Vienna Art Fair

Vienna’s Largest Contemporary Art Event Places an Enhanced Emphasis on Eastern European Galleries

On The Town | Ana Valjak | May 2008

A sculpture by Natasha Rosling

In the cool of the glass and marble in Halle A, the muses of inspiration wafted over me as I walked into the Messe Zentrum in the Prater, in Vienna’s 2nd District in late April for the Vienna International Contemporary Art Fair. The show was to focus on new work from the Central European Region, still a rare enough event.

At first glance, though, I couldn’t see much. People were packed in all around me, prosecco in hand, in a bubble of conversation and laughter.

"Step aside, folks," I thought, "I’m here to see the art, not to drink!" – well, not just to drink. As if they were reading my mind, the sea of bodies parted, opening a path before me. So now what? Left, right or straight? Halle A is very large, and I didn’t want to miss anything. Well, as Alice said after falling down the rabbit hole, it is best to start at the beginning. I turned right and began my odyssey through the world of new art.

The first booth on the right was the Cannes Young Lion Media space, screening the best work from last years’ advertising and marketing competition. Awards are given for innovative strategies "to drive critical business success." Next I saw the bar. This was clearly where the strategizing was taking place. People were crammed in every centimeter, so that small "cliques" had formed around it. No way of breaking in there.

I turned left and found myself in the labyrinth of gallery booths and contemporary art. It was a little overwhelming, but I decided to dissect it step by step.

For four years now, the Vienna Art Fair has opened on April 23 – Shakespeare’s birthday, which perhaps explains the aura of the muse – with a reception for VIPs and the press, including a special tour for some 250 international art collectors and museums.

The public opening was on the 24th and the whole event lasted until April 27th a four-day journey of 126 galleries and more than a thousand artists.

"This year is the biggest and most interesting selection of galleries that has ever been shown in Austria," said Matthias Limbeck, manager in charge of new business, marketing and CEE at Reed Exhibitions Messe Wien. "More and more collectors see Vienna as an attractive market place for contemporary art."

As host, Austria showcased local artists presented by 46 different galleries, although the fair is attracting increasing numbers of foreign galleries. As in previous years, German galleries, now numbering 31, accounted for the next largest national share.

Exploring the gallery booths clear similarities were evident between the works presented by the Austrian and German galleries. Maybe because of shared history or the way of life, they were more similar than the other countries presented at the fair.

For one thing, the Austrian and German art seemed more free, more experimental than the other. Most was black and white, with a combination of materials that underlined the perhaps sexually disturbed, as if dark, secrets hidden behind. It seems that the Austrian and German galleries chose similar artworks, in some way dark and disturbing but at the same time pure and relaxing.

One of my favorite galleries, Mauroner, is a good example. The center of the booth was the sculpture Diana y Acteon by a Spanish artist Bernardi Roig, of a sexual union between Diana, goddess of the hunt, with a deer-like man, half hidden behind slatted blinds but never the less perceptible and intimate. This sculpture in polyester and wood seemed to arouse much curiosity, and gallery director Mauroner reported having gotten several offers for it. Some found it insulting and degrading, he said, which was surprising; there was nothing lurid or cheap in the respectful lines. Were my apartment large enough, I would have been honored to own it.

However, another painting was deeply disturbing, although perhaps in a good way, frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Entitled Absence, by Yugoslav painter  Marko Velk now living in France, and exhibited by the German gallery Marc Berville Prospects from Berlin. It was a grotesque ghost-like portrait in charcoal and dry pastel, like the inspiration of a horror movie. There was no life in the eyes, repulsive, yet hypnotic. There was no information in the catalogue; I wondered if the sense of evil, the strong presence of death in the painting had sprung from the Yugoslavian war in the 90’s.

This year for the first time, the Vienna Art Fair had two guest galleries from Israel and one gallery from New York, Gallery I-20 exhibiting a beautiful painting of a country village by the American Sherry Wong called Past Bridge, Passing Key in acrylic and pencil on birch panel. Water, of a pale beige, flows past the village whose  combination of shades of earthy brown give a feeling of melancholy, but also of timelessness similar to many lively small towns in Italy. A girl in the foreground could be a mermaid, a mystical figure watching over the people in the town. The initial mood of sadness lifts somehow, as if this is some hope breaking free.

Six galleries arrived from France and Italy, five participants from Great Britain, one from Spain, five from Poland, two Hungarian, a Serbian gallery and two Slovenian galleries. With 21 participating galleries from Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the Vienna Fair presented itself as an important platform for the development of the gallery-scene. Many of these galleries are part of the support program by the Erste Bank who is also one of the main sponsors of the fair.

Although the Vienna Art Fair targets contemporary art, each gallery presents its own style and perception of current trends, with the Eastern Europe galleries more conservative, taking less risk that the German or Austrian galleries.

Overall, there seemed to be less variety than last year, a sense confirmed by young artists on hand from Academy of Fine Arts, and some of the work was exhibited for the second time, including a painting by Markus Linnenbink named  iknowwhoyouarebutwhatifiam, that had made a strong impression last year.

Never the less there were some pleasant surprises. In one row of art booths, a series of three paintings called Schwelle (Threshhold), oil on canvas depicting a person who resembles a kid in all features but in the face and experienced eyes, by art professor Mara Mattuschka were impossible to overlook, as were the works Two Oversized Shirts by the prominent Viennese artist Erwin Wurm.

Small flaws couldn’t spoil what is essentially a unique art event that is earning more well-deserved attention each year.

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