Birgit Dieker - The Big Striptease

Andrea Jahn

I am your opus
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think
I underestimate your great concern. Ash, ash —
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there — (...)
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


Sylvia Plath 1



There she is: tall, fearless, and self­confident, feet wide apart, arms on hips, her gaze sweeps out over her audience, determined. This is the pose of a heroine.

And yet as perfect as this rendering of a female body may seem, so too are its faults: its body is covered from head to toe in hairs, like some wild beast. Its dark skin and the undisguised, naturalistic depiction of nipples only makes things worse. Birgit Dieker’s Beasty Girl (2001, ill. pp. 30 –31) is a kind of she­wolf that confounds all conventions of representation and which astounds and provokes us. It is quite unlike anything we know: if we imagine it without the body hair, its body is that of a modern woman, one whose face is similar to the artist’s own; even her glass eyes bear the same likeness of expression. And yet her mantle of hair stands between us and her like an insurmountable barrier. Who would ever have the courage to reach out and touch her?

Viewed from a feminist perspective, these “devia­ tions” from the canon of aesthetic norms reveal themselves as a subversive strategy, whose critical potential becomes clear when we cast our minds back to the historical preconditions that govern the depiction of the female body. Aesthetic cate­ gories that have determined the representation of the female nude in Western art since antiquity serve to limit and regiment the female form. Within this process a transformation occurs, whereby a “woman” is turned into a female nude.2 This not only means that constrictions are placed on a “natural” body, but more to the point that it is surrounded by an aestheticizing shell, which diverts the viewer’s gaze. Formal and composition­al conventions serve the purpose of forcing the female body into a corset of chasteness, integrity, and impermeability, effectively sealing its openings. This prevents the boundary between inside and outside, between self and the other from being violated. According to this line of thought, anything between these two states poses a danger.

Every body, every object, which eschews classi­ fication or categorization, poses a threat to the existing order. The boundaries between the categories that are applied in maintaining this system (male/female, inside/outside, etc.) are to be viewed as sensitive peripheral regions, which, in their fleetingness, seem at risk of dissolving completely.

The transgression or penetration of bodily limits and delineations as presented in the case of Beasty Girl amounts therefore to nothing less than a threat to the social norm that—to this day— continues to be based on the Aristotelian ideal of symmetry, order, and clarity. From a psychoana­ lytical perspective, the perception of this ideal amounts to nothing less than the illusion of a perfect subject, in which the viewer sees him or herself reflected. In all of this, the female body thus stands as a metaphor for processes of separation and order in which the spheres of self and other are formed. A critical stance toward this “ideal” as adopted by female artists becomes particularly volatile when they proceed to make their own body the object of their investigation. Sculptors like Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Lynda Benglis were among the first artists in the 1960s and 1970s to use their sculptural works to compose radical self­portrayals, made from latex, rubber, and plaster.

Beasty Girl is also a self­portrait of the artist and the way she evokes a sense of alienation from herself poses some important questions. When she makes self­portrayal a key theme in her work, as she does here, her intention is not to depict a new “authentic” femininity or identity, but to reflect on the relationship between the image of the “woman” and her own place in society. This is what Dieker is really portraying here.3 The set of problems the artist faces regarding her own self­ portrait consists in the fact that, as its author, she is ascribed the position of an active (masculine­ connotated) subject of the gaze, while at the same time perceiving herself as its passive object.4 Birgit Dieker sidesteps these conventional dictates, in that she deliberately chooses to depict her own body as Beasty Girl in the very manner in which “femininity” is perceived negatively and as a threat: as the image of the woman as a wild, sexually active creature that was devised as the counterpoint to the cultivated, but passive ideal. The female body appears as a monstrosity and no longer serves as a projection. When the artist puts her own body on the same level as the very historical categories that ensured that “femininity” was degraded and denigrated in the past, she opens herself up to certain risks and places herself on dangerous ground. And yet the likeness with herself is only superficial: in actual fact she uses the exaggerated and alienated self­portrayal as Beasty Girl for her own agenda and uses her hairy figure to strike out on a deliberate collision course with a system in which everything non­masculine is the “other,” bound to a body, whose “faults” are responsible for the inadequacies of its “otherness” (which is to say its “femininity”). In overemphasizing the corpo­ reality of her figure through finely worked female attributes and near animalistic body hair, here on proud display, she fingers the stress lines in a system that can only be maintained through the constant affirmation of itsboundaries. In Beasty Girl she provides us with everything but an image of affirmation, and snubs us with a self­portrait, which is so far removed from conventional notions of the ideal female body that it provokes some­ what embarrassed looks and leaves us speechless.


Dieker’s leather sculpture, Bad Mummy (2005, ill. p. 43), works in a similar vein. In a twist on classical depictions of the torso, this “mother figure” presents itself as an exceptionally antagonistic object. In its black motorbike suit, with its martial overtones and studs, zippers, and spikes, strangely evocative of both archaic Hells Angels’ rites and the primitive depiction of a Venus of Willendorf, the figure becomes the incarnation of the forbid­ ding bad mother, who should not be messed
with at any cost. Nurture and care are not to be expected of her. The figure confounds all concepts of motherliness that the patriarchal pictorial system has given rise to, while at the same time appearing as a tormented figure, which, adorned with thorns and without head or limbs and unable to walk, has to contend with its skin of leather.
The depiction of fragmented and metamorphosed body images has a long tradition in the art of the twentieth and twenty­first century. The investi­ gation of bodies and objects, alienated from their usual functions and charged with sexual connotations, played a key role in the work of the Surrealists. In their case, the body is forcibly trans­ formed, disguised, and dislocated with the aim of breaking its limits and exploiting its erotic potential. The “perversions” reflected in Surrealist artworks reveal the intent “to behave in such a way that the body stops being the ‘natural,’ objectified, given body, but an invented body instead ...” 5
This trend toward fragmentation and fetishization— especially of the female body—has triggered a critical debate in more recent feminist analysis in art history, which has essentially culminated in two interpretative approaches. On the one hand, the visual disassembly and dismemberment of images of “women” is seen by some as an attack on the real female body,6 while in the other camp, the artistic practice of fragmenting the visual repre­ sentation of a body is understood as a form of deconstruction and thus as an opportunity to over­ come patriarchal, bourgeois concepts of totality.7

I myself am more inclined to follow the second position and would like to point out that the artis­ tic depiction of fragmented bodies should not be equated with the destruction or injury of real bodies. Instead it carries a subversive potential that can be best understood using Derrida’s concept of deconstruction. Against this backdrop then it should be noted that, “unlike destruction, deconstruction does not mean ... the violent injury or destruction of a ‘whole,’ rather the reverse, in that it highlights the conditions of its production and lays bare the repressed things concealed within.”8 The dismembered image of “women” thus does not symbolize the destruction of the female body, rather it disrupts the illusion of a stable “feminine identity.” In this vein, even the headless female bodies that reappear again and again in this context in art are not identifiable as definite bodies and objects. It would be more accurate to say that they are comparable with mutations and metamorphoses whose appearance is uncanny and threatening and which consciously deny any affirmation of the “natural.” This is especially true of Birgit Dieker’s Bad Mummy, whose disturbing effect not only flies in the face of established norms of femininity but also declares war on the “mother figure,” a supposedly sacrosanct icon in Western art history.



Since 2006, Birgit Dieker has increasingly explored fragmentary, alienated, metamorphosed bodies, which she sews together, layers and cuts from used clothing—a material that is itself intrinsically related to the body and which carries with it a particular associative potential through its char­ acter (materiality, pattern, and quality). What is conspicuous in these figures is the fact that the artist not only leaves out certain body parts, but that she literally breaks open her bodies to get to the core of their “identity.” They become figures through the compaction, as it were, of sedimentary layers of the personal. She brings their innermost parts to the outside through a series of con­ sciously made incisions. In this way, beneath the aesthetic, perfect surfaces, which surround these sculptures like a kind of protective case, afflictions and psychic chasms are rendered visible. For the artist it amounts to “the search for a self that is concealed under layers of experience and stories, a kind of ‘peeling away.’”9


This certainly also holds true for the armless and headless sculpture Rosie (2007, ill. p. 83). It is composed from a perfectly modeled body, buried below countless layers of clothing piled on top of one another. Hidden this way, the figure seems to consist merely of legs and a shapeless torso. Pink, floral terrycloth forms its outer skin and gives the viewer an initial impression of a cozy, rather plumpish form of “ femininity,” which happily surrounds itself with soft cushions and cuddly toys. But this innocent, naïve image is literally torn to shreds by the artist’s violent interventions to the outer form. In several places, the rose­hued floral pattern is pitted with cuts, sometimes deep and sometimes also of a quite brutal appearance, which tear into and maim the body’s insides. From these gaping “wounds” multiple layers of red fabric seem to spill out, at the very spot, for instance, where the figure’s heart must be, with each layer a darker shade of red the deeper it extends. The head remains buried beneath the mass of fabric. The legs, by contrast, are much more defined, including even the toes, which are recognizable by a hole in the tights on the left leg. The right leg also bears a deep gash on the thigh, which exposes to the viewer the fabric from the various clothes used to make the sculpture.

The artist finds her material in second­hand shops and plays with the used character of this kind of clothing, which epitomizes the idea of a “second skin”—be it as a form of protection or even masquerade, but always infused with the past of the person who once wore it. As the artist herself states: “It symbolizes the tension between interiority and exteriority, between private and public, concealment and disclosure,”10 and exem­ plifies what is concealed inside, the things that do not escape the shell of an “intact” body image—emotional pain, phobias, contradictions.

By appropriating used clothing, the artist makes use of a material that could not be of a more intimate nature. Traces of lived lives are hidden in the weave of these fabrics: through the direct contact with skin, they capture traces of body odors, perfume, and sweat, all signs of the body, of love and fear, exertion and joy. It should also be pointed out that clothing fabric itself is closely tied to the experiences of femininity: “From the moment it is used, the dress ... appears as something individual... The fabric of dresses is generally woven from pliant, soft fibers. This allows it to hug the shape of the body, it can provide warmth and form a veil... The fact fabric only takes on form by clinging to one more solid is not the only reason why it carries feminine connotations. It is an absorbent material, allows itself to
be dyed, takes on smells and is easily manipulated and torn.”11 These characteristics, coupled with the fact that fabric is not durable, usually make it a rather unsuitable material for sculptures. But it is precisely this close relationship to the body, its closeness to the skin and not last its relatively low value (when compared to traditional sculptural materials, such as marble, bronze, and even wood), which make it ideal for Dieker’s artistic concept.


With Anita (2011, ill. pp. 62,68–69), Birgit Dieker created another sculpture in which the spectacle of a contradictory image of femininity stands open to discussion. The sculpture was inspired by the legendary Berlin dancer, Anita Berber. In the 1920s Berber encapsulated the “vamp,” was a public celebrity, a famed singer and femme fatale, who died very young after a series of scandals and frequent drug abuse.12 What interests Dieker about her is the discrepancy between her public glamour and private failure—an inner conflict that is played out on her body.

In an elegant, self­confident pose, fashionably done up in a cocoon of gold sequins, she shows off her body on a barstool, her arms held behind her head, her gaze cast sideward, coquettishly directed at the spectator—a gaze like no other! The oversized eye has been peeled out of glitter­ ing layers of fabric and is surrounded by starkly emphasized eyelashes, while the second eye remains shut beneath a skin of golden sequins. And yet Anita bears deep scars inflicted in the creation process that made her. Even though she seems to play the part of glamour girl quite perfectly, life has clearly taken its toll on her body. Her body consists in countless layers of Lurex dresses, whose shimmer gets duller and darker the deeper they go. The figure’s metallic, shiny sequin dress appears as protective armor and seems to have been quite literally cut into the body itself, so that parts of the body have been worn away or even cut by these interventions. The remaining extremities appear like withered black insect legs—a metamorphosis which reveals both an injured larva body and the figure of a woman:

“A glistening body, head, and neck
as though in a cocoon, with a wing almost emerging on its back: with these thin, hairy legs, displayed on the barstool like
a speared insect.”13


Dieker’s sculptures are to be viewed in direct relation to the developments of Abject Art, a term that was coined in the 1980s to describe a kind of art that explored corporeality in its depth­psycho­ logical and social dimensions. The sculptural works of such different artists as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, and David Hammons are composed of materials that were somehow construed as low or inferior: fabric, latex, rubber, hair and wax. In referring directly to bodily functions and the traces of the body, they are closely related to social taboos and traumas, personal obsessions and phobias, which torpedo our concepts of a stabile body­ego.14

The term “abject”applies to that part of the subject, which defies classification as an object and which it is willing to reject. The objects from which abjection issues define the crossing points between the body’s interiority and exterior, and as such the boundary between subject (inner) and object (outer). Abjection symbolizes the conces­ sion of the subject’s necessary relationship to death, to the animalistic and to the material world, in that it is simultaneously the acknowledgement and rejection of corporeality by the subject.

If from this perspective, we now take another look at the works Bad Mummy, Rosie, and Anita, what becomes clear is that Dieker’s handling of the abject aspects of the body is very subtle and that a transformation takes place through the use of typical motivic elements in Abject Art (entrails, opened bodies, blood, wounds, dismemberment) in the form of apparently unbiased materials (discarded clothes and leather)—a transformation that may indeed confront us with the inevitable, but which also allows us some separation that spares us from the worst. In the case of Beasty Girl the artist adopts a reverse course of action: here she chooses a supposedly “classical” subject, the depiction of her own body as a nude, only to alienate it through a shell of human hair.


The title of Dieker’s “hairy” floor sculpture Innerer Schweinehund (2005, ill. pp. 34–39) directly translates as “the inner pig­dog,” and conjures up ideas of “gutlessness” or the “weaker self.” In this work the artist aligns abject form and abject content. In this sculpture she gets under our skin and touches on our deepest fears and sensations. Innerer Schweinehund has an uncanny appear­ ance, is alien and repulsive as it lies on the ground. A large body, bristly and brown, and helpless like a culled animal. Upon closer inspection we notice that the work is a depiction of innards, but not ones of flesh, rather with a felt­like, hairy surface. We are faced with the magnified rendition of body parts extracted from the inside of a person that bear no clue as to their owner’s identity.

The organs have been freed from their shell—the skin—and now lie exposed and unprotected on the ground: lung, heart, stomach, intestine, nerve fibers, esophagus, and brain. The fact they are rendered here as a dry mass of human and animal hairs only serves to increase the sense of confu­ sion and alienation, which the artist has already achieved through the radical magnification of the depiction. At the same time, the use of bristly, dry material (hair) in rendering soft, organic forms (entrails) serves to heighten the sense of abjec­ tion. It all means we are repulsed and attracted at one and the same time, not least by the psycho­ logical effect that the object triggers in us in the act of viewing. The revealed inner organs point toward death, as they usually only become visible after a person’s death. Innards exposed in this way are a direct reference to abjection: “The corpse ... is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in­between, the ambiguous, the composite.”15

The “innerer Schweinehund” is commonly under­ stood as something that motivates our desires and our sense of laziness in the face of tough decisions. Dieker uses this tongue­in­cheek expression for a moment of weakness in an image that does not expose harmless human weaknesses, but personal chasms and the fragility of a system that denies our own impermanence and which defines the uncontrollability of the body as a threat. Her “innerer Schweinehund”makes us painfully and overtly aware of our own corporeality and therefore of our frailty.


The exhibition title contains an important clue to the relation between these two things. The Big Striptease is a reference to a Sylvia Plath poem, Lady Lazarus, in which the artist describes the speaker’s body at the point of chosen death. Her attempt at suicide is unsuccessful. Her saving becomes a public act, her suicide a performance—a work of art:

“Dying is an art, like everything else/
I do it exceptionally well.”16

Lady Lazarus, risen from the dead, speaks of her body like a foreign object, her skin

“Bright as a Nazi lampshade/
My right foot/
A paperweight/
My face a featureless, fine/
Jew linen.”17

Her body is materially composed in fine layers that can be peeled away, like Dieker’s own fabric sculptures:

“Peel off the napkin/
O my enemy/
...What a million filaments/
The peanut­crunching crowd/
Shoves in to see/
Them unwrap me hand and foot/
the big strip tease.”18

The thing below that is revealed is a being that cannot be comprehended:

“I am your opus/
I am your valuable,/
The pure gold baby/
That melts to a shriek.”19

In Plath her body disintegrates to ashes, for her to be resurrected as a red­haired, man­killing vamp. So too in Birgit Dieker’s striptease, the outer layers peel away to reveal a multilayered identity that is never identical with the outer skin and which constantly shifts, twitches, and mutates in our understanding of it, just like a lava in its cocoon. But in this case, the moth that emerges in the end is a being that scorches itself all too soon in the fire of a life of temptation, too seductive, too bright, too loud—the pure gold baby—glamour and death in one person, and hard to comprehend.



1 Sylvia Plath, “Lady Lazarus” in: Ariel, New York 1999, p. 6.

2 Cf. Lynda Nead, The Female Nude – Art, Obscenity and Sexuality, New York / London1993/1992.

3 It cannot be repeated enough that there is no such thing as “inherent” femininity, which proceeds this image creation and which can be regained
as a form of feminist consciousness. For this reason therefore, the investigation undertaken by the artists mentioned here also revolves around the constructions of the “feminine” that the bourgeois, patriarchal visual machinery has given rise to.

4 Or as John Berger says: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. (...) The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Harmondsworth 1987/1972, p. 47.

5 Xavière Gauthier, Surrealismus und Sexualität. Inszenierungen der Weiblichkeit, (translated) Vienna/Berlin1980, p.204.

6 Cf. Renate Berger, “Pars pro toto. Zum Verhältnis von künstlerischer Freiheit und sexueller Integrität,” in: Renate Berger, Der Garten der Lüste, Cologne1985, pp.150–199.

7 Cf. Sigrid Schade, “Der Mythos des ‘Ganzen Körpers.’ Das Fragmentarische in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts als Dekonstruktion bürgerlicher Totalitäts­ konzepte,” in: Barta, Breu et al. (ed.), Frauen. Bilder. Männer. Mythen, Berlin 1987,pp.239–260.

8 Cf. ibid., p. 125.

9 Birgit Dieker in conversation with the author on June 26, 2012.

10 Quote (translated) from: Moritz Woelk, “Birgit Dieker,” in: Selected Artits – Stipendiatinnen und Stipendiaten des Arbeitsstipendiums für Bildende Kunst des Berliner Senats 2008, Berlin 2009.

11 Monika Wagner, Das Material der Kunst. Eine andere Geschichte der Moderne, Munich 2001, p. 88.

12 “Berber positively attracted scandal, she took morphine and cocaine, drank a bottle of cognac every day and fought with anyone who crossed her path... Her dances, often performed naked, with titles such as ‘Cocaine’ and ‘Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy’ repeatedly led to tumultuous scenes during the performance. She quickly made a name for herself and was the center of scandal and notoriety.” Quote ( translated ) from: Ricarda D. Herbrand, Göttin und Idol. Anita Berber und Marlene Dietrich, 2003, see: http://germanistory.

13 Birgit Dieker in conversation with the author on June 26, 2012.

14 The process of abjection falls in a phase that marks the child’s transition to acquiring language and entry into the symbolic order. The point of abjection lies in the fact that only through the clear demarcation of the “pure,” seemingly clean body is the entry to the patriarchal order and the attainment of a sexual and psychological identity possible. Through repeated abjection, one by
one bodily processes become intrinsically bound up with signifying processes, in which images, perceptions, and sensations are linked with “ideational representatives” and signifiers and are represented by them. Important to note is the fact that, in order to achieve a consistent identity, the subject must deny a part of itself. Under this set of preconditions, each identity acquired from now on remains of a provisional nature and is permanently at risk of breaking apart or dissolving.

15 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection, (London/New York 1982), p. 4.

16 Cf. Plath, 1999 (see note 1), p. 8.

17 Cf. Plath, 1999 (see note 1), p. 6.

18 Cf. Plath, 1999 (see note 1), p. 7.

19 Cf. Plath, 1999 (see note 1), p. 9.