The Skin We Live In

Alexandra Bircken, Pinstrike, 2021.

At the heart of Alexandra Bircken’s work is the human body in all its vulnerability, but also its drive for self-destruction. For Berlin Art Week, Bircken is showing a large, site-specific installation at Kindl—Centre for Contemporary Art.

Blushing is an involuntary psychophysiological response and, usually, a rather unwelcome one. The English language distinguishes between two kinds of facial reddening: whereas ›flushing‹ is triggered by rage or anger, ›blushing‹ can result from shyness, shame, or embarrassment. The culprit in both cases is the vegetative nervous system. Blood vessels dilate suddenly to allow blood to rush into the skin of the face, making it appear strikingly red. The mechanism seems to be defensive in nature, although researchers are not entirely certain.

In any case, it seems rather fitting for Alexandra Bircken’s work that, when asked what she finds so fascinating about skin, she mentions blushing: blushing skin acts as a kind of screen that conveys what is happening inside, at an emotional level, in an outward way while simultaneously pushing out in front of it like a protective shield. The body and its casings are recurring themes in the artist’s sculptural work. Skin and skins connect her works at the pore level, so to speak. They meander along such dichotomies as inside and outside, soft and hard, vulnerability and protection, tenderness and destructiveness, nature and artificiality, humanity and machinery.

»Skin and skins connect Alexandra Bircken’s works at the pore level, so to speak.«

Alexandra Bircken, Pinstrike, 2021. Foto: Roman März

Take ›Eskalation‹ (2014/2016/2017/2019), for example, the work she is continuing to develop as part of her site-specific installation in the Kesselhaus at the Kindl—Centre for Contemporary Art: black-latex and nylon figures appear to scale ladders. It is a helpless undertaking—the faceless creatures seem rather caught in the framework, hooked to the wood with coat hangers, trapped in a symbolic higher-faster-further. They have run out of air, resemble limp bodies, mere shells, skins, or discarded pieces of clothing, depending on their position. Their innermost being, the thing that distinguishes them as individuals, appears lost.

Such empty, dehumanized-anthropomorphic (latex) bodies are a regular feature of Bircken’s work. They are often juxtaposed with real machines or equipment whose inner life the artist tries to fathom. Bircken brutally slices open motorcycles, for example, as if performing an open-heart surgery or an autopsy. Necessary ones, as it turns out, as many of Bircken’s carved machines have experienced things that only become apparent upon closer inspection. Her interest in motorcycles, which she describes in conversation as »modern horses«, stems from traces of use that have become inscribed in them: accidents, scratches, repairs—in effect, the human being.

»Accidents, scratches, repairs—in effect, the human being.«

Bircken is just now opening her first survey show at Museum Brandhorst in Munich after several postponements on account of the coronavirus pandemic. Titled ›Alexandra Bircken: A-Z‹, it features nearly 20 years of work by the artist, who studied fashion design at the renowned Central Saint Martins in London before subsequently working in the field in London and Paris. Bircken’s stint in fashion had a profound affect on the way she views the body and corporeality.

Yet Bircken found the conventions of the industry increasingly restrictive. The fashion world’s perception of women and concepts of beauty bothered her immensely, she says, like the childlike sexiness of Kate Moss, which was suddenly all the rage at the time. Anyone working in fashion inevitably had to cater to these images. »I never saw myself in that image of women. That was one reason why I felt out of place in fashion«. Art, by contrast, need not be guided by such ideas—or by the ergonomics and physiognomy of the body at all.

Alexandra Bircken, Eskalation / Deflated Figures, 2016, Installationsansicht, Kunstverein Hannover. Foto: Raimund Zakowski

In 1999 Bircken returned to Germany, more precisely, to Cologne, the city where she was born. There she rented a studio to make »other things«, as she puts it, which is to say objects that were no longer tethered to a body and that were not about reproducibility and saleability: for example, knitting a long, wide strip with her knitting machine and knotting it into a sculpture. She titled the work ›Berge‹ (2003), or mountains, and it somehow does resemble two peaks made of olive green wool. Other works called ›Accessoires‹ hung on the body like fashion accessories, but unlike handbags, for example, they served no particular purpose. Or Bircken hung them directly on the wall, as independent objects.

Neighbours Jörn Bötnagel and Yvonne Quirmbach of the gallery BQ spotted her work through the shop window of her studio and invited her to show at their gallery. That was in 2004. It wasn’t a one-off, as it turns out; the gallery eventually included Bircken in its programme.

»The objects Alexandra Bircken is interested in often serve as aids to intensify a bodily function.«

These days, Bircken’s relationship to fashion is perhaps most evident in the materials she chooses to work with: the artist favours leather, latex, nylon, textiles in general or even pieces of clothing, along with plastics, plaster, classic sculpture materials and, time and again, very specific everyday objects, not infrequently from areas such as sport. The objects Bircken is interested in, as Kirsty Bell notes in her essay ›Second Skins‹, featured in the catalogue to ›Alexandra Bircken: A-Z‹, often serve as aids to intensify a bodily function: »Both the motorbikes that are taken apart and reconfigured and the skis accessorised with fringes of human hair […] are based on objects designed to enable the body to achieve maximum speed, whether along the curve of a country road or down a snow-covered mountain slope.«

The two antipoles in Bircken’s work, namely the dehumanised body and the humanised machine, seem more like two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, we are dealing with two strategies for approximating the core concerns of Bircken’s work: the human being in its corporeality, its self-destructive instinct, and its vulnerability. The Kesselhaus venue at the Kindl—Centre for Contemporary Art already evokes machinery by virtue of its location, through its architectural peculiarities and prehistory as an industrial facility, but also in what Bircken describes as »the dystopian« quality of the place—an aspect that is only heightened by this artist’s play with contradictions.

Alexandra Bircken. Fair Game
19 SEP 2021—15 MAY 2022
Opening 18 SEP, 2—10pm