Die Autopsie des Schönen

Ellen Heider

Autopsy of the Beautiful

Technical perfection, sensual materiality and compositional balance are the hallmarks of Birgit Diekers 
sculptural oeuvre, of which many works fulfil in masterly fashion the classical criteria applying to the sculpture medium. As an artist, her interest centres on the human body which, grasped as a whole or as a fragment, she translates into sculptural forms and alters by enlargement, reproduction or the usage of materials both appropriate and foreign to the skin and bones. It would be possible to list a diverse range of approaches by which contemporary women artists model and interpret the human, and usually female, body. For many artists, photography and the new media have become established means. Resisting the allure of these possibilities, Birgit Dieker instead explores a traditional aesthetic field that proves to be a fascinating medium for addressing her central theme.

The body ensnared in the field of tension between biological determination and social influence has long played a part in theoretical discourse as well as artistic reflections. Within a discussion touching upon medical, psychological, anthropological and cultural aspects, Birgit Dieker adopts a position with works notable in both form and content. Alluding to the diverse range of techniques for enhancing and perfecting the body deployed in such fields as medicine, cosmetics, sports and fashion, her works incisively and often ironically investigate the constant revaluation of the body as it increasingly mutates into a medium of self-realization.

Taking as point of departure the human physique (mainly female, sometimes her own), Birgit Dieker distorts or inverts the customary image of the body: she creates mutants of archaic physicality (Beasty Girl), turns the body inside out and vice-versa (Kleine Fontäne), presents sportily packaged intestines (Organsack), or 
declares garments to be stand-ins for the human species (Drei Grazien). Her materials range from everyday and industrial materials such as human hair and leather to textiles and haberdashery of all kinds. Remote from the buzz of fashion and the media, the sculptures radiate sensuality and wit yet shock and unsettle as they describe situations at once poetic, ironic and alienating.

Throughout the ages the female body has served as a projection surface for male desires and ideals. Birgit Dieker confronts such ideas disrespectfully and self-assuredly. A sculpture like Drei Grazien (Three Graces) can be read as a play on male expectations and a paraphrase upon female eroticism. Stretched over punchbags, the fetishist and normally body-beautifying accessory of the corset now adorns a shapeless trio. Devoid of head and limbs, these incarnate witnesses of years of use radiate not so much eroticism as embarrassing intimacy. The creatureliness of the female body with all its ageing and physiological processes invades a new female image. Birgit Dieker operates with perceptive humour, desexualizes symbols of the womanly, and exposes to ridicule the cult surrounding the body and beauty.
Consisting of a shop-window dummy originally made for stockings and therefore reduced to the legs, Kleine Fontäne (Small Fountain) likewise offers a new take on erotic fetishes. Birgit Dieker disrupts the body-fragment aesthetic by dressing the fake limbs not in fashionable stockings but in a plain white panty-hose over which runs an intricate web of blue, and vein-like, cords. Thus, the artist provocatively confronts her object with efforts by cosmetic surgeons to eliminate organic nature from our physical appearance. Due to the sensual nature of the textiles and the aesthetic lineament of the venous network, the Kleine Fontäne reduces to absurdity our idealized notion of beauty.

The life-size figure Beasty Girl, which Birgit Dieker painstakingly covered with a felt composed of human hair and sheeps wool, similarly breaks with conventional notions of the female body. A conflict breaks out between ideal and grotesque: despite the intimacy of the sculpture, the hairiness of the body lends it an archaic turn that interferes with the voyeuristic view of the female form. A further unsettling factor in this direct confrontation is the fact that a statue has been taken off its pedestal: the distancing effect of the art space gives way to seeming interaction with the viewer.

In body-related discourse a significant role is played by the polarity of inside and outside, by the border between the visible and invisible. Such discussions postulate a correspondence between body and soul, an agreement between external form and inner state determined not least by body functions and processes. In a series of anatomical works, Birgit Dieker with scientific curiosity directs our view through the skin into the interior, makes the imaginary imaginable and capable of representation. In Organsack she isolates human intestines and translates them into an outsized sculpture. The human organs are transplanted, so to speak, into a context enabling them to be experienced visually and haptically. Inspired by anatomical pictures and models, the artist is interested in the fragmented body and medical science’s usage of dissecting methods. We are reminded of 18th-century anatomical wax models, a scientific achievement that was to have great import for the cultural development of society. Series of true-to-life or oversized anatomical modules were produced for didactic purposes, and could be taken apart in order to explain the relationship between the organs. The Organsack amounts to a contemporary variation on the same theme. The technically flawless execution matches that of its waxen forerunners: every organ is a meticulous, true-to-scale reproduction. In conjunction with the garish colours of the lungs, kidneys, bowels and so forth, the unblemished synthetic material rouses associations with the glossy and glamorous advertising aesthetic. Devoid of even the faintest claim to realism, the object radiates the seductive aura of a valuable designer object. It seems only logical, in the age of advanced transplantation surgery, that trendy Velcro fasteners should be used to interconnect the individual organ cushions. Birgit Dieker interprets the organs as interchangeable details, the body as a vessel for mixing and matching various components.

The sculpture Heartware likewise confronts the viewer with aesthetic perfection. Its theme is the heart, the organ that has played the most significant role in cultural history. Long viewed as the seat of the soul, of love, of the emotions and the spirit, the heart today – in a society clamouring for everlasting beauty and health – has connotations of medical science, sport and the gym. Birgit Dieker gives fascinating form to this changing significance, translates the symbol of love into the sterile, technoid formal language of polished stainless steel. An abstract formation at first glance, the organic character of her sextuple clone gradually begins to emerge.

Kardio, a Siamese twin training shoe, also refers to the heart motif. Instead of choosing a stylized form of the popular symbol, the artist presents the two-part hollow muscle in all its organic ungainliness. The feet are embraced by two chambers of the heart, thus forcing their owner to move them synchronously. The training shoe, that unisex prop of the sporty and fashionable lifestyle, no longer promises speedy and cushioned progress through an achievement-oriented rat-race, but is a handicap on progress. A drag in the literal sense of the word, its function has been reduced to absurdity.

The anatomical studies presented in glass showcases occupy a special position among Birgit Diekers otherwise purely sculptural body images. These representations of the arterial system and anatomical details draw our attention to invisible processes and cycles taking place inside the human body. Deploying a technique comparable with that of delicate inlaid work, the artist has carefully arranged gold and silver foil to produce aesthetic diagrams. Her allusion to the history of the materials is appropriate, since gold and silver were used for healing purposes by alchemists. Even today, gold continues to be used in homeopathy. The gold foil, which due to oxidation has the appearance of being seared, begins to dance in front of our eyes, enables us to feel the blood pulsating in the veins and the alternation of hot and cold. As if we are looking at an X-ray picture, the shadow in the picture background appears as a colourful shimmer.

Birgit Diekers sculptural means for the object Hide and Seek are items of clothing, which she presents as the quintessential second skin. The title already points out the significance of garments as an envelope within which the body manifests itself as a blank space. Clothes are used for protection, for masquerades and for role play. They symbolize the tension between interior and exterior, between private and public, between concealment and exposure. Hide and Seek is composed of numerous items of clothing which act as the filling of a transparent plastic mattress and are layered on top of each other according to the criteria of male/female and outer garments/underwear. The covers become the core. Because the mattress is placed upright against a wall, viewers find themselves standing opposite the Male and the Female as represented by clothing. The heads are formed from hats and caps, the rumps from jackets, pullovers and blouses, the legs and feet from trousers and socks. The mattress – a venue of sleep, dreams and sex – turns the confrontation into an intimate encounter. Yet the crammed body envelopes inside it rouse thoughts not so much of sweet dreams or happy togetherness than of oppressively cramped conditions and of physical and mental imprisonment.

The constricted nature of the closed form is wholly inverted by the furious dynamics of the installation Twister. Seized by an imaginary whirlwind, countless items of clothing fly upward in two concentric strands. As if hurtling through a fast-spin cycle in a washing machine, the garments are shaped by invisible forces and transformed into a moving mass of colour. The whirlwind also grasps the piles of clothes stacked on the floor. A force of nature appears to have veered out of control. Sculptures – including the work described above – are in general static, and are altered merely by light changes and the moving eye of the spectator. Birgit Dieker disrupts the stationary nature of sculpture by means of forms that extend into space and surfaces that move. Yet her artistic interest is not confined to the formal conditions of sculpture: references to topics of contemporary social relevance are discernible. The twin-stranded whirlwind might be read as an allusion to the double helix of the DNA; the genetic code can be seen as analogous with clothes as representatives of the human body and carriers of information about the individual. Beyond that, the double helix refers to the innermost human body, namely to the cell nucleus, and thus touches upon issues currently being debated in regard to genetic research and reproductive medicine.

The works of Birgit Dieker testify to her mastery of technique and sensitive handling of material. She derives her vocabulary from the rich repository of motifs provided by the human body and the contemporary fetishes surrounding it. For her artistic reflections, the body cult expounded by the media and advertising industries and practised in the fields of medicine, cosmetics, fashion and sport is simultaneously inspirational muse and belligerent opponent. A first unbiased glance at her objects, with their technical precision and smooth surfaces, results in the impression of beauty and perfection: a notion revealed, on closer inspection, to be an illusion. Ironic and macabre allusions emerge beneath the surface, evoking anxiety and unease. Accentuated by the cryptic titles of the works, this discrepancy between surface gloss and what lies below stakes out the field of tension within which the form and content of Birgit Diekers work operates.