by Jo Ziebritzki, Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University[i]
Meeting the muse
It’s early April 2017. The last couple of hours I was immersed in a typescript on ancient Buddhist temples in the library of the University of Vienna. As I now descend the grand staircase leading into the inner courtyard, my consciousness slowly emerges from the ancient past returning to the present. Outside, behind the arcades, the bright pavement reflects the spring sun. What a beautiful moment to stumble upon after a long morning in the library. Looking around, I suddenly notice an odd shape on the ground, like a shadow, but huge, and made of dark grey stone. I walk onto it, trying to decipher its contours. It is much longer in proportion to its width. I follow its length and realize that it resembles a human figure. When I reach the figure’s feet, I involuntarily smile: the shadow is wearing high heels. That was unexpected. I guess I had associated the human shape with the chalk figures at crime scenes – placeholders of evidence for someone hurt, escaped, or dead – sketched to decipher a cruelty. My eyes travel upwards along the leg of the figure, taking in the steady standing position, following the shape of the upper body, where one hand rests on the hip while the other one is raised with a clenched fist. The head of the figure is slightly tilted and framed by a bob haircut that seems to vibrate with vigorous movement. “Dear revolutionary shadow figure, would you tell me your story?”
The shadow figure is one of three components of the memorial “Der Muse Reicht’s” (official title in English: “The Muse Has Had It”), conceived by Iris Andraschek and realized in the courtyard of the University of Vienna in 2009.[ii] The second component is an objét-trouve, namely the statue of Castalia by sculptor Edmund Hellmer that was placed right at the center of the courtyard in 1910. The female statue sits on a stool-like pedestal, with a straight back, knees firmly closed and hands resting in her lap. Her body is draped in a cloth that exceeds her body length by far and spills a step further down than her resting feet. A small basin is placed below the feet on the ground. The gaze is slightly raised and stares blankly ahead. The statue, the pedestal, and the basin are made of pale limestone. A bronze serpent, its body as thick as the upper arm of the statue, coils around the pedestal. Even though erected directly in the center of the courtyard, the statue seems inconspicuous. Elevated on a stool-pedestal without backrest, Castalia’s body language exudes discomfort. The thin cloth leaves her chest bare and reveals the contours of her breasts, while the excessive cloth around her feet rules out the possibility to get up and leave without tripping and stripping herself naked.
The female statue sits on a stool-like pedestal, with a straight back, knees firmly closed and hands resting in her lap. Her body is draped in a cloth that exceeds her body length by far and spills a step further down than her resting feet. A small basin is placed below the feet on the ground. The gaze is slightly raised and stares blankly ahead. The statue, the pedestal, and the basin are made of pale limestone. A bronze serpent, its body as thick as the upper arm of the statue, coils around the pedestal. Even though erected directly in the center of the courtyard, the statue seems inconspicuous. Elevated on a stool-pedestal without backrest, Castalia’s body language exudes discomfort. The thin cloth leaves her chest bare and reveals the contours of her breasts, while the excessive cloth around her feet rules out the possibility to get up and leave without tripping and stripping herself naked.
Castalia is a female character from ancient Greek mythology. Apollo, a bustling Greek god, desired her, but his intrusive advances caused Castalia to flee. Still, this did not deter him, instead, he chased after her. In a desperate attempt to get away from her ‘divine’ persecutor, she took her life by jumping into the well of Delphi. Having died under such ‘mythical’ circumstances, she was declared a saint of the muses and became a popular artistic motif in Western-Europe. Nevertheless, Hellmer’s version of the mythical figure shows nothing of Castalia’s tragic fate or the extent of her resistance that led her to end her life. From 1910 until 2009, Hellmer’s Castalia – created by and for the male gaze – was the only material representation of a woman in the courtyard of the University of Vienna.
Following Castalia’s gaze across the courtyard, the third component of the memorial ensemble comes into view: two low, empty pedestals made of dark polished granite, which had also been conceived by Andraschek. Both feature inscriptions in red color. One reads:
Out of the shadows step those who have no name,
while the other explicitly states the omission of remembrance by carrying the inscription:
Reminder of the absence of honor of woman scientists and scholars and the failure to recognize their achievements at the University of Vienna.[iii]
I am deeply affected by the myth of Castalia that depicts the reality of an infinite number of real women; who have been and continue to be objectified, who are forced to give up themselves – their body, their intellect, and their soul – to fulfill the wants of a patriarchal figure or structure that is more powerful than they are. Realizing that, I experience anguish for Castalia and the women who have been wrapped and trapped in that misogynous cultural cloth and thus have never had the possibility to think for themselves and express their thoughts freely. Anguish quickly transforms into anger, against gender-based injustices and inequalities, tangible in this forlorn-Castalia-declared-muse and its rising shadow. Anger clogs my perception, rendering me speechless. As Ann Cooper Albright, a dance teacher and researcher who explores how dance practices focused on perception train bodies that are politically responsive and responsible, has noticed, “it is through our bodies that perception meets up with politics.”[iv] To find my voice again, I try to think beyond my anger by looking closer, focusing on perceiving details and describing them. Recalling the premise of the memorial’s function which is to remember and render visible the failure to recognize the achievements of women scholars and scientists, the subversiveness of the monumental gesture suddenly dawns on me. The scattered memorial elements do not work with the technique of erecting something, not even with overwriting, but by subtly highlighting and rewriting the misogynous ground on which generations of students have been educated.
As I observe how I relate to the different memorial elements, I come to think of the memorial as an “acting ensemble” that stages a slightly different story in contact with each visitor.[v] I take a step back and look not only at the story of academic women, but at the connection between nation-building and the patriarchal shaping of women’s bodies as allegories of countries, as mothers, and wives of national patriots. Monica Juneja has examined this connection of the “constitution of gender relations and the transition from a monarchical to a republican polity” in the case of post-revolutionary France by investigating history paintings.[vi] How did the first women students who entered the University of Vienna about one hundred years ago feel about the absence of women – except for Castalia – in that hub of knowledge and power? Did they even have time to notice? Could they dare to address feminist issues while fighting for acknowledgement as doctors, lawyers, and philosophers within the patriarchal establishments? They were hard-working, excelling in their subjects, proving that even the so-called ‘female’ form of flesh is capable of advancing scientific scholarship and society. These women fought to claim their rightful space in the university. It took three generations until the living corporeality of women in the University of Vienna gained enough density, validity and durability to re-write the matter of the inner courtyard. Matter matters, it shapes realities, perceptions, and possibilities. It co-creates a sense of legitimacy or illegitimacy in the academic body, of belonging and exclusion, of being allowed to take up space, raise one’s voice, be heard, and be considered an integral part of the hub of empowering knowledge – or not.
The matter of – and with – white feminism
It’s early January 2020. Monica Juneja is conducting an excursion on the topic of transcultural museum politics in Vienna. About twenty international students who pursue their Master in Transcultural Studies at Heidelberg University have joined the excursion. They now stand in the courtyard, tightly wrapped in layers of wool and jersey to keep the icy wind out. We look at Castalia’s stiff body guarded by the snake at her feet, trace the buoyant shadow figure, and discuss the fact that this memorial is meant to make visible the structural omission of remembrance rather than to re-inscribe those individuals who have been forgotten. I retell Castalia’s story and spell out the tragedy that patriarchy has staged for hundreds of years by oppressing women.
Importantly, the transcultural perspective destabilizes the story of the emancipation of white women. Monica Juneja shows us how to perceive artworks and aesthetic practices as an articulation of the “nexus of race-nation-culture” by taking the “question of how matter shapes aesthetics and culture” seriously.[vii] What is the material that the feminist memorial “The Muse Has Had It” is made of? The dark stone is the granite “nero assoluto,”[viii] that is found in Asia and Africa. Why this stone, mined in regions with a long and painful history of colonial exploitation? Who works in the stone quarries where the granite is mined nowadays, and under what conditions? What story does the use of this specific “nero assoluto” produce once we begin to unfold it? Ultimately, on whose shoulders is white feminism standing? The materiality of feminist practices, and white academic and artistic feminism in particular, needs to be taken into account and considered carefully if we want to build worlds – materially and symbolically – in which the broad varieties of bodies, articulations, and sensibilities feel at home. Monica Juneja’s critical inquiries into the “epistemic foundations” of the discipline of art history sensitizes for these important issues.[ix]
[i] This article builds upon two presentations which allowed for critical conversations that inform this article. Thank you, Professor Juneja, for facilitating these opportunities and sharing your perspective and questions. I am also thankful to the respected colleagues for engaged discussions about the significance of the inversion of the monumental logic at the “Salon for Slow Reading and Deep Looking: Monumental Matters” in June 2019, in Rüdesheim, Germany. I am equally thankful to further discuss the memorial from the transcultural perspective with the international students of the class “The Politics in Museums in the 21th Century” conducted by Monica Juneja, when we visited the site in January 2020. A special thanks to Giulia Pra Floriani and Mira Hirtz for their comments on the written article, and Jennifer Bürk and Hajra Haider for their careful editorial work.
[ii] Iris Andraschek, Der Muse Reicht’s/The Muse Has Had It, University of Vienna, Arkadenhof (Vienna: Brandstätter Verlag, 2009).
[iii] Translations by Jo Ziebritzki. The website of the project: https://dermusereichts.at/zum-projekt/, gives a full description of the memorial and background information about the initiative, the artist, and the creative process. Furthermore, the catalogue about the project documents the elaborate photo-performances that preceded and shaped the design of the shadow figure. Furthermore it informs the reader that the inscription “Out of the shadow…” was collectively decided upon at a conference (https://dermusereichts.at/katalog/). These sources make explicit that the feminist re-creation of the courtyard was an overdue reaction to the exclusive remembrance of male professors, whose legacies are carved in stone with numerous busts lined up along the walls of the arcades (https://monuments.univie.ac.at/index.php?title=Arkadenhof_der_Universit%C3%A4t_Wien). Two projects changed that in the 2010s. The first one being “The Muse Has Had It,” while the second one consists of seven artistically created busts of important women scholars of the University of Vienna that now join the busts of their male colleagues under the arcades (https://medienportal.univie.ac.at/uniview/uniblicke/detailansicht/artikel/sieben-frauen-erobern-den-arkadenhof/).
[iv] Ann Cooper-Albright, “The Politics of Perception,” in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 223–244, 223.
[v] The term is borrowed from Barbara Bolt, who adopted from Donna Haraway and others the idea that material is not a resource that can be fully controlled and ab/used by the human-artist but partakes in the production of meaning. Barbara Bolt, “Material Thinking and the Agency of Matter,” Studies in Material Thinking 1, no. 1 (April 2017), http://www.materialthinking.org.
[vi] Monica Juneja, “Family Fictions: Painting and the Politics of Gender in the Making of Republican France,” Studies in History 18, no. 2 (2002): 335–358. The reference here is to history paintings by Jacques-Louis David, 338.
[vii] Monica Juneja, “‘A very civil idea…’ Art History and World-Making – With and Beyond the Nation,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 81, no. 4 (2018): 461–485, 465 and 469.
[viii] Andraschek, Der Muse Reicht’s/The Muse Has Had It, 93.
[ix] Juneja, “‘A very civil idea…’,” 464.
Jo Ziebritzki researches queer-feminist and transcultural histories of art history of the 20th century and the contemporary. She is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Program for Transcultural Studies in Global Art History, supervised by Monica Juneja, at Heidelberg University. She is a founding member of the research network “Wege – Methoden – Kritiken: Kunsthistorikerinnen 1880–1970” funded by the German Research Foundation. Recent publication: Stella Kramrisch. Kunsthistorikerin zwischen Europa und Indien. Ein Beitrag zur Depatriarchalisierung der Kunstgeschichte, Marburg: Büchner Verlag, 2021.