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>> Interview: Louise Bourgeois
>> Career Women and Material Girls
>> The Legend's Burden: Eva Hesse
>> Close Up: Katharina Sieverding

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Intimacy on a Large Scale:
A Conversation with Katharina Sieverding

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.

Untitled, 1998
Deutsche Bank Collection

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.

Maton, 1969/97
Deutsche Bank Collection

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."

Nachtmensch, 1982
Deutsche Bank Collection

Katharina Sieverding 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 additional questions.

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.

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