The bright red painted piece of metal strikes us as strange. And as incredibly familiar at the same time. It takes time to grasp this enormous, gently curved, softly tapering form. As a tongue. Though it is shaped true to life. A strong muscle that splits, as biceps bulge. The reflective piercing in its middle helps to recognize this part of the body, which, removed from its context, is not immediately identifiable. The tongue, this half-hidden organ, retains its distance from us.
Moreover, this tongue is enormous; its cast aluminum form, which even rests on a base, is more than two meters high. Detached from anything that might help the memory: from face, lips, cheekbones that could support and hold it and frame it. What other tongues do you come upon? A pink wave in the mouth of the person opposite, a small red tip that is stuck out, that rears up when someone gets loud, shoots out briefly between the lips of a person eating. But the tongue, firmly anchored in the oral cavity, always remains only partially visible.
But Alexandra Bircken does more than just show the tongue. Slip of the Tongue, the title the artist has chosen for her work, makes it clear that it is all about speaking, about the tongue’s ability to turn words into speech, to give them a voice. The tongue can do many things: touch, feel, taste, lick, caress. But above all, it is the organ of language, of speech, of persuasion. In analogy to hacking off a hand, it was still a common punishment to cut out the tongue of liars and cheats, martyrs and rebels until a few hundred years ago, while many heraldic animals such as lions, eagles, and snakes had their tongue fluttering from their mouth like a flag. It symbolizes the word of the mighty hovering above everything.
Alexandra Bircken mentions that it occurred to her during the impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump that during the trial of his predecessor Bill Clinton specialists had been hired to read lies from his mouth. “The movement of the lips was carefully studied,” she says. “That Trump is known to lie constantly has never had any consequences.”
The work of the artist, who was born in Cologne in 1967, often comprised such body parts in the past. Highly charged motifs, almost overconnoted where politics is concerned, discourses on gender, modernity, feminism, ecology. Alexandra Bircken separates them from the present as if with a scalpel. When she cut open motorcycle leathers and pinned them to a wall, the impression conveyed was that she had skinned the bikers. Her black figures tailored from delicate latex (Escalation), on the other hand, seemed to consist of nothing but skin. Although they climbed around like acrobats in The Hepworth Wakefield museum or under the roof of the Arsenale during the Venice Biennale 2019, they—visibly—lacked muscles, skeleton, tendons, and ligaments. Origin of the World, a work that Alexandra Bircken first exhibited in 2018, presented neither more nor less than the placenta with which she had nourished her daughter Zaza during her pregnancy. She displayed it in a simple way, carefully enclosed in a Plexiglas cube.
The Wiener Graben finds the artist serve her tongue like a piece of sushi. The taut tongue seems to straighten up even more on the six-meter-high chopstick, striking us as extraordinarily alive. The visible elevation also evokes the constructions of a Constantin Brâncuși who placed bare metal heads on rough wooden ornaments, which in turn rested on smoothly polished marble cubes. The fact that stone, abstraction, body part, and metal remained perceptibly unconnected made questionable and fragile what might have easily appeared colossal, coming on strong, self-confident. Such constructions, visibly fragmented and pieced together, tower totteringly in the memory. Like a tremendous dynamic dream.
-- Catrin Lorch
Graben 21, 1010 Wien, Österreich
Alexandra Bircken, *1967 in Cologne, living and working in Berlin und Munich