Kirsten Justesen, born 1943
Justesen is a pioneer in body art and has used her own body as her art’s primary tool for more than 30 years.
Justesen in brief
- Kirsten Justesen is a Danish sculptor and scenographer, born in 1943
- Her artistic production spans widely: sculpture, photography, video, happenings, events, performances, scenography, decorations, posters, books and text.
- In the late 60s she pioneered body art on both the Danish and the international art scene. Since then, her naked body has been her primary tool. In the 1970s she was active in the feminist movement and created works in a gender political context.
- Besides her body, she often uses ice (i.e. water and freezer) as material in works that look at time and changeable processes.
Naked avantgarde - introduction to Kirsten Justesen
Kirsten Justesen is one of only a handful of internationally renowned female, Danish artists. She expresses herself through a wide range of media. Sculpture, photography, video installations, events and performances, decorations, books and film.
The starting point for her work is often her own naked body. But the works are not about her. They are not self-portraits. Instead, they are about body, gender, politics, form, materials, language, time and contrast. Her body is only a tool for self expression.
As noted by associate professor Tania Ørum, you can follow all of the Danish avant-garde's development in form as well as in content from the 1960s on by following Kirsten Justesen’s development. Her production can be characterised in three overriding phases.
- 1960s: Reflections on the form and tradition of sculpture. In this period she also touches upon minimalism and the use of the artist herself as a model.
- 1970s: Feminist aesthetics, body art, experiments in life style, gender roles and politics.
- 1980s and on: The feminist and political deliberations take a back seat to deliberations on form and material. The body is still in focus but the water and its many forms between fluid and firm is now also an important element in her production. Thus, focus shifts to processes and change over time and the audience is often an important contributor.
Without role models
Before Kirsten Justesen started her education as an artist, she was an apprentice at an advertising agency from which she graduated in 1964. At this point in time she already knew that she wanted to become a sculptor, but she found it difficult to find anything or anybody to identify with. The predominant form of artistic expression at the time was the expressive painting, but Justesen was neither attracted to painting nor the expressive idiom.
She couldn’t identify with the leading artists around her or with the roles as artists they represented. The multi-facetted artists Jens Jørgen Thorsen and Jørgen Nash were two of them. Their extracurricular activities, where revolution, happenings and art were one and the same, attracted a lot of attention. Kirsten Justesen has later said about these two artists that they lived as if the objectives of their lives were to lure as many women into their beds a day as they had eggs for their breakfast, and that this lifestyle was a determining factor in their artistic 'creativity'.
At the art academy she was well trained in classical craftman skills, but she couldn’t identify with her teachers’ view of art either. She didn’t get much the wiser when she started looking for an answer to the question of what sculpture is good for and the sculptor and academy professor Knud Nellemose answered her by performing a small unveiling ceremony where he placed a handkerchief over a modeled portrait and then proceeded to 'unveil' it while taking a bow to the imaginary audience.
Indentification with a rebellion
Identification and answers to her questions she had to find elsewhere. Therefore, Kirsten Justesen took part in avant-garde experiments and discussed the development of art with her peers.
In her own words, she spent the time around 1965-68 as:
“part of the Aarhus avant-garde, organising Young Art events, cooperation with Aarhus Young Composers, student experiments, stamp-licking against the Vietnam war, pelvic inflammatory decease against nuclear weapons on the German motorways and not least giddy, intermediary conversations [...]”
It was through the acquaintance with the many new artistic forms of expression that Kirsten Dinesen was shaped as an artist. Performances, happenings, events, etc., quickly became a part of Justesen’s artistic activity. All together, there was a revolt going on against the establishment and many artists were working on setting art free of old as well as new rules and devise new art forms in the cross section between the traditional and the hybrid forms.
In 1968 Kirsten Justesen makes Sculpture I and Sculpture II which at the same time refers to tradition, reflect the art theoretical thinking of the day and deliver a suggestion for the renewal of tradition.
In these works, she looks at a number of sculpture’s and painting’s basic principles and motives (the naked woman on a pedestal) at the same time as she implicates the pertinent minimalistic tendencies and point to the body art of the future.
Sculpture I and Sculpture II can also be viewed as an illustration of the ambiguity, which runs as a red thread through Justesen’s work. On the one hand, Justesen says that basically, she works with good old-fashioned sculpture. On the other hand, she says that she only rarely makes sculptures. Instead she, according to herself, is preoccupied with three-dimensional relations and with scupltor Willy Ørskov’s ideas about sculpture being a tool for realisation, same as language and math.
The cannon club and the bloody boring art academy
In 1968 Kirsten Justesen moves from the Art Academy in Jutland to the one in Copenhagen. But here she doesn’t find much inspiration either, and in an interview from 1999 she describes the teachers as “bloody boring.”
In 1968, as a counter action against the antiquated practices at the Academy, she formed the so-called Cannon Club together with 14 other male and female students at the academy. The name comes from the group’s jointly owned Super 8 Canon camera, which made the rounds among the members and which was used by Justesen to document the creation of plaster casts of her pregnant belly, which she later on uses for a number of oevres, which are all titled Circumstances.
According to another member of the group, film director and painter Jytte Rex, the Cannon Club is “critical of the academic imagery and the myth of the artist as a genius and works to create more relevant connections between art, politics and every day life to, anonymously, be part of the many happenings and images of the youth revolt.”
The name which, according to the artists themselves, was a reference to their common tool, the camera, can, in retrospect, also read as an ironic reference to the established art life and the art canon, against which they wished to rebel.
Lady-Pictures and militant feminsim
The most memorable and media savvy move by the female members of the Cannon Club was the exhibition Lady-Pictures, which was held in 1970. The exhibition, the first feminist exhibition in Denmark, looked at traditional women’s roles and related subjects such as 'beauty', 'the whore' and 'the dishes' through live tableaus and happenings.
Film director Jytte Rex explains about 'the whore': "For 'the Whore', which was the first image (each tableau was live for 2-3 days), we’d built a small living room with ultra violet lights in Dutch style, where the whores sit in the window and the curtains are drawn whenever there are customers. We took turns sitting there for a few hours a day wearing lingerie and blond wigs. Most of us experienced the situation as an emphasis of our weakness and disengagement as women, framed and hung, and in reality only exposed a few inches further as sexual objects than 'normal'."
The members of the club all appear in the tableaus of the exhibition and already at this point in time they work with the feminist thesis that the personal is political.
During the exhibition period the exhibition changes its name from Lady-Pictures to Woman-Pictures where, as assistant professor Tania Ørum writes:
“The everyday male term “lady” is exchanged for the word 'woman', which signals the new self consciousness of the feminist movement which is just taking off in Denmark with the establishment of the first consciousness raising groups in January 1970.”
Ørum also explains that this exhibition takes place around the same time as the feminist movement’s first larger public manifestation, where members of the first groups march down 'Strøget' (the main pedestrian street in Copenhagen) wearing blonde wigs, bras with balloon breasts and suspender belts on top of their clothes. The activities of the Cannon Club happened simultaneously with the first baby-steps of the Danish feminist movement and the two groups influenced each other.
Kirsten Justesen was already active in the feminist movement at this time, but her examinations of feminist problematics, which she was involved in together with the other members of the Cannon Club, wet her appetite for the subject. Later on, during the work with Lady-Pictures, something happens:
“We experienced an enormous leap of consciousness. By making those tableaus we found a new focus on our situation. One’s relations with other women changed radically. A new field materialised which we as women could examine in our work at the same time as we changed our lives!”
Throughout the 1970s, Kirsten Justesen examines the new feminist field in a number of works which sharp, loving and ironically discuss women’s situation and position in the private as well as the public space. In brief, feminist works where contemplations about the sender’s gender and conditions in society plays a central part in the work.
In 1971, she and film director Jytte Rex make the film Sleeping Beauty, where a number of women openly tells about themselves and their, in some cases, erotic secrets. In 1999, Justesen explains to the British art historian and critic Katy Deepwell that the film was meant to show how women survived what she calls 'the blood bath' by, for instance, presenting other women’s secret rituals.
With their phrase 'the blood bath' Justesen and Rex re-use their own battle cry: “We will survive all blood baths”, which they used in an issue of the literary magazine Vindrosen (no. 5, 1972). The blood baths refer to all the battles yet to be fought and thus refer to battles such as the battle for equality to other 'blood baths' such as rejections, the opening hours of day care services, infidel husbands, wars, etc. The battle cry also functions as a survival slogan, meaning that the two artists refuse to ever view themselves as victims.
The different women in the film give us a picture of women who are vulnerable and strong at the same time. But more important is perhaps that it takes women seriously and emphasise the importance of their life, identity and sexuality.
Later on, Kirsten Justesen continues to work independently on gender political subjects such as the series of Housewife pictures, which she makes in both 1974 and in 1977. In 2001, Kirsten Justesen explains about the starting point for the works of this period:
“For me personally, it all started because I, in the late 1960s, wanted everything. I also wanted a husband and children, so suddenly I experienced a series of trip-ups because all my activities were in the private sphere. This is why so many of my projects focus on how it’s possible to live an everyday life with breast feeding, toddlers, shopping, etc., but at the same time maintain an income, so you don’t need to ask the knight in shining armour for money for a pack of cigarettes. I simply created pictures and scores for and on the private situation.”
“In this way, art becomes a surplus or waste product of the whole life you live. Instead of stepping from the small family unit out into the collective space, you simply live your life in the public space. And so, formally, I’ve lived out there ever since with everything it entails. My own studio is still the room between the children’s room and the kitchen.”
The body is always at hand
Apart from being a pioneer within the investigation of female aesthetics in Denmark, Kirsten Justesen is also one of the earliest practitioners of body art both in Denmark and internationally. Body art is art where the body, typically the artist’s own, or parts of the body are in focus as a tool, a motive or a medium. The practitioners of this genre are both men and women. It takes many forms, from the latest expressions as performance and photography to the more traditional like painting and sculpture. Body art is often preoccupied with deliberations about gender and identity and is in this aspect closely related to feminist art. Body art became a serious part of the art scene from the late 1960s and this way of expression has been consistent in Kirsten Justesen’s art.
In an interview with Tania Ørum from the early 2000s, Justesen explains:
“I use my own body because it’s at hand. Clearly, part of it is the fantastic personal experience of the capability of the female body during pregnancy and child birth and what an elementarily sculptural beauty such a pregnant body is, but it’s not private or confessional art.”
Here, Kirsten Justesen is specifically referring to a series of works commonly entitled Circumstances from 1969-1973, where she uses her pregnant body in a number of casts of her belly and in a series of photographies of the artist during her second pregnancy.
As claimed by Kirsten Justesen, Circumstances, in spite of its apparent personal character, is neither private or confessional. Using mask-like make-up and distinct staging where the artist through her postures, refers to or mocks sculptural tradition and conventions, Justesen creates a distance to herself as a private person and lets the viewer know that the presentation is about general considerations about gender, body, form, society and tradition.
Kirsten Justesen’s use of the body has changed in time with the change in the focus and expression of her art. But a red thread is that she uses her body as a sculptural material in line with other materials and usually as the primary motif.
In the 1970s, the body is used in works, which take as their starting point gender- and society discussions, but from the 1980s, focus changes and is now more on deliberations on time, material, form and contrasts, as can for instance be seen in Justesen’s ice works and in several works where she portrays her body interacting with large fish.
In 2006 Kirsten Justesen tells the art historian and critic Mai Misfeldt:
“I use my own body, it’s still at hand and can represent relations. It’s about the body as form and material. Not about body and gender, but about pure form and the skin as a meeting place between surfaces. I don’t believe icebergs are gendered."
An important part of Justesen’s work consists of installations, shows and events, where the changes of time and the audience’s experience play important parts. Ice melts, new elements are added or there are performances during the exhibition period. Within these events, Kirsten Justesen makes use of a number of different media which are put together and create an intermedial whole.
In 1989, Kirsten Justesen created an exhibition at Sophienholm outside Copenhagen, which was something between a performance, a sensory experience and an installation. Ikke kun alt [Not only everything] was designed as a journey through Sophienholm’s rooms and park, which Justesen had created as sensory spaces with focus on a different concept in each space.
Hall, platform, inside/outside, object, near/afar, colour, volume, light, illusion and prospect. The 11 rooms of the house were made into a series of 11 installations. A huge ball called Volume was covered in swan feathers and took up almost all the space in one of the rooms of the house, while a single stuffed swan, a model of the park’s bridge and an over-sized chair could be found in some of the other rooms. Occasionally, dancers would perform or silently 'guide' you through the rooms of the house and the park.
It is characteristic for most of Kirsten Justesen’s work and events that her tools are simple, objects and colours scarce and the performance characterised by visual serenity and tranquility.
The participation of the audience was, as always, also important. It is the viewer/audience who, via their presence and imagination, create each their story in the performance. In the renowned art critic Poul Borum’s words, the performance consists of the audience’s movement through the spaces. Or as Kirsten Justesen has herself said, it’s about a “total staging of the event of experiencing a particular place.”
At many occasions, Kirsten Justesen has designed installations, where a plot or a process takes place and where the audience plays an important part in the story-telling due to their mere presence, participation and experience of the event. See more about specific projects on Kirsten Justesen’s own homepage.
The red threads
Basically, all of Kirsten Justesen’s work has sculpture as its starting point. She was schooled as a sculptor and her method is a three-dimensional one. It’s about the three dimensions, the space, the interaction between the figure and the space. And then it’s about the pedestal with which she has an almost intimate relation. In 1999, she tells Katy Deepwell:
“Every sculpture, or any three dimensional work, has an intimate relation with its pedestal. It is also essential in classical terms. I adore the pedestal, it’s an excellent tool. I have used the pedestal at numerous occasions.”
But there are also other threads unifying her work across all kinds of media. Another is the relation between the work and the viewer. According to museum director Poul Erik Tøjner “that is in fact what it’s all about with Kirsten Justesen’s work. The relation between me and the world around me, between my body and their bodies, the relation between my flesh and other matter, the relation between my gender and the other gender, the relation between what I see, hear and feel.”
A last thread that should be mentioned is that Kirsten Justesen’s works only rarely tell a story. In 1999 she says:
“I don’t have a specific story to tell. The work is on its own.”
The works exist in their time in the way they meet the viewer, but they don’t tell a story. They contain deliberations about form, material, gender and existence, but they don’t present a structured narrative. Poul Erik Tøjner puts it like this: “Her work doesn’t tell a story but takes its place in already told stories, original narratives.”
Poul Erik Tøjner concludes: “You could say that it’s hard to understand her if you by understand means a reading of the work as such. On the other hand, she’s easy to experience. Almost inevitable. Her language is rather insistent. This is where we see her basic love of the material. Kirsten Justesen loves stuff and material. She has formed a love-bond to the reality of matter, but she hasn’t surrendered. She struggles with form, our form, their form and the relation between them.”
The artist in facts
Kirsten Justesen was born in the provincial town of Odense in 1943 as the daughter of a lieutenant-colonel and a nurse. She was educated as a sculptor, partly from the art academy in Jutland (1965-68) and in Copenhagen (1968-75) where she was taught (briefly) by the sculptor Mogens Bøggild and by the painters Dan Sterup-Hansen and Helge Bertram.
Justesen’s first exhibition was in 1964 at Gallery EX in Odense and she debuted in 1968 at the censured exhibition, the Artists’ Autumn Exhibition with Sculpture I. Since then she has held numerous exhibitions in Denmark and abroad, taken part in group exhibitions, curated exhibitions and since 1967 worked as scenographer.
She has taught at and been assistance professor at art academies in Scandinavia, the US and Israel. And in 1985 she was made section head at the Danish national school of theatre, where she was asked to build up the then new scenographer line.
Did you know?
Kirsten Justesen has, among numerous honours, received the prestigious Eckersberg Medal in 1996. She has received a lifelong grant from the Danish Arts Foundation since 1998. And she won the Carl Nielsen & Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen prize in 2000 and the Thorvaldsen medal in 2005.
- Kirsten Justesen: Sculpture II, 1968 > With <em>Sculpture II</em> Justesen introduces her own naked body as her main motif and artistic tool
- Pussy Power and body art > Body art and the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s were often closely related