Conversation with Dorte Jelstrup

By Mai Misfeldt

MAI MISFELDT: At what point did femininity begin to be a focus in your work? I get the impression that it was very early on, and that you engage with the feminine qua sign. I see your work as an interrogation not nearly so much of gender as of the signs and meanings associated with femininity. Could you say something about the motivations for your involvement with femininity as a theme, almost from the first? And about the reception it met with? I also see your work as part of a trajectory that reaches back to Symbolism, your male portraits especially, which are, of course, very feminine in character. What’s your own take on this?

DORTE JELSTRUP: My interest in addressing the feminine and anchoring my work in women’s life and experience was something that came to me gradually in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. As a fresh young philosophy student, I read The Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous and this essay, which I still find compelling, made a huge impression on me. Not least for what I saw as Cixous’s ardent and earnest exhortation to the woman writer to ‘write her self’ and, as a woman, to incorporate herself into the text. For myself at the time, this was something of a revelation. And I took it as read that this call was equally valid for the woman artist. At roughly the same time, I became aware of a constellation of women artists abroad who in varying degrees integrated a feminine dimension into their works. I’m thinking especially of Germany’s Rosemarie Trockel. The fact that, as a woman, committed to making art within an essentially male art tradition, she incorporated feminine references into her work was something that struck a nerve with me. It’s also worth saying that interest in the feminine from the point of view of visual art was near negligible in Denmark at the time. So it was certainly not an easy path to go down.

I approached the feminine via another category that had also grabbed my interest – namely, that of alterity. I had – again through my studies – become acquainted with Emmanuel Lévinas’s work Totalité et Infini and his philosophy of alterity, the Other and the face of the Other. In 1992 I had a major solo exhibition entitled Concilium at Overgaden in Copenhagen. This exhibition showed several large-scale portrait paintings, among them a clutch of women’s portraits accompanied by such captions as “interdictum”, “oboedientia” and “exterminare”, which are the Latin terms for “interdiction”, “obedience” and “rejection”. These women’s portraits were the first of my works in which I explicitly thematized femininity, or to be more precise, the feminine as alterity – as a devalued, conflicted and marginalized category in the Western tradition.

But reflection on the feminine as alterity almost inevitably leads to the question – what is the Other for me? And of course merely in virtue of posing it you situate yourself as a subject and – which is also relevant – as a feminine subject. In 1994, I completed my first major work predicated on the situatedness of the feminine subject – And She Renounced the World and All Its Pleasures. It was made for the exhibition Dialogue with the Other, curated by Lene Burkard and shown at Kunsthallen Brandts Klædefabrik in the same year. For myself as an artist, participation in this exhibition was a turning point. The work of a veritable galaxy of international women artists – including such names as Nancy Spero, Kiki Smith, Katharina Sieverding, Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgeois, Pipilotti Rist and Rosemarie Trockel – was also on display. Here, an interest in the feminine in the context of visual art was entirely legitimate. And to have this experience, with my own works on display in a setting of this kind, encouraged me to persist with my chosen thematic focus – the feminine subject and feminine lived experience.

As you rightly say, I’ve been interested throughout in the mediation of the feminine, the feminine functioning as sign, but also in the feminine as lived and unfurled from within. The latter might be dubbed feminine directedness – the fact that, as a feminine subject, one is not simply in the world, but always in the world in relation to something else that is the focus of one’s intentionality. Feminine directedness was something I thought about in relation to my own work from an early stage, being quite convinced that it correlates with external manifestations that can assume one, or indeed, several forms. Not, of course, in the sense that they can be translated into external forms without residue. And yet, I’ve always believed that these are phenomena which manifest themselves visually. Broadly speaking, then, my works might be said to thematize the mental states of the feminine subject – the dreams, wistfulness, pensiveness and memories that relate to the masculine Other. My project is the artistic rendering of these mental states and in pursuit of it I discover that they are allied to external things – to the objects, materials, processes and practices which, in our tradition, are associated with the feminine. For it is too quick to say that all it amounts to is that the feminine subject focuses on the masculine Other in musings and reverie…end of story. My sense, rather, is that in yearnings and musings, the feminine subject actually does particular things, is enmeshed in certain practices which to some extent reach back to what is traditionally set as the feminine. And that this can be depicted pictorially. The expressive modes of feminine dreams and longings are to some extent determined by tradition and the signs of femininity that have been handed down. As subjects, we are caught up in the profusion of symbols and signs that have been passed on to us – while at the same time struggling to be free of them and to evolve our own articulations of our mental states, dreams, longings, hopes, vicissitudes of feeling, etc. And so it’s hugely challenging to be a subject and, especially in our tradition, a feminine subject, for one is absolutely not free – and emphatically not unconstrained by the communally sanctioned signs governing femininity. Inventing one’s own language and symbolic systems from scratch is an impossibility. You have to start from what you have received, both in your self-expression and in the framing of your private thoughts and musings. You must engage with long-established signs and from that baseline devise new, different and personal formulations of your lived experience, your being and emotions. And it’s this – the aspiration to evolve an idiom of one’s own, notwithstanding its rootedness in the given – that my work is all about.

It’s true that my work does hook into Symbolism, which has played a prominent role in Scandinavia, and perhaps in Denmark in particular. The interest in interiority, in an artistic exploration of dreams, yearnings and melancholic moods – images of the inner life – is one I share with numerous Scandinavian artists, including a host of late nineteenth century Danish names. L.A. Ring and Vilhelm Hammershøi, to name but two, are in varying degrees associated with Symbolism. One finds in Hammershøi’s work a series of representations of women in which the main subject is arguably the woman’s inner life – her absorption in her own despondency and yearnings – as seen through the eyes of a male artist. Further, Ring and Hammershøi each executed a swatch of paintings of naked trees and landscapes which reflect a wistfulness of mood, indeed, a masculine wistfulness perhaps. This art-historical legacy coheres with my own interests, even though my own starting premise is different: as a woman artist my work is anchored in a feminine perspective. The female figures in my work are representations of myself, and again, my male portraits reflect feminine experiential horizons.

In the case of the portraits of men, I don’t consciously set out to feminize the subjects. What I’m aiming at rather is to produce a series of imaginary representations of the masculine as the object of dreams and desire. Here, beauty is key. I strive to create representations of the masculine as beautiful – of handsome youths – which, since chosen specifically as objects of dreams and desire, strike me as being most credible. On one of my first drawings of a young man – created in 1998 – I inscribed the words "beauty restored".  A key concern within the strand of my work that relates to the depiction of the masculine is to reinstate or recuperate beauty in relation to maleness – to connect masculinity with the concept of beauty. However, the fact that beauty is traditionally associated with women may explain why some perceive my male portraits as feminine. I’m more disposed to say that they are, if anything, androgynous, or devoid of any hefty masculinity suggestive of patriarchalism. In this respect, my male portraits, besides exploring beauty, are possibly also the most subversive elements in my output.

MM: Now you use yourself in your works. You are both the work’s creator and its model. Both subject and object. Your sets come across as carefully orchestrated – as though the woman in the pictures or the video is acting in the full knowledge of being observed. It seems to me that whatever emotion she is experiencing, she remains very alert to how she looks while feeling it. This invests both the works and the woman’s self-reflective stance with a touch of narcissism. Can you follow me here? And what’s your own perspective on it?

DJ: The fact that I am both the portraitee and thus the object of the viewer’s gaze while at the same time the creator of the picture, with all the intentionality and subjectivity that this involves, signals a distance to the conventional reification and desubjectivization of the woman that is characteristic of broad swathes of our art-historical heritage and remains a potent force in, for instance, the images we encounter in the media. In this respect, my works are in the lineage of the performative tradition evolved by a succession of women artists since the 1960s.  For me, it is crucial that I myself am ‘omni-responsible’ for recording and photographing my works because this feature, exactly, highlights a manifest feminine subject. And any potential narcissism must be seen in this light. Given her self-preoccupation and self-containment, the significance of the narcissistic feminine subject resides in the insinuation of a destabilizing and disturbing element into the traditional order. A narcissistic feminine subject is not open, betrays no dependency, and imports an element of subversiveness in consequence. Moreover, in my work the narcissism is relativized by the directedness towards the masculine Other on the part of the feminine subject. My work is the thematization of the manifest feminine subject who is, moreover, directed – occasionally vulnerably – towards the masculine Other in dreams, longings, desires and memories. Clearly, this marks it off from the art produced by a number of notable women artists since the 1960s. For since that time, it has been de rigueur for women artists to address the definition of the feminine subject on their own terms. Today, manifestly, much has been achieved on that score and the situation has changed. And we’ve now reached the point where there is both reference and significance in following through and giving artistic expression to the feminine directedness towards the masculine Other – and, by extension, in depicting the masculine Other as seen through a feminine lens.

MM: You give your works – invariably perhaps? – titles. These are, as it would seem, co-signifiers in your works. They come across as full of pathos and subjective resonances. And I note that they are musical references, as for example In Dreams We Fly, which is taken from a Joni Mitchell ballad (‘The Silky Veils of Ardor’ from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter) and Must I Always Dream and See Your Face (from the Jeff Buckley number ‘The Last Goodbye’) as well as The Look of Love (originally recorded by Dusty Springfield, later also by Diana Krall). It seems safe to assume that the choice of these titles – aimed at capturing the subjective longing and desperation that figures among the elements in the songs – represents considerable effort and ingenuity on your part. Do you begin with the title, or does it come to you as you go along.

DJ: References to music are important in my work. Many songs, including a number of those in the popular music genre, play a vital and valuable role. They offer an emotional zone in the day-to-day world in which the resonances of feelings and moods can be probed. The emotionality that music expresses is something I try to bind into my own works, in the hope that they too may provide an emotional space for the viewer, acting as a kind of sounding board, say, for the viewer’s musings about her or his mental life.

The identification with the burden of a song in its entirety can be quite powerful. I tend to see some music, for example many of Joni Mitchell’s songs, as a kind of soundtrack accompaniment to my own life. I was quite young when I first became a fan but I listen to them still – often while working, for instance when I’m drawing. Sometimes lines from the songs I’m listening to slip into the drawing I’m working on, and somehow resonate with it. At other times, I retrieve some line from memory – occasionally tweaking it slightly, incorporating my own nuances – and use it in relation to one of my works, either as a title or as an emplaced textual fragment.

As you’ve correctly observed, titles play a key role in relation to my works. They have a unifying function in relation to the work’s semantic register. The titles can impinge at an early phase – integrating with the architecture of the work in a co-structuring way. But it’s not systematic. Sometimes the titles come quite late in the process. In any case, I always start with something basic – some aspect of the materials, colours or techniques that I want to use. Only later do the semantic layers, references and titles – with their emotional tenor – come into play.

In fact, I don’t always give my works titles. My photographs don’t have titles but the video from which they are drawn always does. My drawings don’t have titles either, even though they may be accompanied by a clarifying parenthetical description. And the reason for this is essentially practical – I make numerous photos and drawings, working in large series. A unifying title for the video, which is the starting point for the individual photograph, or a parenthetical clarification, suffices in these cases.

MM: Your works are at once both very direct and visually appealing, but at the same time there is a conceptual dimension to your way of working. I’d be very interested to hear more about how you approach the actual process. What’s the ignition point – is it the idea or the visual dynamic or a combination of the two. You are a deeply reflective artist, and a philosopher by training. Does this provide the entry point into your works? Do they evolve conceptually or do they emerge as images?

DJ: My starting point for the production of a work is always visual and material initially. I always begin with some sensuous element thrown up by experience or memory. As I’ve said, a colour, a material, a subject or objects of some kind act as a trigger. At this level, I simply go with an impulse or an intuition. There’s nothing mysterious going on. It’s purely a matter of being open to the sense-input and the material that is to hand, the givens in the situation.

The focus of the next phase is the work’s range of signification. This is about orchestrating and shaping the visual, sensuous and material aspects in such a way that a slew of references are integrated into the work – ensuring a degree of cohesion at the narrative level. During this phase I deploy a variety of different inputs – experiences and subjective states drawn from my own life, evokers of emotion such as music, but also, occasionally, bits of theory from my work in philosophy. Philosophy bolsters and sharpens the articulation of the themes that I am exploring.

However, since I take considerable trouble over the visual impact of my works, I would not myself classify them as conceptual art. Conceptual art is essentially anti-visual. The sensuousness of materials is an important component in my works. I’m not seeking to dematerialize art. That said, I do draw on the legacy of conceptual art inasmuch as ideational elements also play an important part in my works.

Philosophy has another, broader and more perspectivizing function in relation to my artistic output. Looking back, I think it’s true to say that my philosophical background has kept me on my mettle and persuaded me that the issues and themes to which I continually return are relevant and worthy of attention.

© Mai Misfeldt