Kirsten Justesen: Sculpture II, 1968
Sculpture II is Justesen’s first and now iconic work within body art
Sculpture II in brief
- The sculpture is one of Kirsten Justesen’s earliest
- With Sculpture II, Justesen comments on the classical sculpture and its relation between the plinth and a certain type of female figure. Justesen has figuratively removed the woman from the pedestal and instead placed her in an imaginary room inside the pedestal.
- In addition to its formal deliberations on sculpture as such, Sculpture II is also the beginning of Justesen’s work with body art.
- Sculpture II and its partner Sculpture I were created in relative obscurity, but have since been exhibited in a number of contexts and have been recognised as some of the most important Danish avant-garde works in the late 60s.
The woman in the box
In a cardboard box sits a naked woman all huddled up. To fit into the box she must bend her legs and lean her body over them. Her long hair covers part of her body and her face, which is seen in profile.
The woman is the artist herself, and the photograph of her - huddled up in the box - is mounted on top of the box. In this manner, she’s playing with the viewer’s perception, and an illusion is created of the woman being inside the box.
The box she’s in has four flaps which, in principle, could be folded around her. In that case, this box wouldn’t be any different from any other box, in which we transport larger objects. The box is a perfectly normal everyday item with an added photograph.
The box that held it all
But this box is not an everyday item anymore, because Kirsten Justesen has transformed it into the work, neutrally titled Sculpture II which simply tells us that this is a sculpture. But that is probably the most important thing. The title tells us that we should view the work as a sculpture and thus see it in relation to the sculptural tradition.
By emphasising the importance of viewing the work as a sculpture, Kirsten Justesen also directs our attention to the classical sculpture which usually consists of a three-dimensional stone, bronze-, cast- or wood figure on a pedestal. Although the work is called Sculpture II, it doesn’t look like a classical sculpture.
Instead, Sculpture II, with its 50x60x60 dimensions, reminds us of a traditional pedestal. Kirsten Justesen has explained that:
“It corresponds with a pedestal which has width, height and depth. Purely form. And the figure on top of the pedestal has often been the figure of a woman, so I put my own body on top of the box in the shape of a photograph taken of my body inside the pedestal (as an imaginary performance).”
Furthermore, the box can be collapsed into a two-dimensional object and hung on the wall which, in 2004, made Justesen conclude:
“So it covered more or less all genres in the discussion which took place about the concept of art at the time. Then I could leave Aarhus. I was free.”
Aarhus is the second-largest city of Denmark where Justesen in the 1960s attended the art academy and made her first artistic experiments.
This is not a trap
“This sculpture was not a feminist artwork from the outset”, writes colleague, conceptual artist and sculptor William Louis Sørensen about Sculpture II. In retrospect, according to Kirsten Justesen herself, it’s only really about form:
“My deliberations were purely formal, a note on the basic classical sculptural concepts I’d learned, by hand, between 1965-68 with Knud Nellemose [at the Jutland Art Academy]: Pedestal, volume, texture, theme/model.”
In an interview with Katy Deepwell in 1999, Kirsten Justesen explains that Sculpture II was not conceived as a feminist statement, but at the same time she admits that some of the deliberations about the sculpture had their origin in a feminist mindset. Deepwell comments that she, at her first meeting with the sculpture, saw it as if the woman was represented as an object and showed as trapped. To this, Kirsten Justesen says that the work is not at all about a trapped woman.
"Yes, but it’s not a matter of a trapped woman. I would never, ever make a trapped woman. Because if I see a trapped woman, I would have to help her get out! I would politically, as a feminist, show this idea if asked, but not in this expressive way. I have worked politically as a feminist but never in that way.”
About insisting on your right
The fact that the work had such a long life at exhibitions of feminist art is not due to Kirsten Justesen herself. According to her, the feminist context is a manipulation of the meaning of the work. But it’s an added value, which she considers interesting and is quite happy with.
On the other hand, Justesen explains that behind the idea of using her own body rather than a model’s was a feministic decision to insist on her own, also immaterial, space. At this time, women still found it difficult to find acceptance on equal terms with male artists and Justesen tells how she was often deeply frustrated about being reduced to 'housewife' in the company of her male colleagues, who, in spite of their working community, expected that Justesen would be the one to do the dishes.
Kirsten Justesen also explains that she wasn’t all that conscious about feminist deliberations at the time and not about gender deliberations either. The understanding of gender only arrived later. Nevertheless, the work strikes many a chord that later on turned out to be significant for her production. Among other things, the blurred boundaries between subject and object turn out to be a consistent element in Justesen’s art, which becomes more and more clear as she uses her own body as material in her work.
Justesen is both artist and model and points with her work to the fact that it’s her right to hold both positions.
As Deepwell phrases it, Sculpture II is also about how “women are rejected by others and use themselves to resist being reduced to an object by others at the same time as showing their subjectivity.”
A cool reception
Although this work has since obtained almost iconic status within Danish avant-garde art from the 60s, it and its partner Sculpture I didn’t make waves in 1968.
Kirsten Justesen, Sculpture I, 1968, MDF-sheets, photostats and mirror, Three sheets of 96 x 96 x 10 cm. KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art, Aalborg, Denmark.
Justesen herself implies that Sculpture I only just made it into the Artists’ Autumn Exhibition in 1968. As she told assistant professor at University of Copenhagen, Tania Ørum, in 2004, she might have continued with the development of the minimalist sculpture as formal experiment if an art dealer had seen and liked her work back then.
But she felt that she needed to move on to new issues. Issues, which are already visible in Sculpture II. And quickly hereafter, she began working on the body- and feminist issues which dominated her art throughout the 1970s.
Did you know?
The London-based artist Carey Young (born 1970) has made a series of photographs where she re-creates and replays a number of important body art and performance art works, among them Kirsten Justesen’s Sculpture II.
Carey Young has named the series Body Techniques and the works can be seen on Carey Young's homepage.
- Kirsten Justesen, born 1943 > Kirsten Justesen is a pioneer in body art and has used her own body as her art’s primary tool for more than 30 years
- Pussy Power and body art > Read the story about how body art and feminism in the 1960s and 1970s often have convergent agendas