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Kirsten Justesen - an artist and feminist looks back

Feminist and artist Kirsten Justesen finds that society is getting tougher for women and children due to the political climate. With her lastest exhibition 64 – Pursuits and Collections at The Women’s Museum, she wants to tell the social and cultural story of her own generation of women and of times gone by.

Using the Beatles’ song When I’m Sixty-Four as her guideline, she shows that the private and the public go hand in hand. FORUM spoke with Kirsten Justesen in the lead-up to the June 20 opening of the exhibition.


FORUM/17.06.2008 Artist and feminist Kirsten Justesen's current project is to look back on her life - 64 years, sorting through old effects and finding items of cultural-historical interest. She uses these to shape a feminist archaeology with its starting point in the private/public history. 64 is not an art project, she stresses  and explains:

I haven’t made an exhibition, I’ve simply tidied up. The Women’s Museum asked if I would make an art exhibition, but the Women’s Museum is a museum of cultural history reflecting women’s lives throughout the ages, and I don’t want to exhibit my works at a museum of cultural history, my works live in a completely different setting.

In many ways the Women’s Museum represents the same approach that the Women’s Movement took in the days when it was on the move – culminating in 1975 with the Women’s Exhibition in Charlottenborg [exhibition hall in central Copenhagen, ed.]. One of the pioneering moves in that exhibition was that everyone could just come along with what they had; any and every woman could turn up with her hand-embroidered oven-gloves.

It was a case of simply casting different eyes on female pursuits – pursuits that none of us have any intention of abandoning. It’s not a question of whether or not there is a specific female aesthetics, says Kirsten Justesen. When women make art it doesn’t ‘naturally’ assume a particular form; on the other hand, it is a case of consciously taking aesthetic and strategic decisions and choosing to work in a particular crossover arts landscape.

- That’s what some of us in the women’s movement did. The politically correct stance at that time was: women can do everything, and we’re going to show it. Some of the finest products of women’s culture are done in needlecraft, textiles, produced by all sorts of women – women of the parish, women of the royal family. That’s the kind of women’s culture that the Women’s Museum works with. My artistic work lies elsewhere entirely. So, I had to tackle it in a completely different way.

64 is just not sexy
I’m now sixty-four years old – which is surely the least sexy thing on the planet – you’re nothing, not even a pensioner. At the same time, once you’ve reached sixty-four you’ve buried quite a few – friends, husbands, mothers, mothers-in-law. And this is where it gets personal: I’ve tidied up after people for the last ten years. I’ve had to send letters to archives and furniture to my children. Now that I’ve turned sixty-four my own immortality becomes more apparent, so I thought: I’ll spare my children and now I’ll simply tidy up after myself too, while I’m in full swing. So I’ve tidied up and sorted out all my effects.

Kirsten Justesen therefore told the Women’s Museum that she would like to make an exhibition – that is, a cultural-historical exhibition, not an art exhibition. And she would only do it on condition that the museum agreed to keep all the exhibits.

Retelling history
The 64 project has also been motivated by the fact that in recent years Kirsten Justesen has been asked a number of times about the ‘good old days’. She was interviewed about her past when the women artists’ group Kvinder på Værtshus [Women Down the Pub. Eds.] put together the book Udsigt [View, Danish/English text. Eds.] looking at feminist strategies in Danish visual art, published in 2004. In that same year, when being interviewed by young women artists in connection with the 96th anniversary of women’s admission to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (250th anniversary for men), she was brought face to face with the passage of time and the fading of memory:

It was a struggle to remember it all, and I was amazed by the questions young women ask. I realised what a fantastically fun and privileged and anarchistic life my generation has lived. Developments in Denmark over the last ten years, with ‘bureaucratisation’ and everything being measured in terms of ‘effectivity’, have made for a world that is so tough for women and children, they simply aren’t invited to the table. Only if the ship sinks – no, maybe women and children aren’t even first into the lifeboats any more. So it’s important to put down to markers left by the women’s history of my generation.

And Kirsten Justesen points out that the title refers to the Beatles song When I’m Sixty-Four. Now she has 64-eyes and the lyric has a totally different resonance from back in the days when she danced like crazy to The Beatles.

So I made the exhibition 64 – Pursuits and Collections and a catalogue with the subtitle Kulturhistorisk scrapbog. Kirsten Justesen og andre pigebørn født 1940-45 [A scrapbook of cultural history. Kirsten Justesen and other daughters of war born 1940-45]. I got all the friends of the museum to collect stories, so I could present our tales in one go.

The personal is political
It has been a time-consuming process, but now these tales have been put together as ‘she’ texts in the catalogue, divided into decades: 1940s, young daughters; 1950s, out-of-sorts decade; the ’60s, decade of ’rebellion’; the ’70s, the women’s movement and having babies; 1980s, careers; 1990s, head down and get on with it; and now the decade of the silver generation.

64 – Pursuits and Collections is thus a manifestly feminist project, coupling the private and the big story, the personal in a political light?

Exactly. The personal is political. The catalogue writes ‘she’s story – ‘she’ is married, divorced, a widow, girlfriend, has children, step-children, ex-husband and so forth. Every year has its own testimonial, with a cooking recipe on one side and historical items with a story on the other side. And it’s all seasoned with historical notes, extracts from laws and much else.

The food pages start with a breast-pump and then go through popular and typical Danish dishes of the decades. And among the ‘historical’ items we see my embroidered bib, made from two bed sheets, or a photograph of me as a child, taken in May 1945 just after the Liberation, sitting on my father’s lap, him proudly wearing his officer’s uniform. He had led the Resistance in west Funen and he received a letter of thanks from Eisenhower, which you can see here. The private documents reflect the big story, and then there are the historical images which had an effect on everyone, and which I have to include: the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, or the ‘napalm girl’ from the Vietnam War.

There are Barbie dolls, Christel drawings [popular illustrations by Danish artist. Eds..], and a picture in which ‘she’ is wearing a Marimekko dress and rolling a joint. There’s Giro 413 [popular Danish radio programme playing light music. Eds.] and the Rødstrømpesangbogen [Danish women’s movement songbook. Eds.] – with guidelines for printing your own song. There are historical notes, passages from laws on equality, or quotations I’ve been keeping in a box for years: for example, Queen Margrethe’s comment that “I am not that ketchup used to spice up the dishes”, or the classic feminist slogan “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”.

Equality at a standstill
The scrapbook thus reflects the lives of Kirsten Justesen and her sisters year-by-year from cradle to 64 in pictures and texts, food and song, weaving big and small stories together into a patchwork of cultural history. There are very few actual art works, and not even any works from Kirsten Justesen’s lengthy career as professional visual artist. There is one exception – 1983, when Kirsten Justesen provided a cover for the Danish feminist magazine Kvinder [Women. Eds.]. She was one of the editors along with other prominent Danish feminists of the time, Birgit Petersson and Lene Adler Petersen. Kvinder was first published in 1975, in the wake of the Women’s Exhibition. In connection with this she had made a couple of radio programmes, which she has recently listened to again and been amazed at how many of the issues are still relevant today:

It was shocking, it’s as if nothing has happened. Denmark is just so primitive. Sweden is far ahead of us when it comes to comprehending all this and implementing legislation. I’m shocked that everything to do with equality and equal pay has come to a standstill.

In 2003, I was part of a group of women artists who arranged Før Usynligheden [Before Invisibility. Eds.], a conference on gender discrimination in the art world, and it really struck me just how sluggishly we’re moving in relation to the EU’s mainstreaming requirement for equal opportunities and equality of status. Denmark ratifies these things many years after the other Nordic countries, and even then the legislation is not expressed in totally precise terms, as you see from the notes in the 64 catalogue. It’s as if nothing has moved on in terms of understanding how women and children are placed and what rights they should have. The issue of equality thus came to take up more and more space in the catalogue. Once you’ve seen the world in a feminist light, you can’t switch it off again.

Feminist politics
In the mid 1990s Kirsten Justesen exhibited in Galleri Bossky in Copenhagen. When I was reviewing the exhibition for Politiken [Danish national newspaper. Eds.] you insisted that I mustn’t call your art ‘feminist’. Why?

Well, my art venture is not primarily feminist. It was feminist in the 1970s, with the picture of me naked in a shopping trolley. My studio was between the kitchen and the nursery room, and I tried to define the female artist in that space, because I had children. Not many women artists before me had children – Anne Marie Carl Nielsen had a few, but she was reasonably well-off. I could name many examples of women artists of my generation who actively chose not to have children – or began to panic just before biological closing time, when their career was up and running. So yes, I’m feminist, but that’s not always the main aspect of my work.

The work and commitment she invests in the political aspect of the art world is, on the other hand, a clearly feminist matter for Kirsten Justesen. Over the years she has served on a number of funding committees, where she has followed a distinctly feminist agenda:

You can rest perfectly assured that plenty of effort is being made on behalf of men, I don’t have to use my energy on that. So the first thing I do is to see which women match this grant or this position on the committee or such like.

Kirsten Justesen sees her feminist agenda as relating exclusively to her political work and involvement in social issues, and not as something that has to do with her artistic production. Nevertheless, her works are often interpreted as being feminist.

Well, that’s just because I often use my own body as an instrument in my art. And it is actually a woman’s body. So of course you can talk about femininity in connection with my works.

The female body in art history
The question of what the body represents is a pivotal point for many feminist artists. Some have celebrated the female body and seen it as liberating. Others think that you simply can’t show the female body because it is so firmly established in our culture as a sexual object and it cannot be seen as a ‘neutral’ form in the same way as the male body can. The American feminist artist Mary Kelly, for example, thinks that the female body is so objectified in patriarchal society, and in a way that cannot be circumvented, that it is a problematic subject for the artist; in her view it is impossible to avoid contributing to the objectivisation. But Kirsten Justesen does not agree with this:

I insist that the female body is just as neutral as the male body. The female body has a very special position in art history – it has always been used as a motif. And my body fits the proportions of classic sculpture – it doesn’t refer to Rubens’ bombastic proportions of the Baroque period, thank goodness, but to the 19th-century model.

Using the artist' body as sculpture
Kirsten Justesen stresses that the starting point for her use of the body in her sculpture was that her body fit the classic sculpture ideals. She studied at the Jyske Kunstakademi [Jutland Art Academy. Eds.], where she received a classical training in sculpture under Professor Knud Nellemose. She thinks of Aarhus as the city where it was all happening at that time, while Copenhagen lagged way behind, especially as far as the Art Academy was concerned where “the past and painters of darkness with their existential interests reigned”. But Willy Ørskov’s book Aflæsning af objekter [The Reading of Objects. Eds.], published in 1966, helped to open up for something new, and that helped give Kirsten Justesen the necessary apparatus with which to move the body out into the world and work in the crossover landscape where she has been moving ever since.

It started with the cardboard box in 1968, Skulptur II. Basically, a sculpture is a plinth with a form on top – and it’s often a naked woman up there. My Skulptur II is a cardboard box with a black-and-white photograph of me inside. So it’s identical with the basic sculpture: the cardboard box is a plinth you can walk round, and there’s a woman in it without any clothes on. And what is more, it’s the artist who has entered into her own work. It can be folded up and it’s easy to transport. It is nothing less than the ideal sculpture; it represents a straightforward sculptural analysis. That’s where it comes from. Then I got pregnant – and that was indeed a fantastic new form.

Skulptur II is often interpreted as a feminist sculpture and is seen as calling attention to the issue of the woman imprisoned in a fixed form, with references to the constricting framework of both art and culture – also at the major exhibition of 1970s feminist art, Wack!, which is touring the States right now. So you’re saying that interpretation is completely wide of your intention with the sculpture?

Yes, I use my own body as sculpture, because I can use it as a fantastic material: it’s at hand, it can be drawn and painted. The body gets thinner, fatter, older. It is, in fact, a form which functions both as a canvas you can paint in relation to all manner of literary connotations, and at the same time it’s pure form, it’s sculpture, it’s sense perception, meeting points, surface, it’s possibilities. It’s just simply the richest narrative material, and that’s also how the human figure has always been used throughout the history of art.

Excluding women artists
In 1996 Kirsten Justesen co-curated the exhibition The Body as Membrane with the Austrian artist Valie Export for Kunsthallen Brandts Klædefabrik [Brandts Exhibition Complex. Eds.] in Odense. A number of international women artists were invited to Odense. The exhibition was the result of many contacts with the international art scene over the years.

I was invited to Valie Export’s exhibition Magna Feminismus in 1975. The cardboard box Skulptur II was there too. And since then we have had an ongoing discussion about the body – Valie Export has also worked exhaustively with her own body. With the project Tapp- und Tast-Kino [Tap and Touch Cinema], for example, she went onto the street dressed in a cardboard box with a curtain as the cinema screen and challenged men to touch her breasts, while she stared them out. Valie Export has put her body on the line time after time. With “the body as membrane”, as penetrable, she wanted to set down a metaphor for how you can discuss the body.

But the exhibition came to Denmark at far too early a stage, it made no impact whatsoever. Kirsten Justesen also took part in a number of other international feminist art exhibitions in the 1970s, including Feministische Kunst Internationale. But it’s very hard to find catalogues from these international feminist exhibitions at the specialist libraries, a contributory factor to the exclusion of women artists from visible art history.

It’s scandalous that Danmarks Kunstbibliotek [the national library of art at Charlottenborg Exhibition Hall. Eds.] hasn’t been buying catalogues and books on feminist art to keep its collection updated. I have to say that’s a disgraceful prioritising of public funds, and it’s undoubtedly not even legal.

New focus on feminist art
The experiments in form undertaken in 1970s’ art are finding a response in contemporary art strategies, with video, performance and installations. The growing interest for feminist art practices is also evident in recent major exhibitions of feminist art, particularly in the US with Global Feminisms addressing 1990s’ art and Wack! on the 1970s, which included exhibits by Kirsten Justesen and a few other Danish artists. In Kirsten Justesen’s view the definition of feminist art strategies has become somewhat overused; the term should be the province of women artists and cannot just be used to cover a polemic on gender:

The major exhibition Global Feminisms in New York a few years ago also showed works by male artists who used their own bodies, mostly gay men. But I really can’t see why they should be included in an exhibition on feminism, this being an area dealing with issues of women’s politics. Wack!, on the other hand, is clearly a feminist exhibition, with excellent coverage of the 1970s’ ethos and its feminist artists experimenting in every possible and impossible material, video performance – all the things that have become more common now. Wack! quite simply shows how the women artists of my generation are social archaeologists.

Nothing to lose
Kirsten Justesen’s pursuit of her art has followed an unstructured course dictated by chance and inclination. In general terms, she sees the artist’s work as a manifestation of a particular take on the world, and in this she thinks women often have an advantage:

As far as I can see, art means looking with a special filter, being concerned with what is just next to the ordinary, the surplus. Last year I went to a Sunday salon held by the sculptor Louise Bourgeois in New York; one of the guests spoke admiringly of her work and wanted to know how on earth she got that divine inspiration. But Louise Bourgeois responded emphatically: “It’s only from myself.”

Women artists often have a much greater personal strength and a different approach to the art world. We have been braver than men because we are by and large not strategists, but are open and inquiring. We’ve got more cards to play with, because we’re not afraid of fiascos – we’ve got everything to win and nothing to lose.

The exhibition 64 – Pursuits and Collections is showing at The Women’s Museum in Aarhus, June 20 – December 30 2008.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch

64 – Pursuits and Collections

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