Zum Hauptmenu  Zur Unternavigation  Zum Inhalt

Sie befinden sich:

 home > Publications > Texts > Dr. Cora von Pape - Beyond the Proper Fit




Beyond the Proper Fit:

Unverzagt’s Travel into Time


The artist Mia Unverzagt began to find her calling while spending time in her grandparents’ old farmhouse, where much is preserved that has not survived the passage of time elsewhere. It was in this rural setting that she first started to reflect on traditions, pay critical attention to familiar societal structures and identity constructs, and question their validity for the present.


Taking a self-critical approach to her own roots, Unverzagt investigates traditional ideas about roles and gender. Using her personal background and her own family history as starting points, she studies social connections, points out societal norms and customs and addresses topics that are taboo in our society, such as age, decay and imperfection – all of which she imbues with humor and irony.


In selecting motifs for this work, Unverzagt displays a preference for objects that have been used and worn, even used up and worn out. Her “Flaggen” [“Flags”], as Unverzagt lovingly calls a series of photographs of cleaning rags and dusting cloths, show unmistakable signs of long hard use. They also embody the bourgeois values of cleanliness and order that the artist likes to skewer. Mia Unverzagt displays the rags on a clean Formica counter, giving them their moment of fame after years of lying carefully folded and ironed, safe and unassuming, in a drawer.


Unverzagt confronts the viewer with things that are generally not looked upon favorably in everyday middle-class life. Her social critical work always takes an  unfiltered look at what is behind the façade; the focus is on what lies underneath. And she is not squeamish about showing the rough and the ugly. The incompleteness of the series of pictures, the flags’ holes and stains and the jumble of colors all seem to connote fallibility and imperfection.


Unverzagt also concentrates on what is “underneath” in her work with the category of clothing that she favors as a subject for her investigations, namely underwear. Clothing as an artistic medium works particularly well for an investigation of the validity of outdated traditions and notions about identity. As a reference system, clothing marks the human body, but it is also a code that carries out numerous social and cultural functions. It underscores the wearer’s ideas about identity and provides him or her with a sense of psychological and social individuality. Used articles of clothing can become records and relics of outmoded values, traditions, customs and fashions. The garments’ style, smell, folds and other traces of use always remain a kind of “storage space” for identity and have the power to immediately bring to mind an absent person.


The clothing that Unverzagt discovers – in a dusty attic, for instance – always contains a personal story that can be brought to light. By bringing what is actually “underneath” to the surface and ascribing to it new possibilities for use, the artist exposes the social structures and traditions that we have inherited and also, at the same time, experiments with new approaches to their use in our own era.


In her work entitled “Hüllen” [“Coverings”] Unverzagt shows a young man’s body in a worn ribbed undershirt. But the wearer is not really the protagonist or the central image in the picture, for the photos tell us little about him beyond his skin color. His face, which could provide us with more specific information about his age, personality and mood, remains completely obscured. Instead Unverzagt focuses our gaze on the torn white undershirt, the second skin, which normally remains hidden. This old-fashioned garment, so near and dear to every German man in the years during and after World War II, stands in for the values of a generation that did heavy physical work. The holes in the undershirt have been neatly darned by hand with white thread, but its wearer has nevertheless left clear traces on it over the years. In fact, the holes keep reappearing in spite of the careful patching work; they even develop into runs that eventually contribute to the garment’s complete dissolution. Despite the best of efforts the old structure no longer provides a framework capable of withstanding the test of time.


Attention to the transitory nature of old structures, which is omnipresent in Unverzagt’s work, is especially insistent in her work with these knitted garments. Textiles are extremely forgiving materials that can be easily shaped and altered and that adapt especially well to the things around them. Almost no other material stores information – in the form of the smells, folds and threadbare spots that characterize a piece of fabric – than cloth. Because of its physical qualities, manner of production and sensuous associations, cloth has also long been considered a “feminine” material. Produced by women and passed down from generation to generation, the knitted garment is thus an ideal medium with which to consider traditions and document time.


In earlier times, mothers used to give even their little boys undershirts that had been knit by hand; the shirts were worn next to the skin during harsh winters. Today almost nobody in our society wears these outmoded garments. They no longer fit modern man’s image of himself; they have lived out their useful lives and are transformed into rags – or else end up in musty farmhouse attics.


A current photographic series shows the artist’s grandmother wearing one of these hand-knit cotton undershirts. The traces of many years of use are clear to see. The sensible garment is stretched out around the armholes; it is too long and just doesn’t fit the woman’s diminutive frame. It has been darned in several places and is, in fact, quite worn out. In these pictures, however, Unverzagt shows a harmonious symbiosis between the garment and its wearer. The grandmother is able to rise above minor flaws and wears the undershirt almost as if it were a gown. Adorned with wedding and family crest rings that signify her social status, this woman is a dignified representative of her era.


A series of self-portraits of the artist wearing an undershirt that used to be her mother’s, on the other hand, reveals an entirely different approach. The garment that the artist has inherited is much too small, and she struggles unsuccessfully to squeeze herself into it. Since her attempts to use the undershirt to appropriately contain her own  body fail, she finally decides to cut up the constrictive garment and to frame it along with the photographs, placing them under glass as relics of a past era. Everywhere in Unverzagt’s work we find the question of how clothing can be used to pick up on, perpetuate, or, at times, alter outdated strands of tradition – and thereby to find structures to support one’s own sense of self.


In our so-called postmodern era, and in the wake of the “post-human” debate, the concept of the self, of the “I,” has again grown dubious. In the search for a tangible site of identity, clothing has become, due to its proximity to the body, one of the most important artistic media.


In Unverzagt’s work clothing no longer offers any clear physical or spiritual boundaries. Clothing provides no assurance of the validity of tradition, nor does it guarantee a clear sense of identity. Conventional norms and models “fit” only in a very limited sense. Clothing has become a porous membrane, an interface and a zone of communication between past and present.


By documenting found and inherited objects as they become fragmented and dissolve, Unverzagt undermines clichés and traditional ideas about gender and other roles. Her work, with the numerous flaws and gaps that are integral to it, thereby consciously bypasses perfection.


Cora von Pape