Don’t Be Yourself!

Josef Dabernig’s tireless quest for autonomy

23_JD_09_Corinthians-clube-social-(3-teilig,-2009)_1_CMYK.jpg

Corinthians clube social, 2009, einer von drei C-prints, 33 × 45 cm (Courtesy: der Künstler & Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna)

Corinthians clube social, 2009, one of three c-type prints, 33 × 45 cm (courtesy: the artist & Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna)

Carinthia, Austria, summer 1977. A 21-year-old artist sits by a mountain stream, writing. He’s not composing romantic poetry, nor is he indulging in the self-aggrandizement of diarizing. Rather, he is torturing himself with the kind of writing furthest removed from originality and authenticity: he’s copying. Josef Dabernig is transcribing a book, and not even the kind of book that a young artist of the Punk era could brag about. He’s copying a book by a doctor named Franz X. Mayr, word for word, page for page. The book is entitled Schönheit und Verdauung oder die Verjüngung des Menschen durch sachgemäße Wartung des Darmes (Beauty and Digestion: Human Rejuvenation Through the Appropriate Maintenance of the Intestines, 1920).

_1a_Josef-Dabernig,-Handschriftliche-Kopie-des-Buches-von-Dr.-Franz-Xaver-Mayr-Schînheit-und-Verdauung_.,-1977,-Seite-100_CMYK_.jpg

Schönheit und Verdauung oder die Verjüngung des Menschen durch sachgemäße Wartung des Darmes, 1977, Manuskript Kopie, S.100, Kugelschreiber auf Papier (Courtesy: der Künstler & Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna)

Schönheit und Verdauung oder die Verjüngung des Menschen durch sachgemäße Wartung des Darmes, 1977, manuscript copy, p.100, ballpoint pen on paper (courtesy: the artist & Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna)

The habit of copying out books, along with Dabernig’s practice of meticulously measuring bodies and landscapes, stands in sharp contrast to the expression-oriented art practice more prevalent in the late 1970s – as seen, for example, with the ‘Neue Wilden’. Dabernig thus began putting obstacles in his own path. Self-discipline and small moments of redemption were to define his career from this point forward. At the time, he began to write down how many cigarettes he smoked each day; since then, in the 31 years and counting, he has exceeded his limit of four per day only twice. This ritualized self-auditing was not at all in keeping with the dominant zeitgeist. Dabernig’s internal censor imposed a temperance that escalated to the level of obsession. On Discipline was to be the title of a 2011 installation at the Wilfried Lentz gallery in Rotterdam, in which Dabernig ‘re-staged’ the recording of his daily cigarette consumption from 23 September 1979 to 22 September 1980: the catalogues of his sins displayed in a sort of study room.

_2a_Josef-Dabernig,-TÑglicher-Zigarettenkonsum,-23-09-1979---22-09-1980,-Vorderseite_CMYK.jpg

Daily Cigarette Consumption 23.09.1979 until 22.09.1980, 1979–80, Kugelschreiber auf Papier, 21 × 11 cm (Courtesy: der Künstler & Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna)

Daily Cigarette Consumption 23.09.1979 until 22.09.1980, 1979–80, ballpoint pen on paper, 21 × 11 cm (courtesy: the artist & Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna)

‘I wanted to get away from a hands-on practice, the material’, the artist told me in a recent interview, describing his beginnings as a student at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts (1976–81). Rejecting the clay modelling element of the course, he instead restricted himself to drawing the three-dimensional phenomena provided. He entered the data from his measurements into tables. ‘I always measured. Measuring was my cross’, Dabernig says. Using a simple mathematical formula, he distorted the recorded data creating abstract diagrams reminiscent of scientific visualizations. He transformed some of these graphics into three-dimensional steel objects evocative of futuristic shrubs (Torvaianica, 1982–84).

In the early 1990s orthogonal aluminium grids supplanted these vestiges of representational figures, rendering them more abstract (for example, Ohne Titel, 1992). Dabernig stresses how the meditative nature of measuring and drawing – and of metal welding – was important to him. By this cathartic process he wanted to attain an essential state, as well as avoiding recourse to subjective perception: ‘I was convinced that my feelings were not to be trusted’, he says. He constantly coded his perceptions in numbers, through which the subjective took on an abstract form. In these early works, Dabernig systematically filtered all things sensory out of his images. Until his 1998 film Timau, in which he used his brother as an actor for the first time, he also avoided every reference to his private life.1

_7_Josef-Dabernig--Markus-Scherer,-Timau,-Filmstill,-1998_BW.jpg

Josef Dabernig & Markus Scherer, Timau, 1998, 16 mm film still (Courtesy: der Künstler & Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna)

Josef Dabernig & Markus Scherer, Timau, 1998, 16 mm film still (courtesy: the artist & Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna)

Since 1989 Dabernig has been working on a long-term project photographing empty football stadiums around the world. These works, known as ‘panoramas’, were recently shown in a 2013 solo exhibition across the two venues of the Kunsthaus and Neue Galerie in Graz and were exhibited at the 9th Gwangju Biennale in 2012. For these works Dabernig seeks a position in the middle of a football field and photographs the architecture in six segments: three pictures of the left half of the stadium and three of the right. The actual centre, the playing field, remains empty. Sporting venues are arenas of collective fervour; Dabernig’s austere photographs, by contrast, show only the (unspectacular) skeleton of the spectacle.

Art history of the latter half of the 20th century bears many attempts to dissolve objects into signs, diagrams and numerical series. Take for example, Hanne Darboven’s work Schreibzeit (Time of Writing, 1975–80). Dabernig, on the contrary, has resisted participation in art debates. He sees in them ‘an attempt to sublimate the middle-class Catholic educational model’. Beyond the classic Conceptual approach of uncoupling the making of an art work from its author and demystifying its purported uniqueness, Dabernig’s pratice comes out of a monastic tradition whose last remnants he experienced at the Catholic boarding school he attended in Austria. The Christian exercitationes spirituales, which began in late antiquity as a combination of physical exercise and piety, survived in postwar European grammar schools as enforced, blind obedience.

In contrast to others of his generation, Dabernig did not turn to Indian ashrams or rural communes to seek enlightenment. His decades-long training has provided only the most minimal of high points, such as the mastery of his nicotine addiction and the ecstasy of his completed series of numbers. Is this a pedant working through the traumas of his education? A disciplined ascetic with a compulsive bent? Dabernig’s irony refuses this obvious interpretation – instead it results from the contrast between the claimed demand for order and the imperfect reality. This is also how the artist partakes of the lordly genre of the panorama, albeit in the form of pieced-together rows of images. His usage of the stadium is reminiscent of the steel bodies and collective experiences of neo-Olympic Modernity. But the artist shows the ugly side of these arenas of progress: near-derelict sport cities at the peripheries of towns.

In taking recourse to the palaestra, Dabernig also incorporates physical exercise into his installations. He presented gymnastics as a de-spiritualized asceticism in the exhibition Excursus on Fitness (2010) at the Museum für angewandte Kunst/Gegenwartskunst (MAK) in Vienna. There, gymnastics mats and balls lay in wait in the exhibition space, while an ambient racket issuing from loudspeakers preserved the atmosphere of a gym, ensuring that the sports equipment wouldn’t be interpreted as sculpture.

_12b_Josef-Dabernig_excursus-on-fitness,-Videostill,-2010_BW.jpg

Excursus on Fitness, Installationsansicht, MAK, Vienna, 2010 (Fotografie: © Wolfgang Woessner/ MAK, Vienna)

Excursus on Fitness, installation view, MAK, Vienna, 2010 (photograph: © Wolfgang Woessner/ MAK, Vienna)

In 1996 Dabernig began a second artistic career as a filmmaker – and here, too, sports and personal accomplishment have played a central role. For his first film, the short Wisla (1996), which was shot in Krakow, he turned once more to football. Football coaches have a simple code of conduct. Some of them gesticulate wildly and shout at their players. Others follows the action with an impassive gaze, suppressing their emotions even when a goal is scored. In Wisla, Josef Dabernig chose the silent type. Actors playing a football coach and his assistant enter a football stadium, sit down on a bench in the dugout and watch the ensuing match. Dabernig’s coach uses minimal arm movement when giving his team instructions: ‘mark!’ Not much else happens.

Wisla follows the same structure that informs the majority of the 15 films Dabernig has made since: visuals out-of-sync with sound; everyday views of car journeys running parallel to bel canto arias; the background noise in a Polish stadium suggesting the live broadcast of an Italian championship match. The strict application of formal specifications, the avoidance of ‘dramatic’ panning, for example, is reminiscent of the anti-illusionist programme of Structuralist film, with its rhetoric of the transparency of the medium. The elements of film – cutting, sound, material, montage – remain unconcealed. In his films, Dabernig overcomes the barrier of Constructivism; he shifts from enumerator to narrator.

The characters in Dabernig’s films are thoroughly stoic by nature, more indolent than impassioned, more prototypes than individuals. Their clothing – typically the work uniforms of telephone technicians, custodians or waitresses – also suggests a near-socialist indifference to self-expression and to the creativity-oriented competition of the contemporary working world. Beyond this, the artist’s films are marked by a preference for spaces wrought by modern mass society, not just football stadiums but also swimming pools (Aquarena, 2007) and train dining cars (WARS, 2001). Dabernig documents them at the moment of their decay. The functionalist surfaces of facades and interiors appear peculiarly timeless. At the same time, however, they are too dilapidated to fit the cliché of retro-modern chic. Like the landscapes and people in Dabernig’s films, they convey the mood of a peripheral location once gripped by the force of progress, long since gone cold.

Dabernig’s most recent film Hypercrisis (2011), which was shown at the Bergen Assembly in autumn 2013, is set in a former Soviet convascelent home. Here, for the first time, one of Dabernig’s films focuses on an artist. The literary figures seeking relaxation include Boris Martov, a once up-and-coming young talent of the Perestroika era. While his colleagues sit around snacking comfortably, the no-longer-so-young Martov suffers a creative crisis and trudges through the snow reading manuscripts: the caricature of inspired creativity running up against a wall of aimlessness.

_13_Josef-Dabernig,-Hypercrisis,-Filmstill,-2011_CMYK.jpg

Hypercrisis, 2011, 35 mm film still (Courtesy: Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna & Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam)

Hypercrisis, 2011, 35 mm film still (courtesy: Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna & Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam)

Dabernig opposes the myth of artistic autonomy with discipline and renunciation. Is this perhaps a suitable formula for attaining the career goal of independence? In any event, even if Dabernig’s subject matter repeatedly shows traces of decay, and his protagonists must stomach defeats rather than victories, there is something upstanding, something invulnerable to pity and self-pity, about these places and their people. As if a long training programme had made them strong and serene.
Translated by Jane Yager

1Dabernig’s partially paraplegic brother Wolfgang, a Paralympic silver medalist in cycling, has acted in five of the artist’s films.

Matthias Dusini is a writer and editor of the magazine Falter. He lives in Vienna. His most recent book, written jointly with Thomas Edlinger, is In Anführungszeichen – Glanz und Elend der Political Correctness (Quote Unquote – The Splendour and Misery of Political Correctness, Suhrkamp, 2012).

Issue 12

First published in Issue 12

Dec 2013 - Feb 2014

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018