Intimacy on a Large Scale:
A Conversation with
With her self-portraits, Katharina
Sieverding is like the sphinx of contemporary art. She’s shown at both the
documenta and the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale; this year she
was awarded the renowned Kaiserring of the city of Goslar. In an interview
with Harald Fricke , the artist, who lives in Dusseldorf, explains
why she’s been working on breaking down gender identities for years.
The gaze is rigid, photo flashes
and lamps are reflected in the pupils of a never-changing face. Only the
make-up and hair vary; sometimes the photographs are bathed in red light
or resemble negatives, having undergone the technical process of
solarization . There’s no question about it, a woman artist’s staging of
herself has seldom been this perfect: hundreds of large-scale photographs
show one image and one image only – the frontal portrait of Katharina
Sieverding. The current exhibition
Close Up at P.S.1/MoMA
in New York has developed a path throughout the works of the German
artist, who was born in Prague in 1944, in which intimacy literally
dissolves in the face-to-face situation. The viewer is surrounded by
self-portraits whose individual contours blur into a tangled web in the
allover of the presentation. Close Up comes across as a
photographic diary kept over the years in which Sieverding’s face changes
imperceptibly over time and yet, as a motif, always remains the same.
Aberration and abstraction interact here in a way that is almost
physically palpable: as a continuous series of transformations.
Understanding life in terms of the
moment and using the series to carry this moment to the point of absurdity
is the tension underlying the fascination for Sieverding’s work. Since
1967, she’s been making photographs and films of herself, arranging the
visual material thus accrued into various image blocks.
Stauffenberg-Block I–XVI from 1969 is an investigation into
Germany’s past, and for Maton (1990) Sieverding used the
image of her face as an ambiguous surface for projection. On the other
hand, Die Sonne um Mitternacht schauen X/VI (Looking at the Sun
at Midnight, 1988) shows a face covered in golden dust and
superimposed with solar eruptions in which Sieverding opens "the high
cosmic oven," as the art critic Rudolf Schmitz wrote in the 1997 Deutsche
Bank catalogue. "A blazing flame burns above the tableau of the many
untouched, melting masks."
Deutsche Bank Collection
has become one of the most well-known women artists of her generation with
these puzzling, at times cold, but always strong compositions. She took
part in documenta V as early as 1972, and in 1997 she exhibited in the
German pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The same year, Sieverding was
Deutsche Bank’s artist of the fiscal year, while the
Deutsche Guggenheim gave her a large one-woman exhibition with
Works in Pigment. When she received the
Kaiserring of the city of Goslar in October 2004, the jury was above all
impressed by the fact that Sieverding, more than any other woman artist,
is a "seeker of human identity." Her own bodily experience has provided
the motor throughout, and to this day Sieverding remains closely
associated with the forerunners of performance and body art.
Harald Fricke: Ms. Sieverding,
Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the
Nobel Prize in Literature this year, and you received the Kaiserring of
the city of Goslar. Is society ready for powerful women in 2004?
Katharina Sieverding: Yes, and I also find it cool that "powerful works"
make it into this process of public recognition. At least it poses
Geistesleben - Wirtschaftsleben - Rechtsleben, 1993
Deutsche Bank Collection
In her texts,
Jelinek investigates female role clichés, while you challenge the viewer’s
perception with large-scale self-portraits. To what extent are these
images exemplary for the role of women artists?
At least I’ve
tried to create a life-size dimension in "repeated reflections," one that
functions in a self-made visual space. These constructions have a
polarizing effect when seen alongside the traditions of dominant,
monumental male images.