Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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HAPTICMEMORY

Published on the occasion of her eponymous solo show, on view at Museum Brandhorst through January 2022, ‘Alexandra Bircken: A–Z’ is the first comprehensive monograph dedicated to the work of the Cologne-born, Berlin-based artist.

Words by Allan Gardner

The theme of the self in Alexandra Bircken’s work is most often tied with references to the physical, the use of fabric and textiles both on and o the body as a reference to control, and tension, or the phenomenology of the material—often expressed through a combination of seemingly disparate materials as a means of informing dialogue between ourselves and our environment. In a new monograph titled Alexandra Bircken: A-Z, published on the occasion of her retrospective at Museum Brandhorst, her work is explored in detail through extensive documentation as well as several essays. The book opens with images from the 2003 exhibition “Shop Alex”, held at the artist’s then shop-front studio in Cologne. The grungy images, captured in all their low-res, flash-photography, early-2000s glory, are an excellent starting point for a conversation about her work with the body. In this instance, it’s absent, showing cut and tied t-shirts on metal hangers, with necklaces and photographs tacked on the walls alongside them.

The idea of the presence of the body within space has been prevalent from this early stage in her exhibiting. Rather than considering one’s body as an organism (purely reading our interaction with the environment as a physical interaction), Bircken’s work retains a strong semiotic consideration of the materials. Having graduated from Central Saint Martins in the mid-’90s with a degree in Fashion Design, works like Shop Alex show concern not just for what these materials or suggestions of objects are, but also for what they may say about a potential wearer, user, or inhabitant. The importance of balancing the physicality of the material alongside its own cultural and social identity is explored in tandem with these ideas.

A-Z explores Bircken’s work in detail, giving specific attention to the early stages of her art practice following her experience in the commercial fashion industry. Co-running her own label with partner Alexander Faridi, as well as working at the Paris fashion house Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Bircken reconsidered her work in a contemporary art context without shedding a sensibility built in design. To see her work arranged chronologically through photos feels kind of like leafing through fabrics—there’s a constant awareness of the tactile properties of what she works with. This is true even for pieces that have no direct relationship to garments of fabric, like Smartie (2017), in which the chassis of a car is shown in its natural finish, separated by two sections of light-wood paneling and exhibited on a raised platform. The sculpture transcends a lazy conversation around industrial materials or capitalism and makes the viewer think about how one might physically interact with the object—how it would feel, how we could navigate it. This is indicative of the sleight of hand in Bircken’s work, and of a practice that employs consumer objects and commercial materials with control over what part of their material identity is being communicated.

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A consistent approach to making her work is the act of knotting, using fabric to somehow cover, hold, or bind something through entangling itself. For most people, knots are something we only think about when they become a problem, when they become too tight or unruly and we’re unable to get them undone. Bircken approaches the knot from a different perspective, using it to show the changes in tension and texture in the fabric and the way that they affect the material they interact with. In 2014’s Fury, a battered wooden horse is covered with black plastic netting, so tangled that it appears heavy, suffocating, and to be weighing down the horse. The asphyxiation of an inanimate object is hung in empathetic balance with the horse, a signaling childhood, or a fabricated nostalgia for the archetypal simpler time. Combining these disparate objects in conversation through material physicality, the work manages to reach the viewer’s haptic memory. Experience, lived or imagined, is conjured by our sense of touch in relation to the sculpture.

Image courtesy of the artist; Museum Brandhorst, Munich; and Hatje Cantz.

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