Katharina Sieverding

1944 | Prague, Czech Republic

German photographer and filmmaker.

Katharina Sieverding studied sculpture with Joseph Beuys at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1960s. She continued her studies in the United States, China and the USSR. Her work is focused on identity, the individual in society, political events, natural phenomena and biological processes. Her monumental photographs (up to 6 metres high) play on the enlargement and multiplication of images, contrast, superimposing, solarisation and intensities of light. For the artist, the essence of images is not born through the camera but rather in the mind thanks to “optical possibilities formed by the mind”. In the mid-1970s she created large photographic canvases based on photographs in the press and television images, mixing visuals and texts around themes of female identity and political events from German and American history. Her favourite subject nevertheless remains the self-portrait, which she sees as a means of conveying an artistic vision of the world.

Thus, in 1973-1974 she produced a series of photographs Transformer I/II in which she exploited male/female ambivalence by combining reworked self-portraits and portraits of her husband Klaus Mettig made-up. Hybrid faces appeared through the process, blurring the boundaries of gender to the point of making it impossible to distinguish between them. In these works transvestism acquires a political dimension and puts into play a reflection on the constitution of the subject, suggesting the presence of both genders in each individual, an expression of self-perception that does not exclude the other. This series was exhibited at the Kunsthalle in Lucerne in 1974 in the ground-breaking exhibition “Transformer” – Aspekte der Travestie, in which the photographer was the only female artist. Her image was already present in Life-Death (1969) – one of her very first films shot in 16 mm and presented at Documenta 5 (1972) in Kassel – in which she questioned the existential dimensions of her identity, combining her own cross-dressing with that of another person. Along with Martha Rosler, Valie Export, Carolee Schneeman and Ana Mendieta, K. Sieverding was one of the first female artists to work on the perception of the female body and gender identities.

In 1976 she went to New York to participate in the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She took courses at the New School for Social Research and graduated with a degree in Political and Social Science in 1977. After returning to Germany in the 1980s she revisited her self-portraits from the 1960s, inserting old portraits in new arrangements. She presents herself frontally, very close-up, with a rigid face and a fixed gaze in a bath of red, sometimes solarised, light; only the make-up and hair change the composition of the photograph when they were left visible in the frame. In Die Sonne um Mitternacht schauen X/VI (Looking at the sun at midnight, 1988), her face is covered by golden dust in the middle of a solar eruption. Here, the artist questions our perception of reality by establishing a distance with the spectator which, despite the face-to-face, prevents any possible intimacy.

In 1990 she taught at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin and then at the Universität der Künste. In 1996 K. Sieverding became the first woman to receive the Lovis Corinth Prize. At the 1997 Venice Biennale she presented Steigbilder I-IX (Climbing images, I-IX), a reflection on the issues and the future of humanity, through X-rays of human skulls, sequencing diagrams of the human genome, as well as press photos such as Italian soldiers on duty during Operation Alba, the repatriation of Bosnian orphans to Sarajevo, and mass incineration of cattle suffering from mad cow disease. These very large-format images, presented as diptychs, triptychs and even quadriptychs, were transformed using both digital and analogue techniques. The viewer could hardly decipher their content at first sight. In 2004 the Museum of Modern Art PS 1 in New York presented a retrospective of her work, Close Up, which primarily presented her self-portraits in extreme close-up.

Nathalie Ernoult

Translated from the French by Katia Porro.

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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