On ViewBody And Territory: Art And Borders In Today’s Austria
Museum Of Contemporary Art, Zagreb
December 7 2022–April 15 2023
May 25–August 27, 2023
Thanks to Manhattan’s Neue Galerie, we New York-based critics know something about early modernist Austrian art. We certainly are familiar with the paintings of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka. But how many late twentieth-century artists from Austria are known to us? Hermann Nitsch is a familiar artist, and Maria Lassnig became famous late in her very long career; Arnulf Rainer is well known; and so is VALIE EXPORT, whose conceptual works are championed by the Octoberists. But while for at least two generations, recent German art has been much displayed in our galleries and museums, many of the 31 artists or working groups of artists in Body and Territory are not familiar. This show aspires to change that situation. Austria, for all of its importance as the birthplace of modern art history (Ernst Gombrich, Otto Pächt, Alois Riegl, Josef Strzygowski, to name just four major figures), modernist music (Arnold Schönberg), analytic philosophy (Ludwig Wittgenstein) and, of course, psychoanalysis, hardly has a comparable presence in visual art. In an interview with Klaus Albrecht Schröder, director of the Albertina, in early June 2019, I asked about this issue. He replied: “Why is Austria pushed aside? Because it’s a small country but in terms of music, literature, and I think also in terms of art, we are an important country. And I still feel it is our obligation, our responsibility to show that.”
Body and Territory: Art and Borders includes 91 recent works. VALIE EXPORT’s Body Configurations (1982) are photographs of her in aggressively awkward poses. At a time when the art scene was dominated by the Viennese Actionists, she used expressive body language, as a female subject, giving radical performances in which she exposed herself to danger and pain, or shocked the public. Meanwhile, Anna Jermolaewa’s Research for Sleeping Positions (2006), shows the awkward postures taken by refugees who are trying to rest (Jermolaewa herself emigrated to Austria from Russia.). It was shot at a train station, Vienna’s Westbahnhof, a place where many trains arrive from Eastern European countries and where the homeless sometimes seek refuge. Public structures were constructed or altered with spikes and studs installed on otherwise flat surfaces to deter the homeless from loitering or sleeping on them.
Some of these works are as simple as Peter Weibel’s Police Lies (1967), in which he holds the word “Lügt” (lies) on a placard while standing in front of a police station. Others, however, are as elaborate as Ana Hoffner’s Freud film (2017- 2021), a fifteen minute, 23 second walk through the former Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna with film and textual materials in the background depicting the streets in Sarajevo, the march of an infantry regiment, the announcement of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, and portraits of individuals associated with the monarchy. Hoffner thus inserts the political history of World War I into the inner space of psychoanalysis. Luiza Margan’s photographs from 2015 show her work as an illegal worker on a construction site of one of the luxury design shops in the center of Vienna. And in Günter Brus’s Wiener Spaziergang (1965) he takes a stroll in the city with his clothes and face covered with paint, thus becoming a “moving picture,” and soon is arrested. And how could I fail to mention Maria Lussig's Women Laocoon (1976), a large painted self-portrait version of the famous sculpture which presents, as the catalogue says, "the internal conflicts she faced as a woman in Austria in the mid-20th century.”
As I puzzled over some of these artworks, I cast my mind back to Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” written in October 1914. In that narrative, the condemned man has the law he has broken inscribed physically on his body with a needle, in a process that slowly kills him. In that very literal way, he thus learns what he has done wrong, and so is appropriately punished. The fiendish machine, it seems, has gone out of fashion, and so to demonstrate its efficacy a visitor, who admires its creator, has himself strapped in with the words “Be Just” written on himself. But the machine malfunctions and quickly stabs him to death. There is, of course, more to the story—this is Kafka after all!—but the basic conception is clear enough: punishment demands direct contact with the body. It’s no accident, then, that many works in this show involve images of bodily suffering. And let’s use this example from Kafka to reopen our account of Schröder’s suggestive analysis. Lussig’s painting could be hung alongside works by Klimt and Schiele, but what about the photographs and videos in this show? Do they extend local tradition (in which as far back as the baroque we find many depictions of suffering bodies) or do they mark a break with the past? To what extent, I am asking, are there real continuities in the development of the arts in Austria?
Body and Territory thus poses large questions of great present interest about contemporary art. This collection of political artworks derives, in part, from the works shown in the late 1960s and the 1970s, in the Trigon Biennial, which took place in Graz until the 1990s. As it explains, that was one of the key events that contributed to the internationalization of the art scenes in Austria, Italy, and Yugoslavia. Boldly presenting the traditions of feminism and performance which give a voice to those who are silenced—women, queer individuals, immigrants, refugees, and migrants—this ambitious exhibition curated by Jasna Jakić and Radmila Iva Janković takes up that task in ways that deserve close attention. At Kunsthaus Graz, the exhibition will be expanded. The goal, then (according to the publicity) will be to treat the show as a dialogue between neighboring art cultures. Does essentialism then provide the best way of understanding this art? To what extent, I am asking, is the art here distinctively Austrian, and not a local version of a relatively familiar international style? So far as I could see in Zagreb, the general concerns of these artists were familiar, though of course some of the specific allusions were local.