Wiebke Siem

Johnen + Schöttle

In an anonymous lithograph from 1840, we see a Shaker meeting. The believers dance in two circles toward one another, segregated by sex. The two groups don’t touch each other. Difference, distance, and isolation between the sexes is the subject of these works. On the wall, in the background, the coats and hats of the dancers are hung in a very orderly fashion; within each group they are exactly the same, but each group is styled to be either masculine or feminine. This scene is alienating; it tells us of an esthetic of difference, and of a silence between the sexes that leads them both on a path into themselves.

Weibke Siem’s works recall the atmosphere of a Shaker meeting. Her desire to experiment seems great, but it is also reined in in those cases where she has found a lasting solution to a problem. The articles of clothing are Siem’s expression of a principle as well as a strategy of handicraft. Made from wire, foam, and jersey, they are formed into an empty woman-body-object. Hung on the wall, cleanly and fastidiously, they are empty shells bursting with femininity (the wigs made of plaster make a similar statement). And yet, there is also a humorous aspect to these works.

The main subject of Siem’s works is the “problem” of women in contemporary art, and they address this issue in an appealing and direct manner. She deals with the question of the body, but it is refreshing to see that she does not simply reiterate those issues currently under debate, as is the case in much art today; instead, she translates them into an attitude that is both humorous and positive. Clear representation of the problem serves to overcome it. Hard work on the objects themselves is the foundation of these pieces.

But Siem’s humor is not just amusing, it is relevant and brusque. Consider Luce Irigaray’s concept of the double place of woman: applied to the concrete space of the gallery, this notion produces a strategy of giving voice to women inside and outside of art in order to contemplate sexual difference within art. Woman is not only the object of art, but is now its subject as well—this art represents the symbolic and real rediscovery of the female body. Thus, the works and the gallery become the place for revealing the feminine.

Siem’s attempt to come to a full understanding of the feminine—empty clothes, pantsuits, cocktail dresses, wigs, etc.—is one side of the coin. The other side is a perception that goes beyond the essence of objects as the basis of the existing system; there is a symbolic ordering of the objects and a fascinating contextualization of art as a place for both the presence and absence of woman. Siem’s empty female shells cannot be appropriated as sex objects, as commodity, or as good design. They resist exploitation and enrich the controversial discussion about sexual difference in art without indulging in politically correct hysteria.

Norbert Messler

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.