Women's Work is Never Done

Women's Work is Never Done

"Die Damen" ("The Ladies") became historical as an agency for self-confident art by women. In 1987, in the face of international activists such as the New York "Guerrilla Girls", Ona B., Evelyne Egerer, Birgit Jürgenssen (1949–2003) and Ingeborg Strobl founded the process-oriented performance troupe whose performances and actions stood against a background of feather-light derisive feminism. "Die Damen" staged performances and parody events and translated the genre of the tableau vivant, the living picture, into the media age. Their live interpretations of role-play of the sexes, their commentaries on the status of women in the art business and in society were pointed and critical but also full of humour and self-irony.

"Die Damen never worked," remembers Ingegorg Strobl, but nevertheless the terrain of female activities is a motif which returns again and again. "It was the time when women working in business began not only to act like men but also to dress like them: business suits, trouser suits etc." In 1989 "Die Damen" celebrated the new "Executive Style in the main room of the Vienna Secession which they transformed into a post office. In white shirts with ties and wearing glasses sitting at desks they postmarked a postcard edition with a stamp which they designed, and sold the special postmark 4D (vier Damen – four ladies). Cryptically they called the evening "postmodern". This could be simply interpreted as comic slapstick about the blessings of the post office's work but on a clearly played out meta-level the performance meant the devaluation of the phenomenon of the postmodern as a canonised thought pattern which was much evoked at the time.

The combination of art and business was, though with a wink, a concern of the "Damen". They were blissful times as the hands which fed them tolerated a little bite. The legendary calendar for Austria Tabak managed completely without cigarettes. "Die Damen" only brought their patron's product into the picture indirectly, such as when Mae West is smoking on television in the December photograph. This wonderfully gross exaggeration of housewife existence between the ironing board and scrubbing the floor has in the meantime taken on the status of an icon. Every detail, from curlers to glitzy slippers, from pink rubber gloves to heart-shaped bucket, from housecoat to the petticoat hanging off the shoulder, everything is precisely considered and confirms the quartet in the discipline of staged photography. "Die Damen" in front, body-snapshooter Wolfgang Woessner behind the camera.

"Die Damen" still pay a compliment to their audience today who took up invitations to the restaurant at Westbahnhof, the VIP lounge at the airport and the house warming party at the "Blaue Lagune" and who helped make the event successful through appropriate participation at the parties in four show houses.

When artists travel they bring pictures back home with them. When "Die Damen" travelled to the Biennale in Ankara in 1990 they were travelling as a finely tuned group picture, as a minutely planned directing operation for interdisciplinary, intercultural "theatricality" in time and space. From journeys, actions and tableaux vivants there remained brash pictures and reports from the changing cubicles where art and reality change their clothes. Who still wants to talk about truth there?