On the first floor of its premises in Hamburg, Kunstverein Hamburg
is presenting the first institutional solo exhibition of works by Cologne-based artist Alexandra Bircken, who was born in 1967. The show primarily features recent works produced between 2010 and 2012.
The title of the exhibition, Hausrat, meaning household assets or household objects, can be taken literally. The assortment of objects filling the exhibition space all have to do with household and home in one way or another. Many are plucked straight from the domestic environment such as ironing boards, sledge runners and carpets while others play on associations of domesticity or convey the sense of home as something offering cover and shelter. Detritus that would generally be regarded as refuse is given a new, modified form: Sweepings are permanently preserved in latex and shrivelled fruit and dried leaves are arranged into still lifes to produce what might be called inventory snapshots of domesticity frozen in time. Fittingly, one of the pieces featured in the show is entitled Accumuli, while another is called DNA (both from 2012).
Among the many objects taken from the domestic milieu are a number of GetaLit laminate panels, which are frequently used in kitchen worktops. The properties of GetaLit surfaces have a psychological effect that virtually compels us to wage a constant battle to keep the flawless surface immaculate one that is inevitably futile and merely shows up the ineffectiveness of our actions. Taken out of their original context and mounted on the walls of the exhibition space, these kitchen work surfaces some imitating wood, others stone become an assertion of autonomy that is in effect simultaneously rendered absurd by their imitation of the original materials in idealised, abstracted patterns. Hung on the wall, the large panels take on a pictorial quality that is reminiscent of monochrome painting. This relative plainness and the lack of artistic intervention i.e. that the panels are neither modified nor juxtaposed with other materials sets these pieces apart from the others in the show, where Bircken also works with the properties of different materials and surfaces, but does so more freely, combining them with other materials and thus transforming them.
The materials Bircken uses play an extremely important role in defining her sculptures. Drawing both on worthless scraps and materials traditionally used in the arts and crafts, she repurposes them by applying various handicraft techniques and assembling them into works of art. Besides materials that are typically processed into something else, like wool, fabric and cement, Bircken also works with objets trouvés taken from her natural surroundings and everyday environment. These found objects serve as raw material, but they also serve as a kind of text projecting a myriad of connotations, social distinctions and symbols. Certain articles of clothing, for example, help to communicate their wearers attitudes and status and to set them apart from members of other social groups. When moulded into the cast of a bathtub and coated in dyed plaster, as in Mud Bath (2012), however, they are transformed into a single shell delineating the shape of a different object altogether, merging with it and with one another so completely that they are hardly recognisable as items of clothing at all.
Mud Bath is only one of a number of Birckens works that implicitly refer to the affinity between outer covering and actual skin. Materials, after all, are also archetypical textures, and as membranes of a sort, they can enclose and envelop things in many different ways serving as clothing, shelter or even as a sail, for example and can embody very diverse tactile and psychological qualities.
These aspects flow into Birckens works in the form of scraps of material that she incorporates into her pieces, either as individual bits of trace evidence on their own or as interwoven elements. She consciously considers the various functions and associations of the materials she uses, but undermines their unambiguousness by placing them within new contexts with their own dynamic tension.
Although the items Bircken incorporates into her works may have originally served another purpose and may still testify to those origins, they have been redefined and assembled so they can be put to a different use. By juxtaposing objects as varied as a fruit bowl, a scrap of rubber or a branch in new ways, she subordinates them to a new purpose and allows their inherent energy to unfold in new ways even if they have apparently been rendered useless.
For her installation Cagey (2012), the artist fashioned a shell woven from cement, strips of material and scraps of clothing, creating something resembling a primitive tent that evokes warmth and shelter and at the same time appears extremely fragile and anything but impermeable. Although the sculpture is fitted with wheels and is thus potentially mobile, it gives the impression of having been stranded in the exhibition much like the piece Chariot (2012), for which Bircken mounted various found objects such as straw, bits of rubber and lumps of coal onto a well-worn skateboard and an old bicycle frame.
By bringing together and interweaving the artificial and the natural, the hard and the soft without implying any sort of hierarchical relationship or value, Bircken challenges our tendency to think in terms of dichotomies and the preconceived notions and role expectations to which we so easily fall prey and whose hold is so difficult to break once we have become entrapped. Indeed, the idea of entrapment is a recurring theme in Birckens work. Many of her pieces resemble textile spiders webs in which various objects such as childrens toys, pieces of clothing or branches and stones are entangled. The form and function of the individual found objects recede into the background as they transcend them and are transformed in an artistic embodiment of the idea of metamorphosis and organic development. Thus many of Birckens new pieces convey the idea of movement and change in two ways more obviously by evoking sails and vehicles, and less evidently by showing up the fundamentally changeable and constantly shifting nature of individual objects themselves.
Alexandra Bircken studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London until 1995 and went on to design clothes and textile accessories up to her first exhibition at BQ in Cologne in 2004. Although her pieces could be worn, even then many of them had lost their purely functional nature and taken on a somewhat sculptural quality. She was awarded a studio grant by the Kölnischer Kunstverein in 2004, and her work has regularly been shown in international exhibitions since then.