BY Elizabeth Janus in Frieze | 06 NOV 94
Featured in
Issue 19

Private Functions

Elke Krystufek

BY Elizabeth Janus in Frieze | 06 NOV 94

Elke Krystufek's relatively young, but prodigious, body of work is comprised of performances, videos, installations, paintings and photomontages that revolve around sex and its relation to the self. Some of her most notable works include a series of collages and photomontages using pornographic images. Her performances are often provocative: for example, in a 1993 piece titled, If Men Had Bulimia, Too, she vomited into a plastic bag surrounded by the detritus of her binge, and in her most recent performance, Satisfaction, (1994) she periodically masturbated in the exhibition space.

Krystufek studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts with Arnulf Rainer, one of the forerunners of Viennese Actionism - the body and performance movement that dominated Austrian art during the 60s and early 70s. Adopting this anarchistic spirit, which was vehemently anti-art (she is quoted as wanting to 'vomit on art and its existence'), she is dedicated to transgressing social taboos. Animal sacrifices and self-mutilating actions were commonly performed by the Actionists as a way of attacking formalist art and bourgeois morality. Krystufek's work, however, has less to do with the ritualistic violence of Hermann Nitsch's Orgies Mystery Theatre or the self-destructive performances of Rudolf Schwarzkogler, than with the actions of Günter Brus, whose work focussed on breaking down the boundaries between the body's private and public functions. In one of his last performances, during the University of Vienna's 1968 conference 'Art and Revolution', Brus, covered with excrement, urinated into a glass, drank his urine and then masturbated while singing the Austrian national anthem. He was subsequently tried and sentenced to six months in prison.

While outcry has also greeted some of Krystufek's work, she has largely benefited from the fact that she is treading already worn territory. The shock of her performance work has been muted by the aggressive theatricality of her compatriots (not to mention their Dada and Surrealist forerunners); by such Americans as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden; as well as by the female body works of Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Gina Pane and Valie Export, among others. The issues that Krystufek takes on, such as pornography and fantasy, female sexuality, and eating disorders, have been, since the 70s, standard fare for much feminist art practice.

What is different about Krystufek, however, is that she approaches these subjects, particularly pornography, with an ambiguity of purpose that is both intriguing and unsettling. In her installations, one is bombarded by a superfluity of pictures and advertisements culled from porno and mainstream magazines. These are combined with photographic portraits (some of herself) and fragments of found texts. This visual clutter is equally dominant in the collages and photomontages; though, the juxtapositions seem less confused, somehow clearer in their chaotic intent. For example, in a group of collage works from 1993 titled, Elke Krystufek liest Otto Weininger (EIke Krystufek reads Otto Weininger), she takes as her point of departure the misogynist treatise 'Sex and Character' written by Weininger, well known in Vienna at the turn of the century for his anti-Semitic and misogynist writings. In these works, Krystufek combines porno clichés, such as the phallic woman with machine gun in tow; banal images like a wedding photograph; and fragments of documentation on male artists such as Martin Kippenberger, Mike Kelley, and Jeff Koons. The result looks like a visual essay on the male terror of female sexuality that infected Weininger's writing (and mind). What is troubling, however, is that one goes away sensing that Krystufek believes that Weininger's fears were not unfounded.

Another work that successfully incites a similar response is an artist's book titled Arbeitsbuch Religion from 1992. It is presented as a facsimile of a guestworker's informational guide: on its red cover one sees the title, the artist's name and a symbol of a handshake. Inside this 'friendly' cover, Krystufek recreates the layout of a pornographic magazine - complete with centrefold - depicting women in various states of bondage. Dispersed onto the amateurish looking photographs are texts, a crucifix, an advertisement for a 'Love Machine' and strategically placed pictograms representing the rights to vote, to work, to asylum, etc., guaranteed by the International Declaration on Human Rights. On the one hand, Krystufek invites a connection between basic human rights and an individual's right to his/her own sexuality, no matter what form it takes and whom it victimises; on the other, it can be read as an astute statement about our society's skewed sense of 'rights' given that the exploitation of, indulgence in and graphic description of sex remains primarily a man's right.

These mixed messages are very much at the heart of Krystufek's art. Whereas earlier women's art dealing with sex or the body sprang out of a firm grounding in feminism, Krystufek, like many of her generation, neither cares nor wants to know. This may be as much a consequence of her age as of the differences between active feminism found in the United States and its more analytical, understated, counterpart in Europe. The manifestation of these differences in the context of women's body art of the 70s - differences which remain largely intact today - were remarked upon in 1976 by Lucy Lippard who noted that 'neutral' body art exploiting the artists 'feminine' features - face, breasts, etc. - was given more critical acceptance in continental Europe than that which was feminist-inspired. (One need only to think of the radical plastic surgery pieces of French artist, Orlan.)

However much today's situation may resemble that of 20 years ago, Krystufek has undoubtedly profited from the failures and successes of feminism, whether it be the confusion produced by the pro-porn/anti-porn debate or the advances in current feminist and gender theory. But despite the cogency of the latter - which accounts for female hetero- and homosexual desire - and the use of 'parodic repetition' of gender stereotypes in order to undermine them, one must still ask whether the re-representation of the sexualised female body effectively subverts stereotypes or merely perpetuates them.