Sketches on Recent Viennese Art: A Text for Unterspiel
This exhibition accounted for a few artistic strategies that speak to problematics of contemporary art in Vienna. This work can be aligned within a specific, sometimes belated relation to a tradition of avant-gardism that had its origins in fin de siècle Vienna and re-emerged in post-war Vienna. This historical analysis—comparing contemporary artists to their predecessors—comes up against complications, some arising from artists themselves, but one may argue that the contesting nature of some contemporary Viennese art alludes to a Viennese avant-garde that persisted through the 1960s and 1970s. In the wake of this earlier, inherently political work, some Viennese art continually engages in socio-political issues, whether around notions of Austrian identity and history, or confrontational to political or art institutions.
In one form or another, all of the artists in Unterspiel—Hans Schabus, Catrin Bolt, Marlene Haring, Severin Hofmann and Patrick Baumüller, and the collective monochrom—are making work that is conscious of a tremendous history of tumultuous Viennese art. When initially arranging this exhibition, I had asked the artists to consider contributing work that specifically tackled an idea of Vienna to be transported to the context of Vancouver. I had then become a little familiar with the political and artistic climate in Austria, observing interesting parallels and contrasts to the political and artistic situation in Canada. What struck me at the time, before I had embarked into further research on Austrian art and politics that led to this exhibition and publication, was how young Viennese artists were engaging in work that was, in some form, a continuation of modernist tendencies, albeit with many divergences, specific to Vienna. That is, instead of a more politically disengaged, theoretically focussed and often institutionally insular production—arguably prevalent features of North American contemporary art—these artists were making work that seemed politically committed. There was irony and even cynicism in much of this work, but that was not the defining principle of its production. Viennese art commonly maintains an intrinsic relationship with the city of Vienna itself, even when this work demonstrates an international style. This self-consciousness and self-analysis struggles with the history of Vienna and, in doing so, opens up fields of relations that make up Vienna, its citizens and inhabitants, its institutions, its complex history, its relation to the outside world, and its cultural representations. It is not possible to transplant this web of kultur into another socio-geographical context, but this exhibition attempted to transcribe a few currents of Viennese art and the complexities that give rise to it.
Viennese Traditions and Counter-Traditions
The new culture-makers in the city of Freud repeatedly defined themselves in terms of a kind of collective Oedipal revolt. Yet the young were revolting not so much against their fathers… What they assaulted on a broad front was the value system of classical liberalism-in- ascendancy within which they had been reared.
Carl Schorske, 1982
Walking through Vienna today reveals layers of a culture that has redefined itself throughout the twentieth century. Vienna’s more traditional landmarks—the Opera house, theatres, St. Stephan’s Cathedral, Karlsplatz, the Hofburg (former Imperial Palace), Heldenplatz, statues of historic figures, ubiquitous museums, even its Würstlstanden —are adjacent to, and do not always complement, more recent cultural sites, such as MuseumsQuartier, a central complex of contemporary cultural institutions and museums, and the 1996 Holocaust Memorial at Judenplatz, built by British artist Rachel Whiteread. Different signifiers of competing histories sit alongside one another throughout the city.
A former capital of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, Vienna predominantly exudes a Baroque splendor indicative of the magnificence of the Habsburg duo-Empire. Through centuries of war, Vienna had been surrounded by great fortifications to protect the kingdom’s heart from insurgents. These walls came down in the mid-nineteenth century. By then Vienna had become the capital of European peace with the 1813 Congress, “calm and happy while it lasted” in this ‘Biedermeier period’, until the 1848 revolution. The city again suffered poverty and strife then total war in the early twentieth century, shortly after its triumph as the heart of the Central European fin de siècle modernism associated today with Gustav Klimt, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Loos, Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and “the international fairy-tale of a Viennese never-never-land.” After Austria’s 1919 defeat , its capital briefly became known as Red Vienna, with substantial social housing and socio-political restructuring. This was ended by Engelbert Dollfuss’ repressive government in 1934. Four years later, Hitler declared Austria reunited with the German Fatherland. The Nazi regime and war that followed marked the city and vanquished its image as the preeminent city of modernism.
Austrian artist and curator Peter Weibel argues that the culture of Austria’s Second Republic (1945 onwards) was epitomized by “provincial, anti-modernist, narrow-minded, conservative” attitudes that had literally put the previous culture in exile. Weibel claims that Austria had earlier seen the 1919 downfall of its empire as “a loss of the self.” Historian Lonnie R. Johnson suggests that “the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy created a power vacuum that Germany was to fill” and created a nation of discontent, unrecognized politically as “Germany’s dissatisfaction.” Since the Entente Powers forbade a 1919 Anschluss with Germany, Austria “became an independent state against its own will, a state no one wanted.” Twenty years later this Anschluss was realized. When the Third Reich collapsed, the country was left again in structural and cultural ruin, the unwanted nation divided and propped up by the Allies.
Until recently, Austria had long been considered the ultimate nation of political consensus in the twentieth century. In addition to the Grand Coalition that ruled the Second Republic throughout most of the post-war period, a key component of forging a nation of consensus in post-war Austria was the creation and perpetuation of a ‘victim story’ in relation to the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. Although the post-war rebirth of Austrian democracy succeeded, national identity depended upon the idea that Austrians, like the Jews, were victims to the Nazis’ actions, and that the country was morally free of responsibility for that period’s atrocities. Post-war Austrian identity also relied on more glamorous and nostalgic images of imperial times, with an “emphasis on heroic deeds, great personalities, and local traditions.” In Austria: Out of the Shadow of the Past (1998), Anton Pelinka posits that Austria’s post-war reconciliation required some degree of forgetting. War monuments erected throughout the country epitomized this active forgetting by emphasizing the honour, duty and sacrifice Austrian soldiers had suffered for the homeland (Heimat) and not for National Socialism.
In 1986, the presidential campaign of Kurt Waldheim brought issues of Austria’s Nazi past to the fore. Details of his Nazi war record split the country and damaged Austria’s image abroad after his election, especially when Waldheim refused to resign. In 1988, at the time of the fiftieth commemoration of the Nazi Anschluss, Waldheim publicly apologized “for the crimes of National Socialism committed by Austrians.” That year was named the year of reflection, with over six hundred lectures, films, and public discussions about the Anschluss and National Socialism taking place, including Thomas Bernhard’s provocative play Heldenplatz. This time was a “watershed for Austrians’ view of their past.” Official Austrian memory became “characterized by…competing narratives, some of which (broke) with the old consensus, while others demonstrate(d) continuity with old mythologies.” Monuments against fascism began to emerge in Vienna. Additionally, travelling exhibitions attempting to characterize these issues of Austrian identity were organized throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Throughout post-war Austria, Weibel argues, a battle over modernism ensued between the “official culture” (Austrian cultural policy) and its “unofficial culture” (the avant-garde). The “official culture” immersed itself within the vision of Vienna’s fin de siècle art. The 1964 exhibition, Vienna Around 1900, planted the idea of a modern arts centre around Karlsplatz (later evolved into MuseumsQuartier) and celebrated a Gesamkunstwerk using a romanticized version of Vienna’s cultural past before National Socialism. A foundation of culture was constructed that developed into a packagable touristic image of Vienna and culminated in several exhibitions, including Vienna at the Turn of the Century, architect Hans Hollein’s 1985 exhibition Vienna: Dream and Reality (both toured internationally), and Jean Clair’s large-scale exhibition Vienne 1880-1938: L’Apocalypse Joyeuse at the Centre Pompidou in 1986. Into the 1990s, other exhibitions on Viennese fin de siècle arts were held in Vienna, Venice, Paris and New York. An image of Secessionist modernism arose, asserting Vienna’s great past inseparable from the city’s present.
An official cultural policy promoted the Austrian Heimat and a Viennese early modernist culture locally and abroad, often relying upon images of an idyllic Alpen pastoral or the impression of fin de siècle Vienna modernism combined with a sense of civic tradition and place. Meanwhile, the extreme-right Freedom Party, led by the infamous Jörg Haider, was reviving the Austrian victim story in the 1990s to gain political support. This perpetuation of Austrian victimization ran concurrent to contrived cultural representations of the nation. The images of victim (Heimat Austria) and former cultural glory (‘Old Vienna’) complemented one another and often came into conflict with and gave rise to Viennese art and literature.
An internationally-distributed story of ‘Old Vienna’ also found its way into post-war cinema. The brooding film The Third Man (1949) (a counter-image to The Sound of Music’s pastoral and mountainous landscapes and its musical-fantasy narrative that overtake and defeat the Nazi peril) came to famously represent a ‘sense’ of Vienna. The film continues to characterize Vienna, The Third Man is currently screened on Sundays at Vienna’s Berg Kino, a frame of Viennese civic identity and history. This is curious as the film betrays a menacing, schizoid and fragmented city, not a necessarily flattering representation, but an alluring one. How this dark representation of a city in ruins is used as a device of tourism and civic celebration derives insight into contemporary issues around Vienna’s post-war identity and history.
Throughout the ruins of The Third Man, whether decapitated buildings or the criminal activities characterized by Harry Lime’s (Orson Welles) drug racketeering, are expressionistic glimpses of the fin de siècle Vienna vanquished by the country’s defeat but lurking in the imaginations of both guests and residents of the city, and in the cultural remains that linger. A debauched amenity associated with fin de siècle Vienna is even toyed with through the musical score, where old café favourites such as “Unter dem Lindenbaum” and “Alter Lied” are played mockingly on Anton Karas’ zither alongside the battered city. Traces of the past are constant. As writer Peter Wollen notes, “the sinfulness remains but a lonely one, not a decadent one.”
What appears in the film (and remains in contemporary imagination) is a composite image of the vanquished ‘Old Vienna’ and the troubled, visually Gothic, post-war Vienna. These urban intricacies have also been echoed in recent Austrian literature. In his 1999 essay “Dummheit ist machbar” (Stupidity is feasible), Robert Menasse posits Vienna as a city of appearances, an imaginary city, where these contradictions are typical of “schöner Schein, unklares Sein” (lovely form, unclear being). Menasse sees Austria’s relationship to history based on a model of forgetting, where the Freudian therapeutic model of “Erinnern, wiederholen, durcharbeiten” (Remembering, repeating, working through) is rather: “Vergessen, wiederholen, dem Ausland erklären” (Forgetting, repeating, explaining to foreigners).
Typical of this selective relationship to history was a 2002 advertising campaign for Vienna tourism. Billboards launched a motto posted beside the city’s landmarks that read: “Wien ist anders” (“Vienna is different”), with the intent of conjuring up the ‘Old Vienna’ for the contemporary citizen and tourist. Later, another poster read “Wien ist anders—Wien bleibt Wien” (Vienna is different—Vienna remains Vienna). “It seems the tourist office wants to have it both ways,” write Todd and Hillary Hope Herzog, “portraying Vienna at once as a dynamic, cosmopolitan, modern city while also promising to deliver…the Vienna of a hundred years ago.”
These campaigns alone indicate the “complexity that underlies Vienna as a cultural space.” The image of the once-thriving Habsburg capital (and the idea for a film) was first related to Austro-Hungarian émigré Alexander Korda—the producer of The Third Man—by a Viennese citizen then living in a crushed city divided between four occupying powers, “on the very edge of the Iron Curtain and a happy hunting ground of profiteers, spies and black marketers.” The spectres of ‘Old Vienna’, appearing as they have in the 1980 and 1990s exhibitions of fin de siècle Vienna and analyzed via The Third Man by artist Hans Schabus are symptoms of cultural repressions on a national scale. Menasse reminds us that because Vienna itself encompasses and illustrates problematic concepts of identity, the city is akin to a cell and can be seen as a productive environment.
The Figure of the Loser: Post-war Viennese Art and Literature
It is not my fault that my films are suffused with the stench of concentration camps…the stench which I experienced in the Nazi period and during the war was the most horrible thing imaginable.
Otto Mühl, 2001
In his 1983 novel, The Loser, Thomas Bernhard writes about three piano virtuosi who intersect at Leopoldskron where they have come to study with Vladimir Horowitz. One of them is Glenn Gould. When the other two later hear him play The Goldberg Variations they both give away their pianos:
If I hadn’t met Glenn Gould, I probably wouldn’t have given up the piano and I would have become…one of the best piano virtuosos in the world…When we meet the very best, we have to give up, I thought.
The trauma the narrating ‘philosopher’ and his colleague, ‘the loser’, experience in the presence of Gould’s genius fills the entire novel. Not unlike Bernhard’s scathing inclinations towards Austrian identity, the novel expresses resignation to the modern culture that could have emerged out of its fin de siècle culture, if it were not for what Bernhard describes as Austria’s self-victimized, intolerant character. Throughout Bernhard’s oeuvre, there is a deliberate attack on the “pretentious windbags and institutional prostitutes” of the bourgeois art world and on the nation itself, “a land of six and a half million idiots,” with themes combining suicide, murder, madness, Nazism and Catholicism.
This cruel depiction of his country, and the figure of the loser (or outsider, ugly caricature of the artist or aristocrat), appears in diverging avant-garde strategies particular to Vienna from the 1950s onward. Often misanthropic, many of these expressions also intend to present compensation for the paralysis of Austrian post-war identity through violence, self-destruction, tragic compulsion; all in self-conscious obverse relation to the modernist legacy associated with fin de siècle Vienna. Post-war avant-garde artists saw the celebration of an early modernist avant-garde swallowed up by the hegemony of a state and its people actively forgetting the Nazi legacy. This collective repression and nostalgia for ‘Old Vienna’—in addition to the trauma of cultural lack resulting from the horrors of National Socialism—was thus, in a sense, aroused in the actions of the Vienna Actionists, later artists such as Peter Weibel and VALIE EXPORT, and the writings of Thomas Bernhard, among others.
The Vienna Actionists (Günther Brus , Hermann Nitsch , Otto Mühl  and Rudolf Schwarzkogler [1940-1969]) produced highly-organized, often politically-related public actions. In 1964, Brus abandoned the surface of painting by performing painting onto his body. A year later, he expanded action-painting into a filmed, public spectacle entitled Vienna Stroll (1965), which ended with Brus being charged with disruption of public safety. In the late 1960s, Brus and Mühl carried out body-performances in more confrontational ways, emphasizing their physical and psychological limits. The Actionists were acting against the repressive social constraints common to post-war Vienna and thus their actions often involved deliberately tackling taboos and transgressing the limits of decency, including sexual and scatological acts and self-mutilation. In the late 1960s, these actions became more intertwined with socio-political issues. In 1967, in collaboration with poet Oswald Wiener, Peter Weibel and others, Mühl staged anarchist-inspired events, such as the Zock Exercises and the Zock Festival —self-published writings and agitprop posters mocking Austrian civil society, politics and mass media. In 1968 the Vienna Actionists confronted conservative society with their event Art and Revolution at the University of Vienna. The reaction to this event apparently resulted in Brus and Wiener having to leave Austria.
Actionist Hermann Nitsch spoke of tragedy and pain as points of departure for the work of art. Nitsch’s Orgien Mysterien Theater, a six-day festival immersing its participants in extreme Dionysian-like rituals, was exemplary of this ongoing project. He related his work, such as sacrificing lambs, to his memories of the excitement and terror he had felt when Vienna had been bombed. This mortal terror provides a “happy-anxious state of religious horror” for its audience:
Through my artistic production (a form of life worship) I take upon myself all that appears negative, unsavoury, perverse and obscene, the lust and the resulting sacrificial hysteria, in order to spare YOU the defilement and shame entailed by the descent into the extreme.
These actions embodied the nation’s hopes and uncertainties; but they also presented the repressed trauma of an unwanted nation that had wiped out its cultural heritage. Where the body was mutilated, the social encoding that normally encloses it was then fiercely attacked. Vienna Actionism was both a continuation of and a breaking from Viennese Expressionism in that it carried the analysis and social critique of its predecessors with a sense of the compensatory, but by exposing violence and transgression onto the body itself.
Altogether, the Vienna Actionists were, in part, ‘performing painting’ with an emphasis on dream processes, associations, and repression. Their actions aspired to be desublimatory in this manner: they believed in an interchange of art and life, influenced by the humanistic aspects of Freud’s ideas on the subject of sexuality and civilization, where they plunged into the unconscious, expressing repressed desires as compulsions towards sexual and psychological liberation. In 1974, Nitsch stated, “I accepted the humane tracks of Freud’s psychoanalysis, which taught me to look into these abysses of ecstasy and aggression.” Forty-five years earlier Freud wrote:
If civilization imposes such great sacrifices not only on man’s sexuality but on his aggressivity, we can understand better why it is hard for him to be happy in that civilization…Man’s aggression [is the] greatest impediment to civilization…Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, to make a unity of humankind.
The Actionists observed this bleak conundrum and strove to express civilization’s (and particularly Austrian) repression of sexuality and aggression, and to find liberation from this collective sublimation. Their work was intended to compensate for the traumatized nation, but was rejected, ridiculed, ignored, or associated with crime and sexual deviancy, especially with some of their arrests and prosecutions. Their pursuit of compensation through provocation, however, re-emerged through successive Viennese art movements, albeit rarely with such force.
The figure of the loser met a postmodernist shift visible in the actions of Peter Weibel and VALIE EXPORT in the 1960s and 1970s. Keeping an adversary form of avant-gardism thriving, Weibel and EXPORT confronted issues specific to gender, socio-politics, and mass-media representation. These actions included the 1968 Aus der Mappe des Hundigkeit (From the Portfolio of Doggedness) consisting of EXPORT leading Weibel through Vienna on a leash, Tapp-und-Taskino (Tap-and-Touch-Cinema; 1968) where EXPORT invited men to touch her breasts beneath a box over her torso, denying them the visual pleasure normally afforded in a peepshow, and Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic; 1969), where EXPORT took this public critique into an art-house cinema screening porno films by strolling down the aisles in jeans cut to expose her pudenda, thereby aggressively de-sexualizing the female body by exploiting the Freudian notion of castration anxiety as an outright attack on male subjectivity.
The shift from an attack on bourgeois society and its morals (by the Actionists) to a project of role-reversal and dominant woman by EXPORT took the element of masochism from the body of the performer and extended it into the field of the observer, not as a transgression of taboos so much as a rupturing of the normative codes of male/female subjectivity. This self-conscious attack on gender identity was an extension of the Actionist project in its ability to provoke Viennese culture, but its confrontation of issues around sexuality indicated a more specific and direct analysis and assault on ideological structures of gender and perception, whether male erotic vision or the cinematic apparatus itself.
The figure of the loser mostly dissipated in Austria during the 1980s. One exception was the “post-conceptual” sculptures and installations of Franz West. Often relating his work to Freudian theory, West is deliberately amateurish in his reaction to “sterile” conceptual art. He has faith in the primitively amorphous art object as compensatory to the alienated spectator, using anti-traditional techniques that have psychoanalytical aspirations and appear indebted to the Actionists. West’s oeuvre—especially when encouraging audience participation with sexualized forms (as in his paßtück series) —is a restaging of the Actionists’ compensatory project, even though this work carries an acknowledgement of defeat in its form, now for an audience after modernism.
West’s contemporary, Heimo Zobernig, presents work that often moves in an obverse direction. His oeuvre is simultaneously a parody and reviving of high modernist tendencies in the form of monochrome paintings or white-cube sculptures that merge genres as quasi-gestalt. Zobernig’s controlled style seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the losers’ scatology self-degradation, self-analysis, self-destruction, and anxiety. His work shines as churchly oppositional cultural force, arising from the heap of ‘degeneracy’ that had typified ‘Austrian’ art. Arguably, Zobernig’s paradigmatic formal fixation, a belated invention of the high modernist painting that had ‘skipped’ Vienna, reveals the same conundrum of Austrian identity and the love/hate relationship that the ‘losers’ held. Slovenian writer Slavoj Žižek’s notes how the unconscious may shed light in this regard:
We should renounce the usual notion of the unconscious as a kind of ‘reservoir’ of wild, illicit drives—the unconscious is also fragments of a traumatic, cruel, capricious, ‘unintelligible’ and ‘irrational’ law text…a series of prohibitions and injunctions. In other words, we must put forward the paradoxical proposition that the normal man is not only far more immoral than he believes, but also far more moral than he knows.
If we consider the losers’ activities along the lines of the wild reservoir of the unconscious as a form of desublimation, then Zobernig’s practise along the lines of the ‘irrational’ law text as abundantly re-sublimatory, it can be asserted that these works express similar cultural inadequacies and traumas. West’s attempts at desublimation, meanwhile, appear contrived. Despite its celebration and embrace of the ‘lump of shit’ aesthetic and its desire to compensate, West’s work as ‘castle aesthetic’ (as in the castle Nitsch employed for his baroque rituals)—in relation to Zobernig’s oeuvre as ‘Wittgenstein aesthetic’ —becomes a parody of the loser aesthetic. Its subsequent embrace by international art institutions, including its definition by these same bodies, sterilizes the compensatory elements through its sheer categorization. Zobernig’s work, on the other hand, while institutionally embraced, speaks more to the cultural symptoms of repression, trauma, and cultural sublimation than most Austrian art. In its attempt to compensate (for all that messiness since 1960s Austrian art) through appeasing the senses and desire via a calm visual order, Zobernig’s work is more reverential, and exemplifies a process of twisted, deferred action of the Actionists’ project—in visual form, sans avant-gardisme, a repetition of the purity of high modernism and in (unconscious) motivation, a revival of trauma-induced expression.
The Viennese Bourgeoisie
The shifts from the modernist, neo-avant-gardist practises of the Actionists to early postmodern strategies of EXPORT and Weibel to a parodic mimicry of the Actionists by West and the subsequent re-sublimatory work of Zobernig tell a Viennese version of the collapse of the bourgeoisie—that which had defined twentieth century modernist activities—and its spectral remains that surface via cultural forms of suppression. For Vienna, the height of modern culture was its early twentieth century period where artists (Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka), writers or philosophers (Krauss, Schnitzler, Weininger, Wittgenstein) and musicians (Mahler, Schönberg) were reacting to and thriving within bourgeois culture, while psychoanalytic theory (Krafft-Ebing, Freud) analyzed its cultural symptoms. Some post-war artists, such as the Viennese Actionists, were attempting to revive this Viennese avant-garde legacy, but by demonstrated political leanings with an active looking back to their predecessors and attempts at compensation towards their bruised nation via an assault on bourgeois sensibility. “[M]odern culture” was “virtually without exception anti-bourgeois,” writes Perry Anderson. Vienna’s history presents an unusual story of the break-up of the bourgeoisie: this class seems to have had a more belated disappearance than in most of the Western world.
After the First World War, as in many Central European countries, the Austrian upper classes survived after destruction of the Austro-Hungarian ancien régime. The outcome of the Second World War “smashed the old agrarian elites and their way of life across most of the Continent, installed stable capitalist democracy and standardized consumer-durables in the West, and gutted the ideals of the revolution in the East.” Anderson argues that in this period “the élan of modernism gave out. It had lived from the non-synchronous—what was past or future in the present—and died with the arrival of the purely contemporaneous: the monotone steady-state of the post-war Atlantic order. Henceforward, art that still could be radical was routinely destined for commercial integration or institutional cooption.”
In post-war Austria, however, a delay of national social modernization aided the rebirth of an aggressive post-war avant-garde. Despite the Marshall Plan and Allied reconstruction, the realities of post-war politics, a nation of consensus, and the ubiquity of the ‘victim story’ all instilled a society that mimicked the bourgeois value system of a romanticized fin de siècle Vienna that tried to keep what they imagined it to be alive. “Within…another twenty years”, Anderson notes, “the (European) bourgeoisie…as a class possessed of self-consciousness and morale—was all but extinct.” During the 1960s, the Actionists were fighting bourgeois values as a battle between opponents both near obsoletion due to the inevitable consumerization of Europe via American foreign policy and the subsequent drive towards refined capitalist-democracies.
Austrian avant-gardist tendencies continued after the collapse of the bourgeois class, eventually co-opted by institutions in the name of national unity and consensus. Maintained bourgeois virtues and moralistic tendencies, even long after their submergence into post-war economic realities, confined avant-gardist strategies while keeping their contestatory spirit alive. Hence, the postmodernist conundrum, particular to Vienna, arose from the ashes of the avant-gardist adversarial position (according to the now defunct bourgeoisie) to an aggressive assault on the remaining morals as they persisted in Austrian subjectivity. That is, as they remain, albeit with self-criticism, in the national characters of the victim story, the revival of fin de siècle Vienna in popular culture and international promotion, and prevalent repressive, moralistic qualities of post-war Austrian culture itself. Viennese examples of what Anderson describes as “immediate sources of postmodernism in the experience of defeat” arose in the continued legacy of the ‘loser’ aesthetic, a sustained attack on Austria itself that shifted from the visual arts to literature in the 1970s and has resurfaced differently in contemporary art from Vienna.
You worthy critics, or whatever you may call yourselves, are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. Hence your complaints of unfruitfulness, for you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.
Friedrich Schiller, letter of December 1, 1788
In the spring of 2003, Marlene Haring and Catrin Bolt, then collectively Halt + Boring, made the video-work Call Boys. After hiring five male prostitutes with their exhibition fund, the artists video-taped themselves individually having intercourse with each of the prostitutes. Ten monitors in the commissioning Salzburg Gallery showed these videos. Reactions from the public included women entering the gallery to discuss female sexuality. Today, artists are continuing the Viennese modernist tradition of confronting issues of sexuality. This began with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s writings, continued with Krafft-Ebing and Freud’s research, provoked bourgeois prudishness with Karl Krauss’ position of solidarity between artists and prostitutes, kept on through the philosophically misguided rants of Otto Weininger, found representation in paintings by Schiele and Klimt, met its climax in the performances of the Viennese Actionists, and was grounded in issues of gender through VALIE EXPORT and Peter Weibel’s work. However, in contrast to the initial morbidity, political emancipation, then ‘free love cult’ espoused by the Viennese Actionists (Mühl’s 1970s Commune), these young artists imply that sexual politics are no longer a territory of liberation, but are purely figures of transaction.
Call Boys conjures up notions of the artist and his or her field; that is, a Bourdieuan field of cultural production. The process, production and viewing of this work form a powerful outline of what the relations of a contemporary artist are to the structure of the art world. One can consider, for example, the issue of how emerging artists must attract an audience, and how their work becomes exhibited. Just as the Marquis de Sade took the decadence of libertarian pleasure to extremes in his writing, and as the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra takes power relations between individuals formed by capitalism to other extremes in his artwork, Halt + Boring did what artists are meant, even required, to do. This is a tactic of postmodernist art: to mimic so dutifully that which surrounds it to the “point of despair or discord.” There is to be “no sugar-coating”, as Žižek writes, to this appropriation. Call Boys illuminates how it is that the audience comes to the artwork, how its desire is manifested, demonstrating that the relationship between the audience and the artwork is, at its root, uneasy and inseparable from issues of fantasy and power. Call Boys also illustrates the circulation of capitalfrom government to institution to curator to individual artists to their materials, and how this circulation defines the setting of the artwork’s production, reception and distribution. Altogether, these videos spoke to how it is that the mechanism as well as the meaning and production of the art world function. It is also important to consider that, in terms of approaching issues of sexuality and gender, in contradistinction to the ‘victim story’ that built and assured a national identity in Austria, these female artists presented themselves in an active, dominant voice similar to the model that EXPORT had refined from the Actionists’ activities.
In 2004, after Halt + Boring’s separation, Catrin Bolt exhibited in a provincial government building (Landesregierung) in Carinthia, Austria. Notorious former FPÖ leader Jörg Haider governs Carinthia, a region highly associated with the darker currents of Austrian politics, including racial intolerance, anti-immigration sentiments, and ultra-conservative fiscal policies. The regional government awarded the young artist, also from the region, with an art prize and invited her to exhibit in Landesregierung’s galerie.kärnten. On the opening night a crowd gathered for the exhibition’s unveiling. Politicians and upper-class supporters of the FPÖ stood in the hall, drinking wine while waiting for the artist’s previously announced performance. A speech was made by a representative of the art prize, photographs were taken, but the artist had since left the reception. Her absence caused a minor uproar that evening. The emptiness of the hall, or more accurately, its embodiment of this political crowd and their collective reaction to the nothing that Bolt prepared became the event. Bolt had hired a photographer to document this uncomfortable evening, where the architectural space and the political bodies within became the subject.
In this performance-intervention, Bolt stripped the art installation or performance down to a field of relations, and from that position inserted something that is contextually playful and permitted that which constructs this socio-political infrastructure to become underlined, even incriminated. This work is a form of institutional critique that, as James Meyer recently described, “takes as its subject its own socio-economic location; it renders the spectator conscious of where (one is) in relationship to all these different parameters.” Similarly, Bolt’s work resonates with and mimics the politics of delay in Austria, just as artist Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial was delayed in Vienna in an attempt to repress public memory, Bolt made people wait, deferring their moment of sharing in the active co-option of contemporary art so that the political machine was itself temporarily unravelled by its own ritual. The parameters were offered to Bolt by this government administration. By coming ‘half-way’, this political structure enabled Bolt to subvert the political representation-making of Austrian politics.
This work has parallels to the assaults that Bolt conducts on historical sculptures (Austrian and otherwise), where the artist’s fondling of monuments literally challenges signifiers of history, including those that embody ‘Old Vienna’, the nation’s great past, and the legacies of war and victory while simultaneously denying other histories from being told. Altogether, Bolt’s practise tackles political structures and mythological representations of their power and policies, whether that of today or that of Vienna’s past.
While Bolt, after Halt + Boring’s separation, can be said to concentrate on spatio-political issues, Marlene Haring has continued a practise of art production that concentrates more on issues of body-politic. Her 2004 installation SEX DEATH NIVEA in London (concurrent to a VALIE EXPORT retrospective) involved the artist coating a window of the gallery with Nivea cream. A form of painting on one hand, SEX DEATH NIVEA referenced, more importantly, the recent history of ‘body art’, especially that done by EXPORT. The cliché title of “sex” and “death” makes a mockery of the work itself. While conjuring up the repressive forms evident in such a product (marketed to induce sex and to hide signs of aging), this cream smeared on a gallery window remains a pathetic gesture comparable to the Viennese ‘loser’ counter-tradition.
The violence inherent in the work and its references becomes smothered by the bathos that emerges when experiencing this work. Not unlike the work of Austrian visual artists and writers varying from the Vienna Actionists to Elfriede Jelinek and Elke Krystufek, elements of, or references to, the body are used and abused, often in order to offer a kind of compensation for the sake of cultural trauma. For the Actionists, the trauma was Austria’s post-war state—culturally vapid, politically consensus-orientated, xenophobic, and collectively within a state of denial for the atrocities of the Nazi period. Different, sometimes reactionary forms (often rejecting the Actionists’ legacy) by contemporary artists have emerged, in part, out of this counter-tradition of recent Austrian art. In Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher (1999), recent depictions of compensatory imagery involve the protagonist Erika Kohut mutilating her vagina, and, at the conclusion, stabbing herself at Karlskirche in central Vienna. These tearings at the body, often masochistic, are acts of compensation that have a particular history in Austria.
Unlike Jelinek’s protagonist, however, Haring does not act out self-victimization. Haring’s 2004 spectacle for the Austrian Cultural Forum in Rome, where she took a bubble bath in a fountain originally built for Mussolini, does not directly offer a form of compensation either, but one could partly align it as a reaction to these bodily gestures from the 1960s onwards. Like EXPORT and Bolt, Haring controls the means in which the body is represented, and although producing a pathetic gesture, her activity is an active one, whereas Haring controls the action in relation to the similar culturally repressive forces that Erika Kohut could no longer cope with. What is outlined by Haring’s work is the political ineffectiveness associated today with the ideal image of the nude body, that image from the Nazi era or even from 1960s hippie politics that had such a political force. Nude bodies symbolized individuals “uncorrupted by society. The allegorical implications of nakedness include both commitment and demystification.” By the 1960s, nudity had become the cliché of the avant-garde.
Here at a site of disappearing political resonance, Haring references histories of oppression, specifically with the architectural markings of fascist history, but underlines these histories by an impotent entrance of the nude body within its midst. This work outlines the currencies of contemporary politics in that the human body’s presence within political activism today, its vulnerability as an effective political weapon—as a repeated image in mass media—has lost political weight and has long been considered formulaic. In the meantime, the clockwork of capitalism and its infrastructure of oppressive economic regimes and dramatic social imbalances march on, while its emerging visual framework—the spectacle of cinema, television and mass-media advertising—blunders our vision, especially to the possibilities of the political use-value of the body. In this condition, the political body is an absurdity. Haring’s demonstration of this fact (or this fate), tainted with a sense of the political history of Austrian body art is, on the one hand, a reaction to that and, on the other hand, illustrative of this quandary by calling for a re-release of the political body, beginning from the ground up, from its pathetic nature, its bathos, and its vulnerability. Haring produces work that engenders hope out of its nihilism. That is, it does not stop at nihilistic gestures, for these gestures have had their time and place. But arguably that is no longer the case when nihilistic gestures via the body are mostly received as pure parody.
Both Bolt and Haring’s reconfigurations of the ‘loser’ aesthetic, particularly around a pathetic offering of the body in socio-political space, can be understood in terms of deferred action to their avant-garde predecessors. Their work takes the form of political action, but with a non-masochistic form that is sometimes mediated by technology directly and thus situated critically to an international circulation of televisual and cinematic apparatuses. Here the compensation is in the political re-programming of the body within its political ineptness. By initiating an active role similar to VALIE EXPORT, these artists produce work that attempts to re-vitalize gestures and political assaults of their predecessors, while avoiding victimized impulses.
The work of Hans Schabus also conjures deferred qualities of post-war art by raising the ghosts of Austrian post-war identity. Producing a body of work that is self-conscious of its historical place, Schabus directly confronts issues of Austrian identity and post-war trauma while remaining cognizant of various cultural fields, whether avant-gardist or not. In 2003, Schabus installed his project Astronaut at Vienna’s Secession gallery. After studying architectural blueprints, Schabus opened up walls and built a circuitous labyrinth, walled in luminous cardboard, that led into a one-to-one scale model of his studio. This tunnelling was an extension of previous channelling Schabus had done under Vienna’s streets, in its catacomb passage-ways, and was video-taped to form Western, which is exhibited in Unterspiel.
This video makes direct references to The Third Man through the use of the original zither score by Anton Karas and the very sewers where, at the film’s climax, Harry Lime flees from the authorities. Through his boat voyages under the city in Western, Schabus confronts this underground of Vienna’s identity and that which lurks in the unconscious:
The journey should go to New York, the city of migration of times before; “The Golden West.” I [built] a boat—[in the style of the] “Optimist,” the smallest boat ever mass-produced, designed in the fifties in America—for different conditions, with wheels, light, foldable…to leave Vienna. Unseen, somewhere down in the sewage, where the famous scenes of The Third Man were shot…out of dirt, waste and history—into hope. The name of the boat is “Forlorn”… [T]here is this beautiful thing about “forlorn hope” …The “arrival-photograph” in New York, shows it: it’s not a promised land. It’s raining and foggy.
Using the dark sewers of The Third Man as the starting point for his video, Schabus makes no reference to the grandiose fin de siècle Vienna, only the baseness and rank that followed it. His journey under the city casts a light upon several of Vienna’s problematic characteristics simultaneously: its unspoken histories, its repressions, the underside of Viennese identity, and the realities of both flight and exile from Austria. The video also makes ample use of Vienna as portrayed in the 1949 film: a city of crime, sin, darkness, skulduggery, and moral confusion. Schabus voyages through the underbelly of the city in order to flee it; not some literal casting off, but a simultaneous analysis of the repressed and hidden traits of the city by a physical passage through this metaphor, a journey that ends where it began. Schabus’ passage to New York only brings the realization that it is no better there. Thus, his return to Vienna. The complexities traditionally confronted by Austrian artists, sometimes causing exile—such as histories of Nazism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, complicity and consensus, the ruins of a former Empire, the rejection of avant-garde art practises, the governance of the country by former Nazis, the recent isolation of the country due to internal politics —give rise to and breed a tremendous output of kultur. For Schabus’ Western, this is the case as he takes a British film about his city made fifty years earlier in order to emphasize traces of the city’s past that have haunted the nation to this day.
Recent Austrian literature, such as Gerhard Roth’s short prose work Die zweite Stadt (The Second City, 1991), has also taken Vienna’s underside as a focal point for narrative. Roth’s “ironic psycho-archaeology of Vienna” involves an archaeologist finding the skeleton of a man, who had tried to pry open a coffin beneath a church. Stories such as this—akin to alptraumen (nightmares)—have an image of order on the surface, but beneath seethes disorder and decay producing situations of angst, confusion and horror. As writer Thomas Paul Bonfiglio notes, Roth presents Vienna as the city where Freud “was forced to make the discovery that the truth is not obvious, but exists on a subterranean level.” Often using dark humour as a technique for undoing repression, Roth’s story emphasizes the underworld passages connecting Vienna, where skeletons and the bowels of a vanquished empire are buried. The city is portrayed as a field of repression, denial and neurosis; a city that would make well with its own psychoanalysis.
The Third Man depicted the city to reveal what is not inherently visible. Like the false candour of the characters Dr. Winkel and Baron von Kurtz, unmasked to reveal their murderous racketeering, the mannerist shadows, and especially the sewer scenes speak not only to the ruins of the former empire but the repressed recent past of Nazism and extreme intolerance. Western also depicts what is not intrinsically visible. Although Schabus’ journey is circuitous, a cognitive mapping of Vienna is produced. That is, Schabus surveys the topological ground of art production in Vienna, marking its history and complications, and in doing so presents a narrative that, in its repetition, activates and then re-activates a set of coordinates that firstly describe Austrian cultural tendencies and then mark a territory of avant-gardist production in relation to and out of these tendencies. Like Astronaut, Western maps out the conditions of its own origins, with implicit, unavoidable references to subterranean issues of Viennese identity that continue to fuel Viennese art. Western speaks to the traces of a vanquished bourgeoisie, refers to the remnants and legacy of a Viennese avant-garde, and plays with the ever-present mythologies of ‘Old Vienna’, all of which continue to define Vienna’s socio-political coordinates.
I have this terrible desire to fake things at this level; to fake institutional things. I think that everything to do with institutions should be faked.
In contrast to Red Vienna (1919 to 1934) when two-hundred thousand people were re-housed in nine years, paying rents of 3.5% of their income, Vienna has recently been characterized as being restructured by fragmented, privatized and opaque urban planning under an elite city administration, academic and business world. This restructuring has included MuseumsQuartier (MQ), where private funding has been maximized to replace public funding cuts. Director Lorand Hegyi resigned from the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (MuMoK) at MQ because of funding changes in 2001. At a time when institutional critique has sharpened in much of Europe and North America, especially analyses of corporate involvement in arts and culture, the quiet battle between “modernists” and “traditionalists” has continued in Vienna—typified at MQ—over these very issues. Hegyi recently defined the situation in these terms: “In Austria today, we’re seeing a strange symbiosis between an atavistic xenophobia and a free-market economic program…you can’t give free rein to the market while refusing to destroy a powerful centralism that always wants to control everything, including who [is] the head of cultural institutions.”
This centralism has nourished institutions such as Kunsthalle Wien, the “idea factory for young artists,” but rifts, such as between MQ director Wolfgang Waldner and Kunsthalle director Gerald Matt, continue because of funding shifts, where accusations of ‘corporate interests’ meet those of ‘misguided elitism’. Curiously, MQ, the former Habsburg stables, has received both attack and praise from conservatives and “modernists,” portrayed as cultural Disneyland, as “museum as mausoleum,” as a diverse cultural centre housing sundry collectives, institutions and centres, then as disorganized, over-bureaucratized organization, corporate entity, or as concrete eyesore amongst the Baroque grandeur. With comparisons to Guggenheim Bilbao or the Tate Modern, MQ is an architectural and cultural body transforming perceptions of the city, from within and without.
MuseumsQuartier is also the headquarters of the arts collective monochrom. Since their inception in 1993, monochrom have deliberately remained peripheral to the Viennese art world, but as neighbours to the art establishment. Their actions, performances, lectures, film screenings and interventions do not fit into MQ’s art regime, and yet they take place there. In 2004, monochrom set up an Easter performance that underlined disparities within this interconnected art centre. One member was crucified with duct tape to the grey walls of MUMOK. An official from the museum met the collective, demanded that they cease the performance, and that they retroactively ask permission for their completed performance. On top of the inherent hierarchal structure this work illustrates (including the clichéd image of a martyred individual propped against the gargantuan sarcophagus-like institution), and the evident bureaucratic absurdity of the art institution, what becomes clear in this work is the symbiotic relationship between these organizations in order to define the artwork that each contains. For monochrom, a line of demarcation would include art performances that investigate popular culture and socio-political issues, while for MUMOK the sphere includes art giants, such as Mike Kelley, John Baldessari, Jeff Wall, Heimo Zobernig, and the canonized Viennese Actionists. The distinction may be obvious, but the unusual combination of these groups within the same architectural and administrative banner tells a story about Viennese art and its structures not told within many other European cities.
monochrom’s confrontation of institutional figures extends into their ongoing Georg Paul Thomann Project. In their 2005 retrospective at Kunsthalle Exnergasse in Vienna, monochrom displayed a gravestone for their own invented artist, Georg Paul Thomann, who will be killed ‘sometime next year’. Thomann was created for the collective’s contribution to the 2002 São Paulo Biennale. As an Austrian avant-garde artist, connected to Vienna’s scene and later institutions, this paternal figure became a means of surveying modern Austrian art history via fictitious narratives. Thomann’s biography includes his wunderkind childhood, references to and parodies of the Vienna post-war avant-garde, anecdotes of his irascible distrust of Austrian authority, his involvement with Communist politics, his sexual adventures, and his departure from Vienna for impossible international travels where he intersects with avant-garde and political activities country by country. Thomann was constructed as a fantasy-induced father of contemporary Austrian art: the avant-gardist example whose activities transcended the loser aesthetic to an international community of discourse, having to leave Austria to do so. This fantasy character was highly convincing, as the São Paulo Biennale officials demonstrated: monochrom were refused exhibition catalogues since they were meant ‘for the artist himself’.
With his impending death next year, Thomann’s figure illustrates conundrums of avant-garde influence (and rejection) for this generation of Viennese artists. While artists take up some of the strategies of the Actionists or EXPORT, there has been an undeniable reaction of disenchantment to these activities recently. The post-war avant-garde, in also being inevitably historicized and recognized by the state, has aged and been institutionalized and is, thus, restrained. Its former adversaries are now its guardians.
monochrom’s slaying of their father also tells a Viennese tale having its origins, appropriately enough, in Sigmund Freud’s life and work. In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud hypothesizes humankind’s transition from the primal horde to the tribe or totem group where the powerful male dominates. Human civilization (and its tendency to sublimate), Freud argues, arose from an uprising, when a rebellious brother clan slaughtered and devoured the father figure. Their act of cannibalism—‘totem meal’—both literal and symbolic, bore both an admiration of his representation as well as the fear and loathing that brought about his murder. The dead father’s authority, later objectified via collective guilt as legal, sacred, and social institutions, comes to exert a more powerful influence than the living father had. The repetition of patriarchal taboos such as the prohibition of incest and murder help prevent the brother clan from reverting to the status of the primal horde. These laws, Freud says, keep us civilized.
As a collective, the totemic brothers aim to kill the father. Tragically, Austria succeeded in this murder of the psychological father par excellence. After a lifetime of work, Freud fled Vienna from Nazi persecution in 1938. Today, a visit to Berggasse 16, Freud’s abandoned eighth district apartment co-opted by the Nazis then shabbily converted into the Sigmund Freud Museum in the late 1960s, tells the tale of the decapitation of Freud’s authority from the city. This exile and forgetting of Freud is evident in the structure of the museum’s dismal organization and presentation, and its remaining feeling of vanquishment—there is no dint of feeling of the former Jewish intellectual’s presence. The former apartment is rather more like a film set for a low-budget movie. Freud’s influence and aura were successfully eradicated.
In this light, monchrom’s Thomann project speaks to Viennese histories of collective hatred for modernists and collective reverence for patriarchal figures, as well as to the vanquished imperial paternalism that citizens had once depended upon. The traumatic loss of the father that coincided with Emperor Franz Joseph’s death in 1916, ending sixty-eight years of rule, and the subsequent 1919 fall of the empire left its mark on the country’s identity, where through the 1920s and onwards a “crisis of fatherhood” was evident. Historian Maureen Healy argues that the pre-Second World War generation, a “fatherless society,” hungered for a societal paternal authority, which was eventually met by Nazi rule. The Nazis destroyed Austria’s intelligentsia and modern culture, and caused Freud’s exile. The activities of many post-war artists, reacted to this “cultural vacuum” caused by the destruction of (mostly) paternal cultural figures by forming an attack on the patriarchal structures (whether societal behavior, collective repression, or bourgeois morals). The Actionists’ activities especially took up a struggle analogous, in a sense, to the totemic attack on the father that Freud describes in Totem and Taboo. monochrom’s Thomann project parodies this totemic attack and illustrates necessary shifts after the post-war avant-garde project: the system the Actionists attacked, patriarchal and bourgeois, has transformed into a postmodern democracy-capitalistic state that itself betrays desublimatory tendencies. An outright attack on patriarchal structures is outdated, arguably for some time. The fantasy-wish father-figure of monochrom thus raises the spectres of the Viennese avant-garde, illustrates a history (and a series of history-fantasies), and with the soon to be realized killing of this father, calls for avant-garde strategies that, while being cognizant of histories of avant-gardism, politics and Freudian analysis, transcend tactics that the Vienna Actionists espoused.
For Unterspiel, monochrom are performing out a cliché of death and morbidity associated with their city. Their performance-installation takes what can be described as the perpetuation of collective desire by North American mass-media representation (through announcements of ‘ultimate experience’ within consumer culture) and turns it on its head. In this case, the project, Do you know how it feels to be buried alive?, involves a makeshift graveyard filled with soil and a coffin. Participants volunteer to enter the coffin and be buried alive by the collective. To introduce the project, monochrom speak to the history of sciences determining death and the medical and cultural histories related to the fear of being buried alive.
This project emerged from discussions about how to represent an idea or section of Viennese culture in a North American city. Taking the culturally essentialist, cliché image of Vienna—long associated with morbidity, rituals of death and suicide—and casting this image ironically, this project deconstructs this representation, and puts this deconstruction into action. The project challenges the morbid banality of the white cube gallery, and the rampant institutionalization and rationalization of art practises—categorized to fit within the framework of contemporary art discourse. But the project also admits its own spectacle. It is a consciously hysterical undertaking, accompanied by a frantic, proto-modernist text full of outdated political slogans. In addition to its knowing, ironic fulfilment of the death-wish fantasy, this spectacle wrapped up with the cliché of Viennese morbidity and realized with the participation of a Vancouver audience is a reversal of the touristic experience. A highly absurd, corporeal and experiential event, this project supplants the cinematic or televisual apparatus—that which usually introduces the topic of death and its representations. As such, it challenges structures of contemporary art and toys with both North American and Viennese notions of identity via a (physical) execution of existential parody.
Key ‘sites’ of Viennese traditional diet are the Würstelstanden (traditional hotdog stands) throughout the city (which typify and frame Austrian eating habits) and the Heuringen (traditional restaurants specializing in making their own wines), mostly on the outskirts of Vienna. While Würstelstanden are a form of more practical needs, Heuringen are regarded as compensatory, especially in their location closer to nature, figuring in the ‘maintenance of health’. Writer Robert Rotenburg has examined how behaviour is strictly enforced in the Heuringen: “Drinkers who allow themselves such excess consumption display a lack of good sense. When this happens to inexperienced wine drinkers or tourists, it is merely funny. When a native behaves in this manner, it is a violation of the norms of public drinking. Such people are viewed as primitiv (low class), and Heuringen that encourage these drunks quickly lose their Biedermeier mystique and their more moderate patrons.” Würstelstanden exclude these social mores in that people from all walks of life may eat a modest meal there. These ubiquitous, visually-innocuous stands are also emblematic of ‘Old Vienna’ traditions, war and kingship: Würstelstanden were invented so that war invalids could make a living. They also met the needs of those who were either entering or exiting the emperor’s court, so that they could catch a quick meal and not endure the hunger (or relieve it) resulting from remaining obediently patient while the emperor had his say.
The final project in Unterspiel is a Würstelstand; that is, the interactive installation mobile unit by Severin Hofmann and Patrick Baumüller. Working collaboratively since 1997, these artists often organize public interventions that interact with a regional socio-politics. In 1998, the artists installed their public project, Fossi Logic, in Vienna’s eighth district, an area admired, envied and admonished by its surrounding neighbours as the epitome of ‘Old Vienna’ bourgeois authenticity and for its renown for high living standards. Fossi Logic consisted of a makeshift vitrine-like booth containing toy heavy-equipment and (over-staffed) model figures at work in this eighth district boring a sewage hole into the street in a highly inconvenient manner. The scene mimicked the ever-present construction areas in Vienna—all almost exclusively outside of the centre—and foretold a fictitious disruption about to fall upon the peaceful neighbourhood.
This work illustrates the delicate balance of normality in this Viennese district, not unlike any well-to-do neighbourhood. In the model, photographs of the streets represent the area as the clear form associable with the confident, self-knowing district. Beneath this surface, the work implies, is something ultimately tumultuous and always potentially unleashable. That is, this work hints at the repressed natures that bind any social order together—that which is suppressed or sublimated to define, as Freud spoke of, a civilized society. These repressions are suggested, like in Schabus’ work, in the reference to underground Vienna. But they are also implied by the conceivable hostility that would react to such a proposed construction project; this unimaginable disruption—even its conception—could unleash an aggression from the order that epitomizes Gemütlichkeit (cosiness).
This term, Gemütlichkeit, long the clichéd catchword for Viennese lifestyle, reveals inherent truths in what it does not encompass in meaning. That is, in what its meaning often disguises for reality. As such it is a point of reference and jouissance for the artists Hofmann and Baumüller, especially when taken into the context of a North American city. mobile unit takes a historical cipher of Vienna—the Würstlstand—and like monochrom transporting clichés about Viennese culture to North America to unpack the problematics and complications of (any) national identity: Hofmann and Baumüller, as ‘sports commentators’ for Viennese traditions abroad, assemble a platform for unravelling complexities of cultural construction, touristic representation, political consensus, collective repression, socio-political realities, and representations of regional identity; and not only those of Austrian character.
Enhanced cultural and traditional institutions, ratified socio-political policies, the highlighting of landmarks and ‘customary’ diet, and (especially) sports spectacles are socio-economic strategies recently shared by both Austrian and British Columbian governments as forms of identity, built upon an infrastructure that, in its very form, accepts generalized, essentialist notions of culture. The problematics of these hegemonic constructions appear inescapable, but artists can engage with them as sites of reflection or criticism. What is curious about the transfer of a traditional Viennese cultural forum to the Pacific Rim community of Vancouver (before we consider the parody of this project) is the self-conscious Occidentalism that opens up. The socio-geographical context that frames this exhibition enables a strange revision of the exotic, foreign and unfamiliar. This is in spite of the fact that—as nineteenth century Orientalism strived to make the unfamiliar familiar (machen die unheimlich Heimlich) —history has taught us that the exotic (notions of the Other, racial difference, xenophobia, romanticization of non-Western culture) has predominantly been defined by a West that was epitomized by sites such as Vienna. The tables have turned—albeit in a manner reified and delivered by the spectacle of late capitalism and mass-media culture (not to mention the institutions that co-produced this project)—where now it is the (formerly defeated, shrouded in mystery, foreign-tongued, far-away) Viennese that is shifted into a peripheral-like region, as far as the imagination goes. This is the strange contradiction of the cultural centralism now emerging from Vienna, that is, in relation to North American navel-gazing centralism. The effect, when one approaches a work such as mobile unit, is one of minor, elated discombobulation, and a mild hilarity that in itself emphasizes how notions of cultural difference and, more importantly, cultural construction (for national or foreign audiences) are both in flux and under scrutiny.
mobile unit also playfully re-inscribes Viennese tasks of compensation (traditional, as in Viennese dietary customs, and counter-traditional, as in avant-gardist activities) to its audience: the relational aspects of this project—its necessitated involvement of the audience, its imitation of food-stands that generally cater to all social classes (thus momentarily eliminating class distinctions), its role in feeding people with food and ideas—produce a small island of desire for enhanced kinship in contemporary living. This appears impossible, of course. If we all lived this way, the structures of democracy-capitalism would collapse. As such, this intervention has anarchic tendencies—even in a world that has actively pastiched anarchic sentiments—not the kind that slam onto one’s head, but those that pursue compensation and cultural analysis gently and convincingly, striving to embrace individuals from every demographic (including vegetarians) through the basic need of eating, and manipulating a self-conscious humour into areas of ideology. In this light, with efforts such as mobile unit one encounters the everyday parodied (by being exoticized, made familiar, exaggerated, deconstructed and digested) as a modernist expression of desire for relations beyond our globally socio-economic constructed environment, and perhaps even as a series of sketches towards imaginative (and necessarily parodic) models of utopian living.
Conclusion: Symptoms and Differences
For the Vienna Actionists, Austria’s dark past and a confrontation of sexuality and morality were not only visibly looming in their work, the intrusion of these elements into their performances was cathartic. Today, the thrills and pull of spectacle—the machine of late capitalism’s desublimatory process—are the artist’s deepest foe or closest ally. Perry Anderson writes that art is faced with becoming part of or eluding spectacle, as it finds itself pulled in two incompatible directions with its desire to “reassess the Modernist tradition, to reincorporate elements of it as corrective to the new Postmodern visual culture,” or the artist’s drive to be immersed into “the new seductive world of celebrity, commercialism and sensation.” Considering the art world realities of commercial integration and institutional co-option, not to mention Guy Debord’s warnings about spectacle itself, now dominant in our world, it often appears that contemporary art is borne into a black hole. Artists may react to this situation in a number of ways: they may enact an innocuous pastiche of previous movements or styles, they may be engulfed by the spectacle and make work that aims at celebrity, or they may revive, create or nourish modernist gestures (many of which have a twinge of failure)—reapplied and refined to account for the realities of our (now long-considered) ‘postmodern conundrum’.
Part of this conundrum has its roots in concerns modern thinkers shared. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud speaks about the inescapable nature of the psychopathology of everyday life:
Civilization is obeying the laws of economic necessity, since a large amount of the psychical energy which it uses for its own purposes has to be withdrawn from sexuality…Sexual life’s importance as a source of happiness and fulfilment has sensibly diminished…a sense of guilt [is] the most important problem in the development of civilization and…the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.
Implicit in his text is the urge for civilization to do what it can to be content, at the very least, despite its self-manifested malaise. In the same vein, Žižek recently cried “enjoy your symptom!” Where a trajectory of Viennese art represents the symptoms and problematics of contemporary life, the strategy seems not to be one of resigned celebrity, but mapping and analysis. That is, this work urges a consideration of cultural symptoms, for “in the real of your symptom you must acknowledge the ultimate ground of your being… recognizing in its pathological singularity the element that guarantees your consistency.” This is not a justification for complacency or apathy, but perhaps a hint at the idea of emancipation within acknowledged symptoms. Likewise, the artists do ‘enjoy’ these symptoms; they give rise to their work.
The artists in Unterspiel demonstrated projects that speak to the traces of a vanquished bourgeoisie, the legacy of a Viennese avant-garde, and the mythologies of ‘Old Vienna’ that seem ever-present in the city and help define its socio-political coordinates. Although their work cannot directly confront spectres of the past (that are themselves waning), within pathetic gestures, strategized parody, or spatial-temporal analysis, artists are calling for a resuscitated critical evaluation of notions of gender, sexuality, socio-political action, and the structures that define history, nationhood, culture and contemporaneity. These artists define their adversaries, such as the cultural condition around them. Within Western culture’s so-called “waning of affect,” a Viennese loser aesthetic heritage enables the revision of modernist gestures in a postmodernist manner, a reaction to the remnants and simulacra of Viennese bourgeois culture. These artists are identifying cultural symptoms (extending beyond Vienna) via a vital, engaged, revised re-application of the loser aesthetic, a tradition of reacting to “monochrome politics” and provoking an apathetic, conformist public without succumbing to defeatist strategies, although often using self-effacing ones. Today, this self-effacement acknowledges rather convincingly, as had the Actionists’ assault on the body, that today much of the adversary—with its perpetuation in the machinery of spectacle—resides within subjectivity and the social codes carried through the consumerized and reified body.
When recently remembering trying to orient myself, on different occasions, in the Kafkaesque corridors of the central Vienna buildings of the Bundesministerium and the Bundeskanzleramt Kunst Programme , I was struck by the incredible parallels these claustrophobic hallways have to the character of subterranean analysis or cultural digging inherent in the work of the artists in Unterspiel. The intentions of each of these cultural bodies—the former involved in constructing, financing and defining Austrian culture, the latter struggling with the realities of being Austrian culture—betray few commonalities, but the structures of each—the architectural and bureaucratic arrangement of one, and the tunnelling, multi-referential complexities of the other—appear to have an undeniable dialectical, even incestuous relationship. The same may be said about the relationship between the avant-garde and the (art, political or social) institution. They all reveal inherent contradictions and crises of contemporary culture in terms of its manifestation, organization, and representation. “The truth is out there,” Žižek declares in The Plague of Fantasies (1997). That is, the truth of ideological apparatuses and socio-political realities are always appearing in architectural, institutional, cinematic, or other cultural forms, expressed inevitably as dictated by the political unconscious despite attempts at blanketing them. The artists in Unterspiel demonstrated deliberate orchestrations of “the truth is out there,” while their ‘counter-parts’, the institutions, simply demonstrate it. This is the tangibly vital distinction.