that deal with specific topics. But I also buy books because they are beautifully made, like the book on fetishes, because I found the typography interesting. Not all books grab me so quickly, but there’s always some element I find important.
DLP: So, you’re a real collector.
BJ: Yes. This [DLP comments: Another book. I was already muttering to myself. “There’s plenty of material there. Well, great.”] is also very interesting and was an inspiration for me—Sexuality and Space.* It includes an essay on “Domestic Voyeurism,” in which Le Corbusier cites Adolf Loos and that’s where the “lady’s room” (Zimmer der Dame) comes from. Those are my interiors. Because it was Loos who came up with the Zimmer der Dame, where the lady sits with the sofa under the window looking into the room and the urbane man doesn’t look out of the window at all. I meditated on that and that’s how I came to this work.
DLP: Are all your photographs self-portraits?
BJ: In my book Früher oder Später in my self-enactments—there’s really no need to add that, because it’s of absolutely no interest whether or not it’s me. For me, it’s not really about me as a person and what I myself look like. If you study the book carefully, in almost all the works you never see me as a person with my identity. It’s a woman’s body. It could be anyone.
DLP: Are you also referring to the photos in the book with Lawrence Weiner, where there are images projected on your body?
BJ: There you don’t know whether or not it’s me. That was of no importance to me. I was more interested in the content and not so much in whether I am now perceived as myself. For this reason, I often wear masks if my face is in the picture or I’m painted to blur identification with my most private sphere, because the content was already heavy enough for me.
DLP: It’s not about escaping as a person by wearing a mask but rather about creating a projection surface—not you, but body or skin and woman.
BJ: Yes, as a projection surface and (signifier) woman.
*Beatriz Colomina, ed., Sexuality & Space (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992).