Postcard from Vienna

… a pretty large postcard, tightly written on, about some winter highlights of art from the banks of the Danube, on occasion of Vienna Art Week a month ago.

Deutsche Version: frieze d/e blog
Vienna is, now and again, a great paradox: every time you go you easily meet people from the local art scene who will readily tell you about the current symptom testifying to the Viennese’s general ignorance towards anything modern – modern and contemporary art in particular – as the majority prefers to revel in nostalgia for lost 19th century grandeur of the Habsburg monarchy. And yet at the same time, in the very same city, you encounter a pretty impressive accumulation of institutional power in regard to the modern and contemporary. Probably precisely because of this there are few places in Europe where the tension between backwards-oriented traditionalism and the desire for the radically other and new is as strong as in Vienna: between the annual Vienna Opera Ball and a film about actionist primal scream therapy (Marcel Odenbach’s exciting video based on original material from Otto Mühl’s AA-commune at Friedrichshof outside Vienna, combined with scenes staged on Freud’s London sofa, at Kunstraum Sammlung Friedrichshof), between the wannabes of Vienna’s glitterati and Queer Theory (the conference Dildo Anus Power: Queer Abstraction which took place at the Academy of Arts, accompanied by the exhibition ‘Rosa Arbeit auf Goldener Straße’, featuring the great early films of German filmmaker Stefan Hayn such as Pissen [Piss, 1989/90], which in a refreshingly blunt manner brings to a head a child’s experiences of shame, and gay initiation).

Vienna Art Week is an annual festival co-organised by the auction house Dorotheum and ‘Art Cluster’, a conglomerate of 28 art institutions, including all major Viennese players, from MUMOK to Secession to Kunsthistorisches Museum, to the Austrian association of private galleries. There were tons of panel discussions, public studio visits, museum receptions and gallery openings, and even the most ambitious visitors had to admit that they would only be able to take in a fraction within the course of a few days. The number of major solo exhibitions by internationally reputed artists simultaneously on show in the city was quite impressive: Ed Ruscha, Sharon Lockhart, Dan Flavin, Kerry James Marshall, Michaël Borremans, Pae White, Norbert Schwontkowski, Marina Abramovic, to name but a few.

There was also a large group exhibition, curated on occasion of the event, entitled Predicting Memories, curated by Vienna Art Week’s Artistic Director Robert Punkenhofer and Ursula Maria Probst. Located in the Telegraphic Centre – an empty late 19th century office palace – the unrefurbished rooms however didn’t provide any false pomp, and the art on show was not of the merely pretty or bling-bling type either, in case anyone thought the (indirect) involvement of an auction house would imply that. The title was to be taken literally: art anticipating the working through of historical blind spots and traumas. The duo of Simone Bader and Jo Schmeiser a.k.a. Klub Zwei was included with a film documentary entitled Liebe Geschichte (Love History, 2010) about women whose ancestors were Nazi perpetrators, and whose ways of coming to terms with that fact range from personal introspection to active and public examination. The interviews are impressive, as are the protagonists. Not so convincing, however, is the filmic juxtaposition with public architectural sites where most of the interviews were shot. To film Katrin Himmler – grand niece of Heinrich Himmler and an engaged author addressing the history of her family – in front of the Viennese United Nations building doesn’t bring much to the interview other than a vague reference to post-war history. Refraining from including historical footage isn’t justified by that, neither is the focus solely on female ancestors – if the film was about addressing differences in the way women and men deal with having such ancestors, wouldn’t that have called precisely for the comparison? That said, in a country where the ‘thesis of the first victim’ – still in 2008 Otto von Habsburg received ovations at a commemorative meeting of the ÖDP (the Austrian Conservatives) for arguing that Austria, with the ‘Anschluss’, became Nazi-Germany’s first victim – films such as this are more than just necessary.

Despite the principle historical differences the issue of trauma and stigmatization permeated the exhibition. In Yao Jui-Chungs Long Live (2011), filmed on the Taiwanese military island Kinmen near the coast of mainland China, we see a general in full gear amidst the ruin of a vast cinema and congregation hall – built during the times of ‘White Terror’ (the period of constant martial law in Taiwan 1949 to 1987) – and continuously calls out ‘Wansui’, literally ‘ten thousand year’, the traditional Chinese expression for ‘Long live…’, which was used both for Mao as well as his arch enemy Chiang Kai-Chek. History appears as a ghostly conjuring of the past, present both in denial and critical reflection. Terence Gower also roams the ruins of past dreams, as he sketches with a few images the history of the Austrian inventor of the modern American shopping mall, Victor Gruen – the very Victor Gruen whom in the 1960s built whole districts of Tehran (more expansive on Gruen and the Shopping Mall: Anette Baldauf’s and Katharina Weingartner’s documentary The Gruen Effect). Julieta Aranda’s ‘Memory Newspaper’ provided philosophical insights into the question of memory in the form of a free newspaper, while Kara Walker’ Fall Frum Grace, Miss Pip’s Blue Tale (2011), somewhat similarly to William Kentridge’s animations reminiscent of Chinse shadow play, for the first time transposes Walker’s well-known grotesque silhouette technique to the medium of film. Walker examines again the horrific reality of atrocities committed during times of slavery as a fairy-tale-like grotesque, the castration fear and angstlust of slave-masters towards male slaves, and the murdering of supposed or actual black love rivals; a productive discontent is produced by the ‘inappropriateness’ of presenting historical trauma and injustice with the means of ‘cheap’ shadow play reminiscent of Vaudeville times, including sexually drastic depictions – you may ask yourself how much that activates or numbs ones ability to engage with that history; but in any case one shouldn’t forget that still today people might watch a film like Gone With the Wind (1939) and successfully ignore or even endorse the brutal reality of slavery. And considering the politics of the NRA or the Tea Party today there shouldn’t be any illusions that white suprematism is becoming extinct.

Which brings us to Kerry James Marshall and his exhibition at Secession (which ended earlier this month), a painter whom reformats stereotypical representations of African Americans in his own painterly way. The large main space of the building proved to be the perfect arena for his large canvasses in which ‘Black Aesthetics’ (as Marshall calls it) is the echo chamber for political struggle as well for the micro-social subtleties of everyday reality. My favourite painting is that of a hairdressing salon, probably on a busy Friday afternoon, a veritable School of Beauty School of Culture (2012). In the middle of the picture two small kids play with a strange amorphous colour field – which at an angle turns out to be an anamorphosis of a blond-white girl’s head; the Barby regime appears as the ‘Real’ of the image, as its haunting Vanitas, just as the skull in Hans Hohlbeins The Ambassadors (1533) – certainly an intended reference, just as the mirroring of the photographer’s flashlight in the middle of the painting, alluding to Velsquez’ Las Meninas (1656). Generally speaking there are lots of these kinds of robust painterly references, starting from the show’s title ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green’ relating Barnett Newman’s famous Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (1966) to the colour of the Pan-African flag established in 1920. Gustav Klimt’s world-famous Beethoven frieze, permanently housed in the basement of the building, is commented on with the Robert Johnson Frieze (2012) – the orchestral classic meets the Blues classic. Formalist art discourse and the political questioning of the white cultural canon become directly intertwined.

Just a stone’s throw away, up the street, Christian Mayer’s exhibition at gallery Mezzanin: historiography and memory play a central role here as well. But Mayer’s time horizon goes back millions of years. His starting point is the strange story of a see an ice age squirrel buried 32000 years ago in the Siberian perma-frost, and which Russian scientists managed to reanimate today; Mayer uses footage of the little plant resulting from the effort und reproduces it using Dye Transfer – an equally distinct yet reanimated technique. The doubling up of natural history and technology provides a cue to the next piece, involving the idea of the time capsule: Mayer exhibits ‘allochtoons’, petrified trees from Madagascar that are 200 million years old, about as big as a Brancusi sculpture, readymades courtesy of nature; but there is also a series of black and white photographs stemming from newspaper archives, documenting time capsules – containers filled with mementos for later generations – being placed, for example, in the foundations of Chicago office buildings in 1963.

There seems to be a current fascination of contemporary artists – from the perspective of a roughly one hundred years old Duchampian idea of making the contemporary conditions of display an explicit subject of art – to look back towards epochs counting in hundreds, thousands, if not millions of years. Old Masters, stones, crystals. Ed Ruscha captures this fascination with an ironic reversal: ‘The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas’ was the title of his exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum which ended earlier in December. The first in a series of shows for which a contemporary artist is invited to curate from the world-famous museum’s collection, here the ‘Great Ideas’ included things not made by human beings: a small meteorite and a huge Aragonite crystal from the vaults of the nearby Natural History Museum, for example. An idiosyncratic Wunderkammer selection, working as comments on Ruscha’s own oeuvre: starting from the inclusion of a coyote and a snake as a reference to the Californian desert, to ladybirds pinned in rows, amounting to what Ruscha describes as ‘Magnificent creatures all in a row, their obsessive cataloguing displays fascination and wonder by the humans that collect them. Here, nature certainly meets art. Their simple arrangements make for an aesthetic triumph’. The description can be taken literally, but at the same time describing ladybirds pinned in rows as an ‘aesthetic triumph’ can be taken as a deadpan remark about the strict geometrical lines of conceptual and minimalist displays. This kind of irony also appears in the way Ruscha includes obscure pieces from the Wunderkammer of Ambras castle in Innsbruck (for example a 16th century Dodecahedron, an object built of pentagons featuring picture puzzles of double faces that can be seen straight forward as well as upside down), or old masters selected according to subjective criteria, such as the Arcimboldo vegetable faces, or a Rubens portrait that Ruscha included because of the blood red sundown sky in the background, reminiscent of some of his own works.

Asking contemporary artists to cast a fresh eye on historical collections has become something of a royal road for many institutions. Not least in the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts), which under its new Director Christoph Thun-Hohenstein wants to return to its ‘core task’ of presenting applied arts and design. At the MAK, it’s Pae White, a Californian like Ruscha. White directs her artmaking towards design issues – or to be more precise, she backhandedly brings the specific, obsessive kind of care for texture and material stemming from the world of functional design to the realm of contemporary art. Accordingly it’s not surprising that rather than putting an emphasis on the iconic chairs, images and names of Wiener Werkstätten – from Josef Hoffmann to Koloman Moser to Klimt – she instead highlights the anonymous designs of wallpaper, gift wrapping, greeting cards or jam jar labels, which feature the typically exalted, partly orientalised, partly geometrical-psychedelic aesthetics, however are not linked with the famous names, and are not even objects in the strict sense but packaging. That is maybe the conceptual, pop-minimalist legacy that Pae White deals with: to reinvigorate such artefacts as the ‘actual’ canonical essence, which otherwise – as in the MAK one floor below – would almost only be defined by way of precious interior decoration objects. However, both with White and Ruscha – both being the first instalment in annual series of contemporary artists being invited to ‘intervene’ in art-historical collections – arises the question how often you can repeat this gesture of the ‘subversive’ or ‘slanting’ glance at an established canon before it itself becomes worn out. In the long run, wouldn’t it be better if contemporary art was present rather as an alien element, following its own logic and thus providing friction with applied and traditional arts ex negativo rather than as a kind of curatorial harvest hand? Either way, I’m curious to see how things develop.

As if in telepathic accordance, the theme of a Californian perspective onto historical applied arts continued at TBA21’s new venue Atelier Augarten. Sharon Lockhart’s exhibition (whom like White and Ruscha lives in Los Angeles) is devoted to dance choreographer and textile designer Noa Eshkol, the legacy of whom Lockhart came across during a trip to Israel in 2008. In a five channel video installation we see dancers fluidly performing, to the strict pace of a metronome, Eshkol’s complex abstract movements, with single tapestries of Eskhkol’s design as the only stage element (the tapestries are made in a patchwork technique, from found fabric collected in Kibbutz and from local textile manufacturers). Conceptual centre stone of Eshkol’s work is the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation System that she developed with architect Avraham Wachman in 1958; it notates bodily movements in geometrical patterns, a sort of 3D-animated variation on Leonardo’s anthropometric circles. Lockhart translates this into a series of 22 photographic still lives of the spherical wire orbits created by Eshkol and Wachman for didactic purposes, in which curved planes or simple triangles stand for movements of the limbs (Models of Orbits in the System of Reference, Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation System, 2012). Lockhart, similarly to Pae White, detects what seems like a conceptual-minimalist legacy avant la lettre in all of this, as well as frisking the borderline between abstraction and application. I have to confess I’ve never been much of an enthusiast of faithful artistic reprocessings of pioneering modernist achievements, but doesn’t take anything away from the fact that the artefacts of the anonymous designers of Wiener Werkstätten, just as the choreographies and concepts of Eshkol, fully deserve the attention awarded to them.

Same goes for buildings of Soviet Modernism! A very interesting exhibition at Architekturzentrum Wien, on show until 25 February, documents post-war architecture in non-Russian Soviet republics between 1955 and 1991. In 1990, I was lucky enough to be able to make a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, and I experienced some of the buildings shown in photographs and film footage from original sources – the grand hotel on town hall square, the Lenin Palace (a concert and congress hall), as well as the bazaar. You don’t have to turn a blind eye to the dictatorial conditions under which all of this was erected, and yet to appreciate the sometimes bizarre politburo-baroque, sometimes strictly functionalist yet modernist-elegant styles, that were in effect between the Baltics and Central Asia. Especially the adaptations of post-constructivist ideals to political and local demands: for example the genre of the ‘wedding palace’, owed to the fact that socialism needed to offer a ceremonial alternative to the Church it had overpowered. Many of these buildings are documented for the first time, at least for a non-local audience, with this meticulously researched exhibition, accompanied by an extensive catalogue – while quite a few of the buildings in question are on the verge of decay.

Dan Flavin, a grand retrospective of whom is on show at neighbouring MUMOK (until 3 February), seems almost early modernist in comparison. An entire floor is reserved for the series of 1964 neon works devoted to Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International (1920). The neons are reminiscent of skyscrapers, white and with no apparent traces of power cables and such: everything is very classically white cube, no fissures, extremely clean. Just as Flavin surely would have wanted it; he is quoted in the exhibition: ‘I can take the ordinary lamp out of use and into a magic that touches ancient mysteries. And yet it is still a lamp that burns to death like any other of its kind.’ The aim of historical self-immortalization is juxtaposed with the noble awareness of future evanescence, anticipated in the present.

Considering the contrast between the jagged post-constructivist legacy of architecture in the Soviet republics and the extremely confident purism of Flavin, a third exhibition in the Museum Quarter completed a shrill triad: ‘Naked Men’ at Leopold Museum. Apparently an exhibition on the same subject at Lentos Museum in Linz, on at the same time, had been conceived earlier on, but in any case navigating the Leopold show was fun. Besides curiosa – strongmen in old black and white photographs with their privates covered by studiously attached fig leaves – there were a number of stand-out works. Contemporary classics such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres or Wolfgang Tillmans are well-known; new to me was the great work of painter Franz Gerstl, young lover of Arnold Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde, whom had committed suicide at age 25. A frontal half-naked self-portrait in a white bath towel around the waist, an intense stare of 1904/05, symbolistically of its time yet very of the Facebook now; for me, more exciting than many of the works of Egon Schiele.

How appropriate that two contemporary painters had hung great shows in the city – which couldn’t have been more different though. True antipodes: Michaël Borremans and Norbert Schwontkowski. Borremans at BAWAG Contemporary – a place at which director Christine Kintisch had a string of fantastic shows in recent years – is a super-precisely and sparsely hung show, small old-masterly painted canvasses with an almost suffocating sense controlling gaze onto the performing of gender and body and spirit. Any faint sense of fatherly warmth still present in Richter’s Betty, any glorified Vermeerian romanticism of peeping at female beauty (Borremans mainly depicts young women and girls in bourgeois-avantgardist clothing, some of whom posed for the artist in his Gent studio) has been purged from these canvasses with a pathologist’s precision. Which is not to say that Borremans paints callously; quite the opposite, it’s exactly the awareness of the cruel clichés of representations that make him look so coldly and mercilessly at the profiles and necks.

Norbert Schwontkowksi, showing at the Viennese venue of Innsbruck gallery Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman (on show until 26 February), does the exact opposite in pretty much in any respect, and probably because of that is on a par with Borremans. Instead of eeriness and coldness a humorous, cheeky warmth. Instead of ultra-precise hanging, a consciously sloppy ‘oh, there is another awkward corner here to fit a small painting’, happily ignoring the ideals of balanced exhibition choreography that have long since become a convention. Instead of paint application in the style of the old masters, a cheerful quickness – all paintings were made in the last four months – which, however, how else could it be, testifies to a sure hand and the maturity of decades of painterly exactitude. My favourite picture is Wo Der Mensch Herkommt (Wer Man Comes From, 2012), a naked pair of legs stumbling across the canvas as if through mudflats, feet stuck in diving fins: the story of the origin of terrestrial animals stemming from thalassian ancestors is turned into physical comedy – where we REALLY stem from, there is embarrassment and awkwardness.

What better keywords than ‘embarrassment’ and ‘awkwardness’ could there be to end a blog on Vienna (embarrassing self-praise), because this is where the Viennese are traditionally masters: to explore societal embarrassment with great precision, Borremans and Schwontwoski both at once so to speak. Yet – Vienna Art Week end of November demonstrates it year after year – Viennese institutions and galleries are able to put together a top array of shows, simultaneous and rich in resonance, that few places can rival with, and that is entirely unembarrassing.

Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze and co-publisher of frieze d/e. He lives in Berlin.

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