Mathilde ter Heijne’s concern for topics of political violence and power-relationships within society and her related questioning of her role as an artist are central aspects of her oeuvre. In particular, the phenomena of victimisation, self-sacrifice and self–immolation, which condition our existence as political and private human beings, have been subject to her repeated investigation.
The exhibition ‘Number One’ closely relates to these issues. Her latest installation ‘Menschen Opfern’ (sacrifycing humans) confronts the visitor upon entry: five figures, all doubles of the artist herself, are grouped on a platform. The scenario of mutilated bodies bears connotations with ritualistic sacrifices of human beings as practised in Ancient Greece, or possibly a Greek theatre stage on which these rituals were ‘reenacted’ as tragedies.
In fact, the scene is based on the Greek tragedy ‘Iphigenia on Tauris’ by the dramatist Euripides (ca. 450 B.C.). Faced with the threat of being sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to appease the goddess Artemis, the character of Iphigenia has not only become a symbol of victimisation within a patriarchal society; as Iphigenia is rescued by Artemis herself to become one of her priestesses, she also personifies the emancipation from male dominance. Based on the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck‘s opera ‘Iphigénie en Tauride’ (1779), ter Heijne herself is recorded singing the chorus of Diana‘s priestesses, in which they ask for the goddess’ forgiveness.
The tension inherent in ter Heijne’s prominent use of the double, as already employed in earlier installations, such as ‘Mathilde, Mathilde…’ (2000) or ‘Suicide Bomb’ (2000), clearly reaches its climax in this work. The double does not only reveal the simultaneous identification with and rejection of the role of the victim, but also displays the fictitious character of the scenery. The artist’s failure of full identification and the shift of pain onto the double convey ter Heijne’s artistic strategy of self-questioning, not only in her role as an artist, but also in her social, political and private role as a woman.
Her video installation, ‘Small things end, great things endure’ (2001) likewise centres around the motif of victimisation and self-immolation. Once more, the heroine is based on a fictitious character: Gesine Cresspahl, the main protagonist of Uwe Johnsen‘s novel ‘Jahrestage’ (1934–84). While the novel tells the life story of Gesine’s mother, who – guilt ridden by the atrocities of the National Socialist Regime – decides to atone for this by burning herself, ter Heijne has modified the ending of the story: she projects the mother’s decision onto Gesine, who, facing the same unbearable feelings of guilt in the light of the Vietnam war during the 1960s, decides to set fire to herself at her home in Mecklenburg. In a loop, the video depicts the act of self-immolation, with the artist herself as Gesine Gresspahl. A female voice, from Magarethe von Trotta’s film version of the novel, cites the protagonist‘s quest for forgiveness, while a male voice recites a passage of Johnson’s book, passionlessly describing the detected scenery after Gesine’s death. In line with her earlier installation ‘For a better world’ (2000), dealing with the phenomenon of self-immolation as a political act, this work seems more intimate and less detached. Once more, her delegating the role of the victim – this time, onto a fictitious character – and exploring the issue of self-immolation as a moral and ideological act, reveals her quest for unravelling the complexity of power-relationships that condition our political and personal reality.
Born in 1969 in Strasbourg, France, Mathilde ter Heijne has studied at the City Academy in Maastricht and lives and works in Berlin. After various successful exhibitions in Europe and the US, she has recently had a solo show at the migros museum für gegenwartskunst in Zurich. ‘Number One’ is Mathilde ter Heijne’s second solo exhibition at Arndt & Partner