Birgit Jürgenssen or Body Art against the Semiotics of Capital

One of the tragic outcomes of Europe’s self-destruction in World War II. was that the so-called “gender debate,” imported by the art world from the U.S.A. in the 1990s, had actually begun in Europe twenty years before. At that time, however, the art world suppressed the debate. In the 1970s, two exceptional artists in Austria, Valie Export and Birgit Jürgenssen, began to undermine cultural constructions of femininity using their bodies as screens on which to project cultural codes and their critique of these codes. In memorable, razor-sharp images – both photographs and drawings – Birgit Jürgenssen deconstructed the prevailing restrictive cultural and social conditioning of women, the systematic and automatic mechanisms for repressing women. In stylized self-portraits Jürgenssen maps out critically the horizon of the socially dictated activities and functions of women, such as cleaning, ironing, and cooking. In her drawing Fensterputzen (window-cleaning) (1974), a film of a woman’s life is projected; from the wedding, which held out the promise of happiness, to the miserable existence of everyday life. A recurrent device utilized in the drawings is the codes of slavery and expropriation: the woman, as a part of the furnishings and clothing, irons herself; under the voyeuristic gaze of the man, the woman is nailed to the image that the man makes of her. Jürgenssen’s scenarios are always of everyday horror. Her women are never in possession of themselves, they are tied down to the house, to its furniture and fittings, and whether as a bride or cook, squeezed into and constricted by the corresponding clothes. In Küchenschürze (kitchen apron) (1975) the kitchen is part of the woman’s clothing, just as the woman in the drawing Bügeln (ironing) is part of the tablecloth. As larger than life-size Studentin (student) (1976), as precocious girl, or as larger than life-size cat, the woman remains locked up in the cage of the house and home, bound to the chains of her social functions. The Infantilgesellschaft (infantile society) – the title of a novel by Elfriede Jelinek (1972)- which is the ideal of consumer society, is already criticized here in these artworks in a way that we will encounter later in a considerably milder form, for example, in the work of Charles Ray. Euphemistic labels for a woman, like “housewife,” merely indicate women’s state of domestication (domus, Latin for house) through being tied to the house, household, and functions therein. Jürgenssen’s drawings lay out a critical panorama of the social positions of women, the roles and functions that women are obliged to assume in society. Thus the artist anticipates feminist art practices of the 1980s, for example, of Cindy Sherman. The method that Jürgenssen employs derives partly from Surrealism. In her masquerades, changes of identity, and denunciation of cultural stereotypes, however, Jürgenssen refuses to be drawn into the male’s eroticization of the female body or into gender categorization. Instead, like Claude Cahun, whom she cites early as an important influence, Jürgenssen recognizes that seemingly natural femininity is a social construction dictated by men. She frees herself from this dictatorship by rejecting any housewifely identification of her body and her social functions. Jürgenssen’s drawings tangibly demonstrate the effects of female domestication, as Friedrich Engels had analyzed years before in his famous book Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Engels identified the middle class family as an organizational unit within the capitalist mode of production that serves to reproduce labor-power. Increasing industrialization shifted the production of goods out of the home and into factories, so that ultimately men did the “real” work in the factories, housework no longer counted as “real” work, and was thus not paid for. Housework, done by women, is not wage-labor. Because only men bring money home, which is necessary to purchase goods, the work of women in the house is devalued, and with it, the position of women. Feminization and codification as housewife, as Jürgenssen clearly demonstrates, are pejorative processes within the capitalist world system. [[Immanuel Wallerstein, World Inequality. Origins and Perspectives on the World System, Montreal, 1975. Her drawings render visible what is socially invisible; namely, the legitimization of a social hierarchy divided into “strong” and “weak” sexes. The dictatorship of the division, or difference, between the sexes replaces and conceals a much older distinction between people: the division into social classes. Women belong to the so-called weaker sex; they are classed as the weaker part of the social order. Thus sex difference is a mechanism for subjugating women, a mechanism for establishing a class order in which women are subordinate to men. Women live in a social world in which they receive lower wages than men for doing the same work, they do hard work of low status for low wages, and receive no remuneration for housework, which is not even recognized as work. Therefore, the female body is in fact a territory subject to male hegemony, and thus it is colonized terrain. The clothing and activities of the women in Birgit Jürgenssen’s drawings function as ethnographic references to the heteronomy of women, as references to the body and sex of women as ethnic territory. This ethnicization of women as inferior and marginal, for example, as a housewife, is generally not recognized as relegating women to a separate class because it is propagated as sex difference. Jürgenssen’s drawings are a mirror that reveals what we are socially unaware of or have repressed. These works show socially constructed femininity as a trail of suffering caused by a dictatorship that is centuries old. When Birgit Jürgenssen portrays herself wearing an apron in the form of a kitchen stove, she affirms her revolt against the “semiotics of the kitchen,” as Martha Rosler titled her classic video performance in 1975. By repeatedly presenting herself in the role of cleaning housewife, Jürgenssen foregrounds the connection between dirt and domestication. [[Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945. Philadelphia, 1989. In her drawings the bodies of women, mothers, and daughters, seem unfamiliar bodies, alien bodies: this is a denunciation of the subjugation of women through male colonization of the female body, including its social functions. The housewife appears in Jürgenssen’s works as an ethnic product, a product of racism, which builds on the divisions into classes and races as a division into the sexes. Her visual critique of cultural stereotypes, of the ethnicization and colonization of women in the culture of capitalism is (feminist) art of the highest order.

Translated from German by Gloria Custance.

Weibel Peter

Directeur du ZKM (Centre d'art et de technologie des médias) de Karlsruhe depuis 1999, commissaire du pavillon autrichien à la Biennale de Venise depuis 1993, directeur du festival Ars Electronica de Linz depuis 1986, enseignant dans plusieurs universités à New York, Kassel et Vienne depuis 1981, musicien de rock depuis 1979, curateur d'expositions depuis 1976, directeur de publication d'ouvrages scientifiques depuis 1974, théoricien de la culture depuis 1970, philosophe politique depuis 1968, mathématicien et logicien depuis 1967, performer depuis 1966, plasticien depuis 1965, réalisateur et scénariste depuis 1964, poète depuis 1963.