Skin in the Game

The quietly violent works of Alexandra Bircken

‘In the beginning was cladding,’ wrote Adolf Loos in 1898. ‘The covering is the oldest architectural detail.’¹ Early humans sought shelter and warmth: we covered ourselves in hides and, later, woven textiles. Built walls came into being, Loos’s theory goes, to support and extend these protective second skins, bringing with them a new way of conceiving of outside and inside. For Gottfried Semper, on whose The Four Elements of Architecture (1851) Loos draws, the interlocking construction of these early woven textiles is distantly memorialized in the geometric patterns of the brick and stone walls that came later. (This is perhaps why we still speak of the ‘fabric’ of a building.) Pattern and ornamentation, almost from the very beginning, have been integral to the construction of shelter.

Alexandra Bircken is an artist who understands that garments can be shelters and that skins can be walls. She understands, too, that the need to protect and the need to adorn are basic and almost simultaneous impulses. Her sculpture Walking House (2016), which I first saw at Herald St in London, is made from a patchwork of woollen knit draped over a not-quite-person-sized frame formed of thin lengths of wood and gathered sticks. One of the house’s spindly legs hovers off the floor while another, sturdier, is steadied by a paint-splattered work boot. Within, two stones hang from the latticework like a pair of lungs, or the two ventricles of the heart – animistic tokens partially shielded by the knitted chainmail loops of the garment-skin. The construction is deliberately shonky, provisional, seemingly unfinished. It’s also distinctly stylish – in the manner, say, of a Comme des Garçons take on a scarecrow. Balancing as though on crutches, the piece conveys something powerful about bodily frailty and a primal need for shelter, but also about dependency and support: what ethical thinking after Emmanuel Levinas might call our exposure to one another, and the dual burden of responsibility and vulnerability that this implies. We wear clothes and we build homes because our skins are not enough to protect us; it is the fact of our body’s permeability – its penetrability – that makes us human.

Alexandra Bircken, Walking House, 2016, leather boot, plaster, wood, metal, wool, 184 x 50 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Herald St, London; photograph: Andy Keate

Alexandra Bircken, Walking House, 2016, leather boot, plaster, wood, metal, wool, 184 x 50 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Herald St, London; photograph: Andy Keate

Alexandra Bircken, Walking House, 2016, leather boot, plaster, wood, metal, wool, 184 x 50 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Herald St, London; photograph: Andy Keate

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Bircken is obsessed with skin. As she explains to me when we meet at Kunstverein Hannover during her solo exhibition, ‘Stretch’: ‘It’s the body’s largest organ; it’s our interface with the world.’ It holds things in, it keeps things out; it is soft, strong, pliable; the same but constantly renewing; resistant but permeable. It contains us within ourselves and is the surface, the shape, that presents us to the outside world. From her rodeo will-o’-the-wisp, Mr Denim (2004), to the pallid translucency of her nylon-covered New Model Army 1-5 (2016) – respectively, the oldest and newest works in ‘Stretch’ – Bircken explores the materiality of skin through a series of stand-ins. These proxies – which also include latex-coated canvas, motorcycle leathers, polyester resin and woven fabrics – allow the artist to reflect on the uncanny object-ness of our own flesh, which is experienced simultaneously as a self and a thing. We are more than our bodies, but our bodies are also beyond our understanding.

The centrality of the body to Bircken’s work should perhaps not come as a surprise. The artist trained as a fashion designer at London’s Central Saint Martins in the early 1990s before first running her own label (in collab-oration with Alexander Faridi) and subsequently working as a designer in Paris and elsewhere until the end of the decade. After moving to Cologne in 1999, she found a studio that also had a shop front where she could display and sell her work. She called the space ‘Alex’. By that point, she had already put some distance between herself and the commercial demands of making functional garments. Her neighbour was the gallery BQ, who invited her to put on her first exhibition with them in autumn 2004. (Now based in Berlin, BQ continues to represent her.) Bircken’s earliest art works were what she has called ‘accessories without bodies’: stand-alone objects that nevertheless conjure absent forms, seeming to cling tightly to figures that are not there.

Alexandra Bircken, New Model Army 1-5, 2016, installation view at Kunstverein Hannover. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, Herald St, London, and Kustverein Hannover; photograph: Raimund Zakowski

Alexandra Bircken, New Model Army 1-5, 2016, installation view at Kunstverein Hannover. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, Herald St, London, and Kustverein Hannover; photograph: Raimund Zakowski

Alexandra Bircken, New Model Army 1-5, 2016, installation view at Kunstverein Hannover. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, Herald St, London, and Kustverein Hannover; photograph: Raimund Zakowski

Our sense of self is bound up with our bodily appearance: this much fashion understands. Its promise – that how you look can transform who you are – is a suggestion that is both exploitative and emancipatory (and not wholly fantastical).

Bircken’s Scheibentorso (Slice Torso) – a work from 2013, in which blocks made from compressed layers of wax-dipped textiles have been stacked to approximate a classically rendered torso – is a wry nod to this ideology, and its crudeness. Where figures appear in Bircken’s work, they most often resist particularity. She seems to be moving away from creating characters – her earlier flaxen-tressed silver birch, Blondie (2010), for example, or the severed mannequin legs of 2009’s Püppi auf Abwegen (Püppi Gone Astray), which have been reclaimed by sprouting grasses and accumulated detritus – and towards more general statements about what it is to be in a body, which is to say: what it is to be human.

Bircken reflects on the uncanny object-ness of our own flesh, which is experienced simultaneously as a self and a thing.

The centrepiece of the exhibition in Hannover, filling a long, light central gallery, is Eskalation II (2016). This comprises 40 black, latex-dipped Deflated Figures (2014), which hang from ladders, the uncanny bulk of their ever-so-slightly padded limbs drooping silently against the rungs. The ladders extend into the ceiling, where scrimmed panels have been removed, in places, to allow glimpses into the beamed apex of the roof above, giving the impression of a cadaverous conveyor belt transporting cast-off skins for re-use in worlds above. There is no escape, however. When the bodies reach the top, they accumulate in shadowy drifts against the translucent ceiling membrane, like shades mustering on the banks of the Acheron in Dante Alighieri’s vision of Inferno in The Divine Comedy (c.1308–20). Bircken’s latest works – on show as part of the installation ‘Esplanade’ at K21, Düsseldorf – are even more wraithlike. Heavy shrouds of woollen knit, the pieces have been dipped in wax and attached, by metal hooks, to ropes that dangle from the ceiling to form long wicks – a flicked cigarette away from going up in flames.

The darkness and quiet violence of these more recent works is, I think, a product of the artist’s anxiety around contemporary geopolitics, which manifests itself in subtle ways. In Traffic (2016), for instance, flashes of orange thread mark migration paths from North Africa and the Middle East across Europe. This flyaway wall tapestry was first shown at Herald St, where it hung alongside Walking House; similar woven works, Map I and II, covered the sides of a metal-and-scaffold-board truck as part of the artist’s presentation at Glasgow International in 2016. In each case, the fabric’s gossamer flimsiness served as a reminder of forced nomadism, of those without shelter and of how tangled the ties of responsibility can become.

Alexandra Bircken, B.U.F.F., 2014, installation view at BQ Upstairs, Berlin. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin; photograph: Roman März

Alexandra Bircken, B.U.F.F., 2014, installation view at BQ Upstairs, Berlin. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin; photograph: Roman März

Alexandra Bircken, B.U.F.F., 2014, installation view at BQ Upstairs, Berlin. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin; photograph: Roman März

There is violence, too, in works such as AK-47 and Uzi (both 2016): a disarmingly seductive pair of bisected assault rifles, mounted like stags’ antlers on one wall at Kunstverein Hannover, as well as in a trio of large, latex-coated, bomb-like shapes, collectively titled B.U.F.F. (2014). The acronym is military slang for ‘Big Ugly Fat Fucker’, as the US Air Force’s long-serving B-52 bomber is affectionately known. However, the forms also conjure a whole array of sexual associations – nudity, the male-model’s idealized musculature, niche pornography – which are exacerbated by their bondage-latex finish. (Bircken’s titles are often puns: she seems to take as much pleasure in the plasticity of words as of materials.) They could be bombs, they could be butt plugs; they are phallic and kinky, but they’re also overblown, verging on the ridiculous. To the touch, they are soft and light: I want to call them huggable. They remind me of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: squat, round, dumb-looking things, perversely anthropomorphized as Little Boy and Fat Man. Sex, death and masculinity was all wrapped up in those weapons that quite literally separated people from their skins and turned bodies instantly into shadows.

Bircken’s work often deals with the vagaries of gender. She tells me that 20 of the Deflated Figures are male and 20 are female, but I struggle to tell the difference. The headless ranks of New Model Army 1–5 are also sexless – mannequins subtly shaped by padding and covered with patchwork sheaths of tight-nylon and protective bits of motorcycle leather, which further distort their already impossible geometries. Elsewhere, a motorcycle suit has been splayed and nailed to the wall like a hunting trophy (Kirishima, 2016). Between its spread legs, the clipped zipper hangs like a clitoris, forcefully feminizing a form we might more readily associate with masculinity. (There is a sense, perhaps, in all of this, that if the body has an architecture, it is that of a cage.)

Alexandra Bircken, Snoopy, 2014, motorbike suit, nails, 153 x 161 x 14 cm. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, Herald St, London; photograph: Andy Keate

Alexandra Bircken, Snoopy, 2014, motorbike suit, nails, 153 x 161 x 14 cm. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, Herald St, London; photograph: Andy Keate

Alexandra Bircken, Snoopy, 2014, motorbike suit, nails, 153 x 161 x 14 cm. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, Herald St, London; photograph: Andy Keate

Motorcycles and motorcycle leathers have often appeared in Bircken’s work. On one level, this may be because the latter represent the ne plus ultra of protecting your own skin with that of another (once) living thing. The bikes themselves might be conceived of as adjuncts to the human form – prostheses of sorts – that allow the body to surpass itself: to go quicker, to feel more. (I have heard people talk about skiing or surfing the way that Bircken talks about riding motorcycles: in terms of accessing a heightened experience of embodiment.) But they also pertain to a highly masculine cultural vocabulary that sets up an interesting dialectic with the artist’s ‘softer’ textile pieces. She plays with a whole set of binaries – craft vs. industry; soft vs. hard; phallic vs. rotund; organic vs. synthetic – to create a body of work that is properly androgynous, which wants to be both.

Like the Deflated Figures, Kirishima conjures the Christian iconography of flayed skin. Flaying was endured by the early martyrs because their faith considered the body as no more than a temporary container for the immortal soul. For Bircken, however, meaning is immanent: there is no sense beyond sense. On a plinth in one of the rooms in Hannover, the artist placed an edition made especially for the show: a pair of motorcycling gloves, cast in nickel silver. The palms face upwards, the thumbs curl slightly in; the leather is worn, warm with the contours of human hands. The cast was taken from gloves belonging to Bircken’s partner. The work is touching in more ways than one: its title, which also translates as ‘hero’, is Held (2016).

Alexandra Bircken is based in Cologne, Germany. Recent solo exhibitions include:‘Stretch’ at Kunstverein Hannover, Germany, which will travel to Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany, and CREDAC, Paris, France, later this year; and ‘Needle’ at Herald St, London, UK (both 2016). In 2016, she was also included in Glasgow International, UK; ‘The Distance of a Day: Connections and Disconnections in Contemporary Art’, Israel-Museum, Jerusalem; and ‘At the Cliffs of River Rhine’, Oslo 10, Basel, Switzerland. Her solo exhibition, ‘Esplanade’, at K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf, Germany, runs until March 12 and she will have a solo presentation at BQ, Berlin, Germany, in September.

1) Adolf Loos, ‘Das Prinzip der Bekleidung’, first published in Neue Freie Presse, 4 September 1898. Translated as ‘The Principle of Cladding’ in Adolf Loos, Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897–1900, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 66–69

Main image: Alexandra Birken, Eskalation II, 2016, installation view at Kunstverein Hannover. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, Herald St, London, and Kustverein Hannover; photograph: Raimund Zakowski

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London.

Issue 185

First published in Issue 185

March 2017

Most Read

In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018