Known for pursuing a single series or artistic experiment for the course of a decade or even two, Josef Dabernig’s practice is a far cry from the tendency towards perpetual artistic self-reinvention that has been prevalent since modernism. Fastidiously taking note of his daily cigarette consumption, for example, or imposing obsessively strict constraints on filmmaking, the artist has also remained true to his predilection for brutalist architecture, his all-consuming grey palette and a socialist-era aesthetic. (His 2001 film WARS, for example, was shot entirely in the dining car of a Polish train.) Visiting a Dabernig exhibition is rather like being reunited with an eccentric old friend and being reassured by how little they have changed.
Sport has long been one of Dabernig’s metaphors for artistic routine, and his exhibition ‘Stabat Mater’ at Badischer Kunstverein opens with the film Excursus on Fitness (2010), in which a handful of bodies bend and stretch in a sparsely equipped gym. Sitting at a computer is a somewhat older man: Dabernig himself; the camera hones in on his balding head and out-of-shape body. Filled with deliberately awkward camera angles, Excursus on Fitness unfolds with near-mathematical precision. As the punchline – a moment of release Dabernig has since eliminated from his works – we’re offered a glimpse of what’s on the computer screen: the highly detailed script of the very film we’re watching.
Installed alongside Excursus on Fitness at Badischer Kunstverein was a work comprising a set of meticulous script directives arranged to resemble a poem. Aside from ritual discipline, Dabernig is evidently also fascinated by the disjunction between plans and their realization. The film River Plate (2013), for instance, cycles through endlessly repeated shots of limbs and hands beside a stream and against a concrete background, creating a mesmeric effect that recalls the meditative state of praying the rosary. Yet, from Drehkonzept zu River Plate (Film Concept for River Plate, 2012) we learn that a downpour was originally intended to interrupt the imagery at one point, and that the film’s river-bathing scene has also been dropped. Such discrepancies between proposal and end result reveal how Dabernig, in contrast to his apparently meticulous filmic approach, looks to unsettle the rigidity of his own systems.
Shown alongside the artist’s films in this exhibition are process-driven works in other media: his melancholy-yet-beautiful photographic series ‘Sportplatzpanoramen’ (Athletic Field Panoramas, 1989–ongoing), for example, or 26 Tickets for Football Matches (1989–2010), for which Dabernig collected tickets for every football game he has attended. As with so many of his works, the artist’s focus is on constancy, unconditionally rejecting novelty for novelty’s sake.
Dabernig’s latest film, however, seemingly bucks this trend. Stabat Mater (2016) alternates interior scenes of a hotel dining room with landscape stills of a deserted quarry by the sea, while the audio shifts between a story by Austrian author Bruno Pellandini and Franz Schubert’s musical arrangement for the hymn ‘Stabat Mater’. Each of the two filmic strands develops a narrative in which parents lose a child. Two mothers and their respective children move between the smart hotel interior and the barren rocky landscape, accompanied by Schubert’s organ music, which seeks to express the pain experienced by Mary, mother of Jesus.
Despite the continued presence in Stabat Mater of Dabernig’s customary preoccupations – dissociation between image and sound, transition between scenes of functional spaces and desolate landscapes – there’s an undeniably new tone throughout. In contrast to previous films, sound plays a more significant role and, where there were once subtle punchlines, a desire for narrative has emerged. While this shift threatens the coherence of a practice grounded in self-imposed formal constraints, it feels refreshing. Even old friends can surprise you.
Translated by Philipp Rühr and Stanton Taylor
Lead imagae: Josef Dabernig, WARS, 2001, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna
First published in Issue 186