Birgit Jürgenssen’s drawings and photographs are simultaneously blunt and oneiric. Beginning her career in the 1970s in Vienna, and associated with other feminist artists from the city such as Maria Lassnig and Valie Export, Jürgenssen fought for the inclusion of art by women in galleries and institutions, and made work that explicitly critiqued calcified gender roles. But despite this explicitness, her images are rife with a fantastic symbolism, inspired by surrealism, which both communicates her politics and evokes the inexplicable. ‘Ich Bin’ (I Am), an exhibition of more than 70 drawings, photographs, and sculptures at the Louisiana Museum, is careful to emphasize both elements of her practice: her stridency as well as her embrace of the uncanny.
In a number of coloured pencil drawings from the mid-70s, she lampooned gendered expectations about physical appearance and labour, depicting, for example, a tall schoolgirl looming over a man in a suit who, standing on his toes, seems to sniff at her (Big Girl, 1975), or a woman whose face is obscured by a distorted version of the chequered pattern featured on her kerchief and apron (Housewife, 1974). Perhaps the most allegorically straightforward of these drawings, Housewives Working (1973), depicts a woman ironing a flat man in a suit, his arms, legs and head dangling uselessly over the sides of the ironing board. But even the barbed satire comes across as humanistic and empathetic; the soft colours, delicate lines, and ample amounts of negative space imbue these works with a hazy atmosphere in tension with their sharp humour.
Around the same time, Jürgenssen made a series of photographs (maybe her most famous works) illustrating a sense of confinement: in Housewives’ Kitchen Apron (1975) the artist wears a stove for an apron, and in I Want Out of Here! (1976), she presses herself up against a pane of glass with the title written faintly on it, overlaying and captioning her image. These pieces resonate strongly with other works of the period, by Martha Rosler or Chantal Akerman, which portray the home – and the kitchen in particular – as a site of captivity.
But Jürgenssen’s work is not only concerned with structures of unfreedom; throughout her life she was also interested in liberatory imagery, especially celebratory representations of the body entwined with nature. A series of untitled rayograms from 1975 features bodies merging with leaves; a photograph of a nest resting gently in the lap of a bare-legged woman suggests interspecies caretaking; a drawing of a woman seemingly wearing the carcass of an animal (maybe a bear), with her head sticking out of its mouth implies a potentially violent but also life-affirming merging of creatures. These are not merely vitalist fantasies, nor propositions of an uncomplicated equivalence between femininity and nature. Jürgenssen is too interested in technology and the construction of social roles to simply identify nature as a site of freedom; but the natural world appears, in her work, as a site where hierarchical power isn’t overwhelming, where it’s possible to make dynamic and non-productive connections between bodies and objects.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Jürgenssen began photographing herself overlaid with projections, creating ghostly images whose shapes are warped by the unevenness of the body. These are some of the final pieces in the show, and serve as a fitting summation of an eclectic lifetime of work. Here, once again, Jürgenssen merges directness and poeticism: the body is both a material substance and a malleable image, a political fact and a play of light and shadow. The power of this work is its desire to tackle both social reality and dreamlike obscurity head on.
'Birgit Jürgenssen, I Am' runs at Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek, until 22 September 2019.
Main image: Birgit Jürgenssen, Untitled (Body Projection) [detail], 1988/2009, colour photograph, 50 × 70 cm. Courtesy: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and Galerie Hubert Winter, Vienna © Estate Birgit Jürgenssen / VISDA 2019
Steven Zultanski is the author of several books of poetry, including On the Literary Means of Representing the Powerful as Powerless (2018) and Honestly (2018). He lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.
First published in Issue 206