‘In the beginning was cladding,’ wrote Adolf Loos in 1898. ‘The covering is the oldest architectural detail.’¹ Early humans sought shelter and warmth: we covered ourselves in hides and, later, woven textiles. Built walls came into being, Loos’s theory goes, to support and extend these protective second skins, bringing with them a new way of conceiving of outside and inside. For Gottfried Semper, on whose The Four Elements of Architecture (1851) Loos draws, the interlocking construction of these early woven textiles is distantly memorialized in the geometric patterns of the brick and stone walls that came later. (This is perhaps why we still speak of the ‘fabric’ of a building.) Pattern and ornamentation, almost from the very beginning, have been integral to the construction of shelter.
Alexandra Bircken is an artist who understands that garments can be shelters and that skins can be walls. She understands, too, that the need to protect and the need to adorn are basic and almost simultaneous impulses. Her sculpture Walking House (2016), which I first saw at Herald St in London, is made from a patchwork of woollen knit draped over a not-quite-person-sized frame formed of thin lengths of wood and gathered sticks. One of the house’s spindly legs hovers off the floor while another, sturdier, is steadied by a paint-splattered work boot. Within, two stones hang from the latticework like a pair of lungs, or the two ventricles of the heart – animistic tokens partially shielded by the knitted chainmail loops of the garment-skin. The construction is deliberately shonky, provisional, seemingly unfinished. It’s also distinctly stylish – in the manner, say, of a Comme des Garçons take on a scarecrow. Balancing as though on crutches, the piece conveys something powerful about bodily frailty and a primal need for shelter, but also about dependency and support: what ethical thinking after Emmanuel Levinas might call our exposure to one another, and the dual burden of responsibility and vulnerability that this implies. We wear clothes and we build homes because our skins are not enough to protect us; it is the fact of our body’s permeability – its penetrability – that makes us human.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Bircken is obsessed with skin. As she explains to me when we meet at Kunstverein Hannover during her solo exhibition, ‘Stretch’: ‘It’s the body’s largest organ; it’s our interface with the world.’ It holds things in, it keeps things out; it is soft, strong, pliable; the same but constantly renewing; resistant but permeable. It contains us within ourselves and is the surface, the shape, that presents us to the outside world. From her rodeo will-o’-the-wisp, Mr Denim (2004), to the pallid translucency of her nylon-covered New Model Army 1-5 (2016) – respectively, the oldest and newest works in ‘Stretch’ – Bircken explores the materiality of skin through a series of stand-ins. These proxies – which also include latex-coated canvas, motorcycle leathers, polyester resin and woven fabrics – allow the artist to reflect on the uncanny object-ness of our own flesh, which is experienced simultaneously as a self and a thing. We are more than our bodies, but our bodies are also beyond our understanding.
The centrality of the body to Bircken’s work should perhaps not come as a surprise. The artist trained as a fashion designer at London’s Central Saint Martins in the early 1990s before first running her own label (in collab-oration with Alexander Faridi) and subsequently working as a designer in Paris and elsewhere until the end of the decade. After moving to Cologne in 1999, she found a studio that also had a shop front where she could display and sell her work. She called the space ‘Alex’. By that point, she had already put some distance between herself and the commercial demands of making functional garments. Her neighbour was the gallery BQ, who invited her to put on her first exhibition with them in autumn 2004. (Now based in Berlin, BQ continues to represent her.) Bircken’s earliest art works were what she has called ‘accessories without bodies’: stand-alone objects that nevertheless conjure absent forms, seeming to cling tightly to figures that are not there.
Our sense of self is bound up with our bodily appearance: this much fashion understands. Its promise – that how you look can transform who you are – is a suggestion that is both exploitative and emancipatory (and not wholly fantastical).
Bircken’s Scheibentorso (Slice Torso) – a work from 2013, in which blocks made from compressed layers of wax-dipped textiles have been stacked to approximate a classically rendered torso – is a wry nod to this ideology, and its crudeness. Where figures appear in Bircken’s work, they most often resist particularity. She seems to be moving away from creating characters – her earlier flaxen-tressed silver birch, Blondie (2010), for example, or the severed mannequin legs of 2009’s Püppi auf Abwegen (Püppi Gone Astray), which have been reclaimed by sprouting grasses and accumulated detritus – and towards more general statements about what it is to be in a body, which is to say: what it is to be human.
Bircken reflects on the uncanny object-ness of our own flesh, which is experienced simultaneously as a self and a thing.
The centrepiece of the exhibition in Hannover, filling a long, light central gallery, is Eskalation II (2016). This comprises 40 black, latex-dipped Deflated Figures (2014), which hang from ladders, the uncanny bulk of their ever-so-slightly padded limbs drooping silently against the rungs. The ladders extend into the ceiling, where scrimmed panels have been removed, in places, to allow glimpses into the beamed apex of the roof above, giving the impression of a cadaverous conveyor belt transporting cast-off skins for re-use in worlds above. There is no escape, however. When the bodies reach the top, they accumulate in shadowy drifts against the translucent ceiling membrane, like shades mustering on the banks of the Acheron in Dante Alighieri’s vision of Inferno in The Divine Comedy (c.1308–20). Bircken’s latest works – on show as part of the installation ‘Esplanade’ at K21, Düsseldorf – are even more wraithlike. Heavy shrouds of woollen knit, the pieces have been dipped in wax and attached, by metal hooks, to ropes that dangle from the ceiling to form long wicks – a flicked cigarette away from going up in flames.
The darkness and quiet violence of these more recent works is, I think, a product of the artist’s anxiety around contemporary geopolitics, which manifests itself in subtle ways. In Traffic (2016), for instance, flashes of orange thread mark migration paths from North Africa and the Middle East across Europe. This flyaway wall tapestry was first shown at Herald St, where it hung alongside Walking House; similar woven works, Map I and II, covered the sides of a metal-and-scaffold-board truck as part of the artist’s presentation at Glasgow International in 2016. In each case, the fabric’s gossamer flimsiness served as a reminder of forced nomadism, of those without shelter and of how tangled the ties of responsibility can become.
There is violence, too, in works such as AK-47 and Uzi (both 2016): a disarmingly seductive pair of bisected assault rifles, mounted like stags’ antlers on one wall at Kunstverein Hannover, as well as in a trio of large, latex-coated, bomb-like shapes, collectively titled B.U.F.F. (2014). The acronym is military slang for ‘Big Ugly Fat Fucker’, as the US Air Force’s long-serving B-52 bomber is affectionately known. However, the forms also conjure a whole array of sexual associations – nudity, the male-model’s idealized musculature, niche pornography – which are exacerbated by their bondage-latex finish. (Bircken’s titles are often puns: she seems to take as much pleasure in the plasticity of words as of materials.) They could be bombs, they could be butt plugs; they are phallic and kinky, but they’re also overblown, verging on the ridiculous. To the touch, they are soft and light: I want to call them huggable. They remind me of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: squat, round, dumb-looking things, perversely anthropomorphized as Little Boy and Fat Man. Sex, death and masculinity was all wrapped up in those weapons that quite literally separated people from their skins and turned bodies instantly into shadows.
Bircken’s work often deals with the vagaries of gender. She tells me that 20 of the Deflated Figures are male and 20 are female, but I struggle to tell the difference. The headless ranks of New Model Army 1–5 are also sexless – mannequins subtly shaped by padding and covered with patchwork sheaths of tight-nylon and protective bits of motorcycle leather, which further distort their already impossible geometries. Elsewhere, a motorcycle suit has been splayed and nailed to the wall like a hunting trophy (Kirishima, 2016). Between its spread legs, the clipped zipper hangs like a clitoris, forcefully feminizing a form we might more readily associate with masculinity. (There is a sense, perhaps, in all of this, that if the body has an architecture, it is that of a cage.)
Motorcycles and motorcycle leathers have often appeared in Bircken’s work. On one level, this may be because the latter represent the ne plus ultra of protecting your own skin with that of another (once) living thing. The bikes themselves might be conceived of as adjuncts to the human form – prostheses of sorts – that allow the body to surpass itself: to go quicker, to feel more. (I have heard people talk about skiing or surfing the way that Bircken talks about riding motorcycles: in terms of accessing a heightened experience of embodiment.) But they also pertain to a highly masculine cultural vocabulary that sets up an interesting dialectic with the artist’s ‘softer’ textile pieces. She plays with a whole set of binaries – craft vs. industry; soft vs. hard; phallic vs. rotund; organic vs. synthetic – to create a body of work that is properly androgynous, which wants to be both.
Like the Deflated Figures, Kirishima conjures the Christian iconography of flayed skin. Flaying was endured by the early martyrs because their faith considered the body as no more than a temporary container for the immortal soul. For Bircken, however, meaning is immanent: there is no sense beyond sense. On a plinth in one of the rooms in Hannover, the artist placed an edition made especially for the show: a pair of motorcycling gloves, cast in nickel silver. The palms face upwards, the thumbs curl slightly in; the leather is worn, warm with the contours of human hands. The cast was taken from gloves belonging to Bircken’s partner. The work is touching in more ways than one: its title, which also translates as ‘hero’, is Held (2016).
Alexandra Bircken is based in Cologne, Germany. Recent solo exhibitions include:‘Stretch’ at Kunstverein Hannover, Germany, which will travel to Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany, and CREDAC, Paris, France, later this year; and ‘Needle’ at Herald St, London, UK (both 2016). In 2016, she was also included in Glasgow International, UK; ‘The Distance of a Day: Connections and Disconnections in Contemporary Art’, Israel-Museum, Jerusalem; and ‘At the Cliffs of River Rhine’, Oslo 10, Basel, Switzerland. Her solo exhibition, ‘Esplanade’, at K21 Ständehaus, Düsseldorf, Germany, runs until March 12 and she will have a solo presentation at BQ, Berlin, Germany, in September.
1) Adolf Loos, ‘Das Prinzip der Bekleidung’, first published in Neue Freie Presse, 4 September 1898. Translated as ‘The Principle of Cladding’ in Adolf Loos, Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897–1900, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 66–69
Main image: Alexandra Birken, Eskalation II, 2016, installation view at Kunstverein Hannover. Courtesy: BQ, Berlin, Herald St, London, and Kustverein Hannover; photograph: Raimund Zakowski