VN XX CAS encourages debate on the gender imbalance in UK museum collections
A major work by Alexandra Bircken, The Doctor, 2020, has been acquired for the The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, through the Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society (VNXXCAS) initiative. The museum is receiving the work through this scheme after making a strong case for addressing the representation of women artists within their existing collections.
Bircken is known for her sculptures and installations, for which she draws on an unusually wide range of found materials. The human body is almost always the focus of her work, with its complex states and conditions, how it is covered and protected, and its variety of desires.
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. The smiley-face pattern on the gown from a hospital in Berlin extends across the whole body – skin and cloth have become one, the patient as an object as opposed to an individual.
The Hunterian’s historical collections originate in Dr William Hunter’s 18th-century anatomical work and in his scientific and artistic collection of objects from around the world. Whereas Hunter’s focus was with objective rationality – most significantly with his influential study of pregnancy and the female body – Bircken’s The Doctor is assembled from cultural materials animated by her own sensory experience, informed by her experience as a woman artist.
Dr Dominic Paterson, Curator of Contemporary Art at The Hunterian, said: “The acquisition of Alexandra Bircken’s The Doctor brings a powerful sculptural statement to The Hunterian. We are thrilled to be able to bring this piece into contact with the artistic and scientific objects in our collection, many of which manifest 18th century worldviews that were encyclopaedic in ambition but always partial in reality, not least in respect of gender. We look forward to discovering how The Doctor will animate and agitate our collections in future exhibitions and displays.”
Caroline Douglas, Director, Contemporary Art Society, said: “Like a mythic apparition, Alexandra Birken’s enigmatic figure, The Doctor, stirs powerful subconscious responses in the viewer. Inevitably, it takes on particular resonance at this moment in history, but its relationship to the historic collections at the Hunterian will be read and re-read many times over in future. It’s wonderful to see such a major work enter the collection in Glasgow.”
Valeria Napoleone said: “I am extremely proud of Alexandra Bircken’s exceptional sculpture, The Doctor, to be gifted to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow this year. This work significantly reflects the artist’s interest in and extensive exploration of the human condition. Through her eclectic and experimental practice, she pushes boundaries and offers a new vocabulary and a unique language in sculpture.”
Valeria Napoleone XX Contemporary Art Society (VN XX CAS) is a joint initiative of philanthropist Valeria Napoleone and the Contemporary Art Society. The scheme purchases and donates a significant work by a living female artist each year to a UK museum that has made a strong case for addressing the representation of female artists within their existing collections. Past acquisitions have included work by Mary Kelly for Royal Pavilion & Museums, Bernie Searle for Manchester Art Gallery, Martine Syms for Leeds Art Gallery and Aliza Nisenbaum for Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.
The Doctor is currently on show in an exhibition of Alexandra Bircken’s work at Museum Brandhorst, Munich until 16 January, after which the exhibition will travel to Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain in Sète, France. The Doctor will go on show at the Hunterian Museum in late 2022.