ON THE OCCASION OF HER TOURING RETROSPECTIVE, THE GERMAN ARTIST TALKS TO ELISA R. LINN AND LENNART WOLFF ABOUT HER PREVIOUS CAREER IN FASHION, AN OBSESSION WITH MATERIALS AND THEIR FUNCTION, AND CUTTING OBJECTS IN TWO TO REVEAL THEIR INNER LIVES.
Elisa R. Linn / Lennart Wolff: Two recurring elements in your work are motorcycles and leather protection gear, the latter occasionally cut in half or hung on walls like hunting trophies. You also ride the motorbike yourself, right? Could you tell us more about your interest in the machines, the technical clothing and why it has reappeared many times in your work?
Alexandra Bircken: I ride motorbikes myself and I like the all-encompassing physical aspect of it. You are simultaneously dealing with physical activity, balance, wind, speed, temperature, noise, smells and the surrounding traffic at a very direct, body-conscious level. It’s a very alert, concentrated state under the helmet. Accidents hurt, as there is no crumble zone. The engine is right between your legs; you feel the heat rising up, and you are aware of the power below you, which can be lethal if you cannot control it. Motorcycles are fascinating, highly powerful objects. The protective leather suit is an armor, a second skin. It is the skin of another creature. When riding I become very aware of where the body ends. Skin is the body’s largest organ, full of nerve endings. It is the surface that the outside world sees, how we are recognized. We aim to protect our skin. Our state of happiness and health is marked or even written into our skin. As Michel Serres said, nothing is as deep as skin. The skin is the interface between where our body ends and the outside begins.
Your previous career was in fashion. What drove your transition to art? Besides the differences in the economies of production, distribution as well as reception, would you say that your creative process has fundamentally changed?
My degree collection at St. Martins in 1995 received a lot of attention from buyers and press which led to the founding my own label, FARIDI, with Alexander Faridi, who was my partner at the time. The collection was sold to designer stores like Liberty and Browns in London and shops in Japan, but due to the lack of financial backing, it became a great struggle and life became extremely self-exploitative. So when a tempting job offer from Paris came along, we stopped and moved on.
From 2002–2004, I opened a shop front and a back studio in Cologne called Alex. It was conceived as a place to sell my own ideas, like clothes and accessories. Financially I was relatively independent through teaching at St. Martins on the MA Fashion in London and freelance design jobs, so I regarded the shop and my output there as an experimental play area, not tied to any financial success. I began making objects that were accessories, semi-garments cut to the body and equipped with functional details like pockets. But these pieces worked just as well without the body, simply by hanging on a wall. They became objects of their own. It was the beginning of something new, but at the time, I was unaware of the fact that I was moving into art. It simply felt very liberating to surpass the hamster wheel of fashion and discover a realm where the industry’s narrow definitions of commerciality, beauty and femininity didn’t apply. The gallery BQ were my next-door neighbors (they have since moved to Berlin) and had been following my activities, until they eventually invited me to do a show which took place in 2004.
What motivated you to move back to Cologne after your years in London and Paris? What was your relation to the art scene in Cologne at that time? Do you recall any specific people or conversations you had that were influential during your transition to art?
I was born in Cologne, but I had never lived there before. After twelve years of living abroad, I was interested in touching base with my own culture. That was before the Internet, when living abroad meant you were literally cut off. A visit to Cologne got me involved in its vibrant art and music scene. I felt that during my absence, Germany had become somewhat more open and confident towards its own identity. As my lease in Paris was ending, I spontaneously decided to move back there. Openmindedness is a strong characteristic of the people in the Rhineland, which is partly what makes Cologne such a special, unique place.
Since establishing yourself as an artist, have you ever received offers for fashion and design projects (as an artist)? Would that be interesting for you?
I’m often consulting and modeling for my friend Lutz’s Paris-based label, Lutz Huelle. Other offers I have turned down, but that may change. In general making art demands a very different kind of involvement (emotional and rational) compared to designing fashion. It’s like tapping into two different parts of your brain. What stays with me is an irritating dissatisfaction when shopping for clothes nowadays. While going through the racks, my inner drawing pad opens up in front of my eyes, and my mind begins redesigning, improving what I see. It’s a discrepancy that makes the consumption of clothes uncomfortable. In a recent article about your work, Amy Sherlock brought up the writing of architect Adolf Loos in order to draw a line between shelter and clothing, skin and cladding. In particular, the debates of (post)-modernist architectural discourse revolved around the relationship between inside and outside, as well as function and symbolic form. Though in your exhibitions we are looking at ultimately “functionless” art objects—unlike a building or fashion product—there seems to exist an obsession with functionalism. It seems you’re emphasizing and making visible the properties and performance of the employed materials through laying bare joints and stitches, to support or contradict the objects symbolic content. Could you tell us more about it?
The knot marks the beginning of a great cultural achievement as it connects two things or objects that originally were not connected. Knots are highly complex artifacts and our historical development is tied closely to the understanding of the complexity of a certain knot and our ability to reproduce it: the building of shelter, seafaring, farming as well as textile production. All weaving is built upon this archaic achievement. The first mechanical Jacquard loom, with its punched cards, laid down the foundations for the 1st computer and binary coded computer language. At a certain point, it became possible to represent knots through mathematical formula and to calculate them. I’m interested in the ability to abstract, which is necessary in order to identify a specific knot and to recreate it. Knotting, like weaving and knitting, form parts of my work. Another part constitutes of machines, for instance the bisected combustion engine of a motorbike and the open mechanics of a modern shotgun. The latter would have been unthinkable without the comprehension of knots for the development of mankind. Within the spectrum of my work, I don’t intend to present (or provide) functioning objects, but rather to lay bare the functionality and the complexity of a mechanism or a body. Therein lies an aesthetic that visualizes the dimension of our development.
For “Stretch” at Kunstverein Hannover, you showed collages and sketches in vitrines that looked like mood boards, and gave a hint to the process of the conception and making of the exhibits. Could you talk more about your decisions to make your research, for the first time, partly visible to the viewer?
During preparation for my show in Hannover, I became interested in viewing my archive of photographs, materials and experiments, which reflects a purpose to record and express my thoughts, interests and attitudes. I stumbled across a lot of earlier research, some of it stemming back from my days as a fashion student at St. Martins. I was so surprised by the apparent common thread between older and the more recent research and imagery, that I decided to take this collection of material further into the three vitrines. One of them shows photos of my vast collection of original army clothes: parkas, bomber jackets, original Burberry riding coats, etc. Focusing on the functional details of these items, the photos show reenforcements, double stitching, cutting details to allow movement, air vents, gussets, and so on. These are aspects of clothing that we have grown used to over the last decades, as a lot of what we wear today are reinventions of the classics. The second and third vitrines show a collection of seemingly disparate images whose content can be found in my work, though in a completely different form. The arrangement of the material is partly random, partly associative. I’m concerned here with gathering together things that don’t really belong together. They generate associative chains and concentrations of meaning.
When approaching your work, one is drawn into a constant play of dissolving, re-establishing and reversing binaries—like inside and outside, hard and soft, organic and synthetic, mass-produced and handmade, cheap and valuable human and non-human, masculine and feminine. Are you interested in creating objects that ultimately empower the viewer to overcome precisely these categories?
Maybe. I don’t like categorization; I refer to the impact or impression of an object, rather than to its ingredients. I often combine elements that otherwise don’t belong together, partly in order to break up the existing order or hierarchy and to tell a new story. We live in a world full of materials and objects that we all relate to. Our eyes are trained to judge their appearance. A lot of energy has gone into the production of these goods, and this energy prevails when the functionality of a certain object is no longer evident. I use what I deem necessary to express what I wish to say.
Some of your newer works like UZI and AK 47, two assault rifles cut in half, or Traffic (all 2016), in which an orange thread follows the immigration routes through the Middle East and North Africa to Europe, are more overtly displaying violence as well as specific contemporary political crisis. Would you say that the current political developments change how explicitly you want to address politics in your work?
No, I’m not setting out to deliberately produce political work. My work has often been political, albeit not always referring to Tagespolitik, daily news. But who could remain indifferent to the news we’re hearing almost every day? It affects me, and in some way, it gets expressed in my work. Traffic was made in spring 2015 at the height of the Syrian war, when Macedonia closed its border to Greece by building a massive fence to stop refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries on the passage to north European countries like Germany and Austria. Hungary followed suit shortly after. This marked the end of the land route via Eastern Europe. England had strictly controlled the influx of refugees ever since the Syrian crisis arose. I felt it was time to make a work that reflected the state of Europe by showing migrant streams and marking with different colored threads where movements were obstructed. Guns are highly aesthetic instruments that possess an iconic value. States have invested millions in optimizing the capacities of defensive weapons. They are a crucial part of our defense systems. Cutting these objects in two doesn’t just reveal their inner lives, it also deactivates them and lends them a new value.
Images in order of appearance: Aprilia, 2013; Digital collages for STRETCH exhibition catalogue, 2017; New Model Army 1–5, 2016; Cabinets, 1991–2017; Uzi, 2016; Timo, 2016.
All images courtesy of the artist; BQ, Berlin; and Herald St, London.
Portrait by Wolfgang Tillmans.