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Encounters: Ulrike Truger, Elisabeth – Zwang – Flucht –Freiheit, 1998/99

Christiane Hertel, "Encounters: Ulrike Truger, Elisabeth – Zwang – Flucht –Freiheit, 1998/99," In Sissi's World: The Empress Elizabeth in Memory and Myth, edited by Heidi Schlipphacke and Maura Hametz, 29-52.  London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Pulblishing Plc., 2018.

“I want to be effective in these times.”

Käthe Kollwitz, 1922



Ulrike Truger’s sculpture Elisabeth offers three concepts or experiences, Zwang – Flucht – Freiheit (Constraint – Flight/Escape – Freedom), that might be understood as a narrative trajectory of liberation or self-liberation. Yet there are not three figures; there is one. The artist put it thus: “At first I also had ideas for a sculpture ensemble of several pieces. Then I realized that the three factors – just as in the human being ‘elisabeth’– had to be united in a single sculpture,” that is, “tensely united.” One may say, then, that this one figure is in a perpetual, and precise, state of the “in-between,” to begin with, in-between Zwang and Flucht and Freiheit. The three views, as identified by Truger (Figures 1-3), succeed each other counter-clockwise not in the sequence suggested by the sculpture’s subtitle, Zwang – Flucht – Freiheit, but instead as Zwang – Freiheit – Flucht. The mutual encounter of these different states, which Truger has also called “feelings” (“Gefühle”), is one of tension, conflict, friction, and contradiction. This state of the “in-between” cannot be resolved. Herein, according to Truger, lies the struggle of Elisabeth “as a political woman” as well as the paradigmatic relevance of Elisabeth for women today. It would be wrong, therefore, to assume that Elisabeth – Zwang – Flucht – Freiheit solely concerns the Empress’s private life, even to the limited extent to which this bourgeois concept applies at all to a monarch. She was part of the Habsburg power institution at the same time as she struggled with it. What, then, are our possible encounters with this Elisabeth? Truger’s three terms leave us with difference and triangularity and the task to discover or identify them in the sculpture, in its forms as much as its material presence.

At 2.70 m height and 6.5 tons weight, hewn, carved, and chiseled in white Carrara marble, this sculpture is decidedly and unapologetically monumental. It also is, in more than one sense, “monumentally feminine” (“monumental weiblich”), to borrow the title of Truger’s recent collaborative book (Ulrike Truger, Monumental Weiblich, 2015). In its or her particular ways, Elisabeth’s three-in-one points to history, or, rather, histories. It is at this level that Truger’s monument invokes our dialectical engagement with who, according to this sculpture, Elisabeth was and was not. The histories I wish to explore here include first, the artistic practice of three-in-one sculpture or “tripartite” or “threefold” appearance (“Dreiansichtigkeit”) and the eighteenth-century aesthetic discourse about it; second, the Habsburg imperial state portrait of Maria Theresa and Elisabeth in the medium of sculpture; and, third, Elisabeth’s place within Truger’s oeuvre and within several of her works’ placements and displacements in Vienna’s urban spaces. Following the historical traces intersecting in this monument will lead me to the precise sculptural language of the in-between of Truger’s Elisabeth.






[“Placement Problems” (“Platz-Probleme”)]








 Elisabeth – Zwang – Flucht – Freiheit  is not Truger’s only work sited in public space titled in this way. Such threefold naming occurred in Der Steinerne Fluss – Quelle – Welle – Wasserfall (The Stone River – Source – Wave – Waterfall) of 1991 in Hartberg, Steiermark, Truger’s hometown. This work allows a creek covered by an urban pedestrian zone to resurface as rock formation and in mere traces of re-emerging water and in three discrete parts spanning from source to disappearance. The middle term Welle is the moment in which Der Steinerne Fluss most seems to come into its own and yet this moment is necessarily fleeting. Formally and structurally less comparable perhaps to Elisabeth is GIGANT – Mensch – Macht – Würde (GIANT – Human Being – Power – Dignity) of 2009, another three-in-one monument about human rights. This one the artist again sited “illegally” on the Ringstrasse, in front of the Musikverein facing the Karlskirche across the large Karlsplatz. Elisabeth stands between these two works, completed within a decade’s distance from each and partaking of the mimetic quality of the earlier work as much as of the latter’s abstraction. Thereby Elisabeth resists a trend observed by the art critic Michael Casey in his review of Object versus Space, an exhibition of contemporary Austrian sculpture at the Nordic Arts Center in Helsinki, November 1992 (Form Function Finland). (…)

For Casey abstraction was the necessary response to the fact that in Austria as elsewhere conceptual, installation, and performance art had become the new sculptural arts of content in the 1960s and 1970s. What seemed to remain of autonomous, material sculpture was form, perhaps mere form. In our context Casey’s critique is less interesting for his certainty of this divide than for its obvious contradiction by Truger’s artistic practice. As the works introduced here for comparison with Elisabeth demonstrate, for Truger, her medium, rock –often, but not always the “classical” Carrara marble– is not solely a means of representation, but a material with an inherent ability to embody and articulate especially those aspects of her sculpture that are less conceptual than sensual and emotional.

To understand Elisabeth’s sculptural language, between the literal or figurative on the one hand and abstraction on the other, we need to ask how it physically and sensually invites and engages our encounter with it. Elisabeth’s Dreiansichtigkeit may seem to match sculpture suitably with a primarily visual perception aesthetic and thus to the implied, nominal spectator. Yet the real, embodied spectator attends to sculpture not only visually, but also experiences its physical presence, in materiality, weight, scale, form, and surface. In Elisabeth’s case, such experience is in harmony as well as disharmony with the work’s iconography in several ways. The subtitle, Zwang – Flucht – Freiheit, makes us look for iconographic counterparts and three distinctive views. As we saw, the sculpture welcomes and sustains this approach but also counters and even confuses it, for Elisabeth’s actual views change the order of terms, and also do not indicate where exactly one concept ends and another begins. Instead they may fuse and separate differently during different encounters, under different conditions of weather, light, and season as much as a viewer’s disposition. Accordingly, one’s perception of approximate seams between the three views will likely change or shift.

The identification of iconographic motifs –such as face, arm, fan, bodice, cloak– depends on their recognizibility and thus on the imputation of mimetic intention. Such recognition seeks a one-to-one resemblance – for example, “it” looks like a fan– or relies on biographical knowledge or cliché, such as Elisabeth’s –habitual, shielding, hiding– use of her fan. Elisabeth allows both kinds of identification, even as the fan suggests self-reflection. Some motifs are indisputable, others are ambiguous. Is the cloak a cloak? Is the maybe-cloak a frame, a shelter, a wing, or a space of confinement? Is the almost pleated skirt just a skirt or also another fan enfolding the woman? Yet others are entirely uncertain. Does this shape allude to hair, the famous long, beautiful, shiny hair groomed over two and a half hours daily, or is this just rock, the quarried rock into which Elisabeth might retreat even as she seems to emerge from it? Is it both, hair and retreat? The sculpture’s different levels of mimetic finish seem to tease us. Next to the skirt’s roughly embossed surface is the finely finished elegant point of a corset-like bodice quite roughly surfaced further up to suggest ample breasts. The one we can see only from close up, the other we see from farther away. This pointy finish associates eighteenth-century court fashion and thus Habsburg and Bavarian feminine ancestry along with publicly watched fecundity, a close eye kept on the empress as the bearer of heirs and dynastic continuity.

The differing, even contrasting forms and textures of Elisabeth can generally be considered supportive indicators of their non-linear dynamic: they do not deny biographical association and historical comparison, yet encourage these as fragmentary or localized reflection. Furthermore, its surface treatment connects Elisabeth to process art, as the work’s appearance seems to record its genesis. Conventionally that process from rough to refined is understood as entelechy. Here it might be tempting to see a force leading Elisabeth from captivity to freedom, but as we have seen, the sculpture’s actual sequence of views does not allow for this. Instead, even when perceived as resulting from a force within, the localized shift from finish to seemingly unfinished, and from literal or figurative representation to abstraction, accomplishes two things. This work resists pictorialization, a common means of forgetting sculpture’s materiality; thus it resists iconicity, here: Elisabeth’s iconicity. Second, it offers what so far I have called in-betweenness as two possible processes, becoming and something like unbecoming, an emergence from and a disappearance into the block of Carrara marble. (…) There is no one moment we can call Elisabeth/Elisabeth’s coming into its, or her, own. Beholders may variously consider these oscillations in relation to problems of monumental sculpture in the 1990s, aspects of Elisabeth’s entire life, or to her assassination, or, on some days, to their own experiences. This is possible also because the sculpture avoids the invocation of Elisabeth’s dignified death, her “exemplum doloris,” privileged in her biographies and their illustrations. (…) Above all, it reminds us of its material, rock, and of our own suspended expectations.

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