Alexandra Bircken often compares her work to skin. For her, it is a membrane between internal and external; it is what protects us, what makes us permeable and what functions as the canvas that we dress and expose to the world. It therefore seems logical that the German artist should start a career working with the second skin of humanity: fashion.
In the early 1990s, Bircken left Remscheid, her hometown near Cologne, for the United Kingdom, with her lifelong friends Wolfgang Tillmans and Lutz Huelle (she and Huelle will present a joint exhibition at the Pernod Ricard Foundation in Paris in November ).
At Central Saint Martins, which counts Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and John Galliano among its alumni, she studied fashion design. ‘I read identifier and The faceand [London] is where I wanted to be. Underground fashion and eccentricity did not exist – and still do not exist – in Germany, so there was no choice,” she explains via Zoom from her Berlin home. “I followed what I wanted to do, which was to play with individuality.”
Alexandra Birken with The tourist, the central figure of his show “Fair Game” in Kindl, Berlin. Sporting a motorcycle exhaust for her head and carrying a saber, she is dressed in a colorful outfit, with epoxy resin clogs giving an illusion of levitation. Photography: Dan Ipp
And nowhere was individuality so extreme and extravagant as in London in the 1980s and 1990s. In its hedonistic, polysexual and transient underworld, fashion school craftsmanship clashed with the concept art; each evening was the occasion for a personal act of theatre. These were decades steeped in the cheeky sexuality of Madonna, the signature gear of Vivienne Westwood and the transgressive energy of Leigh Bowery – performer, entertainer, ringmaster for London’s underground club scene. The latter had a huge impact on Bircken. “Every week you sewed something new for the weekend, for the club. It wasn’t meant to last; portability was not a big thing. That’s what Saint Martins taught us: if you can’t find what you want, you do it yourself,” says the artist, who will later teach in the master’s course in fashion design at university and is now professor of sculpture at the Munich Academy. the fine Arts.
After graduating in 1995, Bircken co-founded the “Faridi” label, but a career in the fashion world didn’t quite scratch the itch. ‘When you work in the [fashion] market, you have to meet the market. You have to make people “beautiful”, which is why I didn’t like fashion and the system. No one wears anything ugly or extreme, everyone wants to look slim and sexy, the typical female stereotype, and I got really sick of it.
The solution was a gradual shift to art, which retained sartorial sensibilities and skills, but viewed the body as a “moving sculpture”. It involved a deep exploration of materialism, man versus machine, and man as machine.
Bircken’s exhibition, “AZ”, which opened in 2021 at the Brandhorst Museum in Munich and which will be transferred to the CRAC (Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Occitanie) in the south of France in March 2022, is his most important to this day. The thematic exhibition begins in 2003 with explorations of literal and symbolic “knotting”: from early experimental textile works and leather sculptures, to his own placenta, preserved in Kaiserling solution. “AZ” culminates in a subtle, yet significant, site-specific intervention that reconfigures the skeleton of the Brandhorst building: the wooden grates over the heating vents have been replaced with bones (cow ribs and chicken thighs). “I felt like everywhere you go in the world, you’re stepping on other people’s bones. It’s the layering of history,” she says.
Another important and frequent subject in Bircken’s work is the motorcycle and its equipment as an ultra-protective skin. She still rides, but not as much as she used to. Its fascination lies in the way these machines – unlike cars and bicycles – complement the shape of the body in an intimate, almost carnal union. “The whole body is involved. It’s very dangerous; you have to be one with it to survive,” she says. “But a lot of people don’t see the grace of motorcycles.”
In his work, beefy motorcycles are rendered obsolete. They are cut open to reveal their gut-like innards, turned upside down or infantilized like a rocking horse; their conventionally masculine weight exposed as a myth. The motorcycle is one of many examples of Bircken’s skillful manipulation of ready-made objects, whether machine-made, man-made or animal-made – all underpinned by a deep affinity for the human condition, in all its unruly variety.
Bircken’s work does not directly comment on the state of the world. He is not necessarily of this world. But it highlights the fragility of the flesh in the face of the threats of an increasingly unstable and mechanized culture, asking the question: can bodies still stand?
Bircken describes his other current show, “Fair Game” in Berlin, as a commentary on the effect of the pandemic on club culture, and a “free interpretation” of Samuel Beckett. The Lost (1971). In the short story by the Irish writer, 200 naked bodies – one per square meter – are contained in a cylinder called the “abode”. Lighting and temperature fluctuate dramatically, leading to blindness, skin problems and an unfriendly climate for sex. The floor and walls are made of rubber, dampening all noises. There are ladders and niches in the walls – some “lost” climb the ladders to nowhere, others, defeated, remain on the ground. Beckett’s story is one version of hell; Bircken’s nightmare doesn’t seem far off – but in “Fair Game” there’s more at stake.
‘Fair Game’ in Kindl, Berlin features gimp costume-like bodies, made from black latex painted calico and embroidered with body parts
The work is housed in Kindl’s Kesselhaus (boiler room), once a brewery, later a nightclub, and now a stage for contemporary arts. The space is cubic and vast: an exposed brick cathedral with a glass roof. If it weren’t for Bircken’s bodies strewn across the floor, this could be a space of holiness. But there is nothing sacred here. Rubber figurines hang from the rafters, some hang by their necks, others scale the walls. They climb ladders made of cow ribs, lean over doghouses or lie lifeless on the ground. They are limp, faceless, deflated and empty. But devoid of what? Bones, blood, stuffing, air?
Bircken first showcased these gimp-suited bodies, made from latex-dipped black calico, in ‘Eskalation’ at The Hepworth Wakefield in 2014 (where she faced David Chipperfield’s famous ragged angles) and at again in the curated group exhibition ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019.
His scene is the aftermath of something violent. Maybe it started out as fetish fun and took a sour turn, or was it a social experiment that turned into a massacre. But it could just as well be a factory, a production line for clothes: unworn, inanimate and cold.
There are notable changes for Bircken’s Kindl issue. She embroidered body parts on the costumes: spines, hearts, eyes, ovaries, long blond pubic hair, genitals. “It’s a link to the reality of the human body and what’s under the skin,” she says. There are real ostrich eggs placed where wombs might have been; they break with oily rags similar to those used to clean motorcycles; perhaps a birth symbol or, as Bircken notes, a reference to a molotov cocktail.
This time the costumes come with genitals. During our call, she takes a pen and paper, draws a phallus and presents it to the camera. “You pull it out and you have a penis, or you stick it in and you have a vagina.” This play with genital shapes seemed like a logical evolution for Bircken, but she is keen to keep things nondescript: “There are no testicles, no labia, it’s very simple,” she explains. .
Although Bircken has used gimp-suited figures in her earlier works, here she has embroidered over body parts, as well as placing bread and ostrich eggs where wombs might have been.
There is one exception in this sea of tar-colored flesh: The tourist, a figure who presides over the battlefield. She is dressed in American football shoulder pads, a bold block-color outfit with a motorcycle exhaust for a head, and epoxy resin clogs on her feet, giving an illusion of levitation. But is she an author or a saviour? Did she slaughter them all or did she arrive too late to help?
Elsewhere, colored glass incubators resembling alien eggs hold a variety of stuffed objects. In the center of the space, another black rubber body is draped over beer barrels, interspersed with loudspeakers. They play a soundtrack composed by Bircken’s partner, musician Thomas Brinkmann. “It’s clubby, but it’s also a breath or a heartbeat. It’s a relentless boom boom boom,” she says. This sound – pulsating around objects that may have once had a pulsation – references the building’s history and cuts through the dead silence of this pitiful scene.
Is it fair game, as the title of the illustration suggests? Is it really a game? Is it gambling as prey or, in a culture of increasingly intense anger and accusation, people as prey to criticism? Whichever way you read it, Bircken has created an ambiguous and inscrutable scene. All we have is speculation.
Bircken’s work has the intricacies of a vascular system – a tapestry woven with all that makes us complex and beautifully human: our tangled, shifting and unattainable desires. We are deeply corporeal, but ultimately machines. By celebrating craftsmanship and erasing material hierarchies, she weaves disciplines like the threads of a loom. In a crushing world, Bircken gets under the skin. §