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The Retrieved Story
An Encounter with Mathilde ter Heijne

Artists, pirates, suffragettes: in the new Amsterdam offices of Deutsche Bank, Mathilde ter Heijne’s installation “Woman to Go” makes it clear how many women’s biographies and achievements have fallen victim to the male-dominated version of history. In the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt, an entire floor is dedicated to the feminist artist’s works. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met with ter Heijne in Berlin.

I am surprised when Mathilde ter Heijne tells me with a hint of apology that she’s been living the classic family model of a relationship with children for years now. It’s a grey summer morning. We’re sitting in a café in Prenzlauer Berg; sitting next to us is the actor Jürgen Vogel with his girlfriend and child. Outside, on the street, is the usual scene: young creative people, Croozer buggies. On the way to the studio ter Heijne talks about how the rents are going up here, and that the area’s original inhabitants are being pushed out. Everywhere you look there are shops for interior decorating, high-end children’s clothing, and organic food popping up where coal suppliers and workshops used to be. A rent increase means that ter Heijne will also soon have to move out of her studio in a factory courtyard where an ever-growing number of artists and galleries have settled over the past several years.

Sitting in the café, we talk about the catastrophic situation in Greece and the repercussions of the financial crisis. About how she came to Berlin from Holland 13 years ago; how dynamic the city was in both an intellectual and artistic sense, and how stagnant it is now. According to ter Heijne, what the city particularly lacks these days are real alternatives and divergent ways of life. The cozy, secure world of Prenzlauer Berg also gives off this feeling; it’s the very paragon of a monoculture in which alternative and bourgeois leanings merge in the form of the modern nuclear family. The idyllic life presented, however, is a pale surrogate that would be unthinkable without the feminist, squatter, civil rights, and environmental movements of the past decades. Despite this, Prenzlauer Berg doesn’t even partially live up to the promises it makes for an equal opportunity, alternative form of co-existence. In view of the urgent social and ecological problems pressing upon us all, it comes across as a high-priced protected zone.

Something fundamental has to change, but how? Does feminism also mean class warfare? Right from the beginning of our conversation, Ter Heijne expresses the doubts occupying her—doubts as to whether a feminist artist can assume a political stance and really have an effect on something—in the art establishment, in life, in relationships. When, over a glass of chai latte, she says that she loves “extreme experiences” and likes to teeter on the “razor’s edge,” it sounds a little like an announcement of lifestyle at first. But her art really does aim at what really hurts—the mechanisms of oppressing women, domestic violence, marginalization, and self-sacrifice that lie hidden behind the facades of purportedly enlightened or intact family relationships.

Tellingly, it is a dollhouse that breaks apart in ter Heijne’s photo series Domestication (2005)—or more precisely a miniature copy of Jan Vermeer’s house in Delft. Domestication is one of the works from the Deutsche Bank Collection on view on the floor featuring ter Heijne’s work in the Frankfurt Head Office. The series was made in the framework of the video project Fuck Patriarchy! (2004). In both works, the house is a decorative prison that physically constricts women to the point that they could burst it apart and nearly perish because of it. In her video, ter Heijne pairs Vermeer’s idylls with scenes and dialogues of domestic violence: kitchen chairs knocked over, broken dishes. The scenes and dialogues are either found footage taken from films or were produced together with a Dutch theater company that also performs in women’s shelters. “They work out ways to escape the cycle of violence,” explains ter Heijne, “to free oneself from this notion that that’s how things are and that they can’t be different. This is where interactive theater in women’s shelters comes in. A scene, a violent conflict is replayed. And then you say, OK, if you do it that way then you’ll remain stuck in this circle. If you try it like this, though, then you’ll see that you’re acting differently.”

But why would you place contemporary domestic violence in a 17th-century setting, of all things? “Nowhere else in the world was there so much accumulation of wealth and property,” says ter Heijne. “The Netherlands, with its rich traders, became a bastion of the bourgeoisie. But along with the rise of the bourgeoisie, the wife’s body was declared to be property, while laws were passed that permitted men to ‘castigate’ her violently. She was no longer allowed to appear in public without his permission. Vermeer doesn’t portray reality, but rather an idealized state of the bourgeoisie that people of the time would have liked to see: the woman sitting at home peacefully, with music. But those were women that were silenced. They seem like furniture in an idyllic scene. Recorded history tells us that a majority of them suffered tremendously, that it was anything but a golden age for them—on the contrary, it was the beginning of a new form of the patriarchal era in which we still live today.”

Then ter Heijne talks about a contemporary of Vermeer’s that also inspired her to make Fuck Patriarchy! In her copper engravings, Geertruyd Roghman (1602-1657) depicts harsh, unembellished everyday life: hardworking women in working clothes, bent over spinning wheels and sinks, sewing and weaving baskets. These images are so precise that they serve as sources for the reconstruction of historical kitchens to this day. Geertruyd Roghman knew what she portrayed in her pictures. To ter Heijne’s mind, the fact that she is almost completely forgotten alongside a master like Vermeer is not only due to his virtuosity, but actually follows the logic of deliberate suppression of female history, female biographies and living realities—because patriarchal dominance doesn’t only occur in the home environment, but also in the recording of history.

The project Woman to Go, which ter Hejine began in 2005 and continues to work on in various forms, is dedicated to forgotten biographies such as these. The idea behind the installations, of which the most recent version is presented in Deutsche Bank’s new Amsterdam offices, seems at first rather simple: hundreds of postcards stacked in wall racks are offered for the taking, free of charge. On the front of the cards are photographs of unknown women taken between 1839 and 1920. On the backs are biographies from this era, which obviously, however, are unconnected to the photographs. A basic idea in the work is that the effect exerted by the portraits and biographies is heightened by this very discrepancy. Frequently, these biographies chart the adventurous lives of unusual women all over the world—artists, tea traders, pirates, writers, researchers, partisans, suffragettes. All of them were pioneers whose achievements were overlooked by the “official” version of history. On her journeys around the globe, for years ter Heijne pored through used book stores and flea markets, researched with students in archives, searched the Internet. “In China, for example, there are hardly any women’s biographies from this time at all. I said to them, but that can’t be, did you really look hard enough? And it turned out that there really weren’t any biographies from this time, except for a small number of concubines and empresses. That’s where it ends. Up until only around a century ago, women there had no name, no status, and were completely marginalized—as if they were livestock.”

By bringing together a variety of different women’s fates, ter Heijne has created an interactive archive. Each of the postcards a visitor takes home offers a chance to remember these female role models and become inspired by them. Woman to Go, says ter Heijne, “is about the relationship between impotence and power, the idea of the one-sidedness of history, the fact that history is perceived from the perspective of a unilateral image of the world whose reality one can, however, change.” Tattooed Inuit women, beauties of the Belle Époque, farmers, African and Japanese women in traditional folk costumes: one can see how multi-faceted these realities were by the clothing styles, bodily postures, and poses. And then there are these gazes looking off into the distance, helpless or seductive smiles, folded hands, faces that speak of either pride or humiliation—each of these often spotty, pale photographs gives an idea of what was never passed on or documented, of what has been irrevocably lost.

“That’s what characterizes this work,” says ter Heijne. “What can be found, what can’t be found? What does it say about the different countries, the different biological and geographical backgrounds? One could say that it’s about history being ‘invented’ or ‘found again.’ Of course it’s not only about women and men, but also about black and white. I see these women’s stories as a metaphor for everything that has been marginalized by this patriarchal, colonized view of the world. You should become familiar with the feminist agenda even if you’re not a woman. I’m not saying that the patriarchy only consists of men—that would be too easy. These are systems of thought and power.”

During the course of her research on the patriarchy, she traveled the whole world, visited indigenous peoples, searched for alternative economic, social, and writing systems. Ter Heijne made numerous works about various different forms of matriarchal culture. Her video Lament (2010) was made during a workshop with Finnish wailing women who carry on an ancient shamanistic tradition. In Moon Rituals (2007), a group of women sets handmade goddess figures on fire during two full moon rituals. These reconstructions of prehistoric artifacts were made according to illustrations from Marija Gimbuta’s book The Language of the Goddess (1989), which attempts to prove how the forgotten and repressed language of the goddesses has left its mark on our entire Western culture. Ter Heijne exhibited these clay sculptures under the title Experimental Archeology (2006/07).

To ter Heijne’s mind, this view of thousand-year-old cultures is an approach to a radically different type of thinking that lies buried deep in the past: “in matriarchal societies, the overall world picture is completely different. As functioning social systems, they have existed for a very long time. On the other hand, socialism and communism are completely recent projects. The matriarchy was lived for thousands of years in indigenous societies. I found it very interesting to research these other social, political, and economic foundations. Actually, Friedrich Engels developed his theses for The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staates, 1884) out of his research on matriarchal structures. Much of it has become marginalized because of its enormous explosive potential.”

During the course of her project Export Matriarchy (2007), ter Heijne visited the Mosuo tribe in Southwest China. As a minority, they live in a matriarchal social order that comes to expression in the clan’s central meeting place, the Zumu wooden house. Life together is governed by the family matriarch; there is no personal property, and money is shared among the family’s members. For the Mosuo, it’s more important to have daughters, because they carry on the clan. They do not, however, marry. When girls turn 13, they are given the key to their own room in a solemn initiation ritual where they can receive visits from their friends whenever they want. Boys do not have their own rooms. Until they are 15 years old, they sleep in the main hall of the house, and after that in a random room assigned to the men, which can be a storage room or a pigsty. Or they sleep temporarily in the rooms of their girlfriends, depending on whether the woman invites them or not. In the Mosuo tribe, men and women enter into a so-called “visiting marriage” in which they live together, not necessarily for a long time, and can have different partners. For Export Matriarchy, ter Heijne had a Masuo wooden house completely reconstructed from plastic in a reduced scale of 5:1. In the pre-fab house, which was installed in a variety of different exhibitions, visitors could glean an idea of a way of life that is diametrically opposed to life in a nuclear family in Prenzlauer Berg. Additionally, ter Heijne illustrated her encounters with the everyday life and rituals of the Mosuo in the comic book Empire of the Women—Not a Fairy Tale (2007). The book is both a portrayal of the utopia of a more peaceful coexistence and a documentation of an imperiled culture. “Matriarchal society is one of these social forms that is gradually getting eaten away, as can be observed clearly in China. It’s also interesting that violence and rape, typical patriarchal problems, simply don’t exist. Matriarchal societies have very similar structures to communism, except that these structures aren’t dominated by a male elite. And it’s these that are being eliminated by the Chinese government.” Ter Heijne talks about how the Mosuo were forced by the state to marry and to live in small families. “But then they went back to their women’s houses,” she laughs, “back to the pigsty or the storage room, but in a system that has always worked well for them.”

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