Materials:Steel, Metal, Thread, Wadding, Fabric, Wood
Dimensions:183 x 62 x 60 cm
Credit:Presented by the Contemporary Art Society through Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society, 2020/21
Ownership history:Purchased from the Herald Street Gallery by the Contemporary Art Society through Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society (VNXXCAS), 2021; presented to The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, 2021
Bircken’s practice utilises sharp contrasts of materials and textures to construct an artistic language that stresses physicality and embodiment as key sculptural qualities. Her signature works often feature found objects, ranging from high-end technology such as motorbikes to more modest materials including fragments of the natural world and fabrics. The synthetic and the organic, the prestigious and the lowly, are frequently spliced together in her oeuvre to create arresting compound forms. The relationship of the human body to these different objects and materials is a recurring theme, and at times – as in The Doctor – the works themselves assume something like human form. In Bircken’s hands, however, allusions to corporeality are never reassuringly simple or straightforward. Rather, our material presence in the world is consistently registered as strange, unfamiliar and perhaps disruptive, and while Bircken’s sculptures assert a powerful self-sufficiency, they also seem to be subject to powerful forces outwit themselves. In unsettling the idealising tradition in classical sculpture, for which the human form was a vehicle to aesthetic purity and sublimation, Bircken makes room for a characteristically heterogeneous and complex sense of bodily existence to take its place, one that is readily recognised as profoundly shaped by the contemporary world.
The Doctor exemplifies many of these characteristic qualities of Alexandra Bircken’s art. Its constituent materials include a surgical gown (a souvenir of the artist’s own treatment for a knee injury), a section from a discarded Christmas tree (set into a prosthetic joint), and a bisected wooden toy boat as its ‘head’, a form which seen in profile becomes redolent both of a scalpel blade and a plague mask.
Within the context of The Hunterian’s historical collections, which originate in Dr William Hunter’s anatomical work and in his voracious 18th-century project of acquiring scientific and artistic objects from around the world, The Doctor asserts a different way of gathering materials and reflecting on human embodiment. Where Hunter’s gaze was identified with objective rationality – and in his influential study of the ‘gravid uterus’, predicated on opening up and annotating the female body – Bircken’s The Doctor is assembled from cultural materials animated by her own sensory experience, informed of course by her experience as a woman artist. The work is formed too by the precarious circumstances and physical exposure to risk (and to medical interventions) that have been so palpable in the pandemic conditions of 2020 and 2021.
All rights reserved. Any further use will need to be cleared with the rights holder. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Commercial copying, hiring, lending is prohibited.
Read our copyright policy for more information.