The Gate Crasher: The Art of the Vernissage

The Gatecrasher: Apr., 2011

On The Town | Peter Falstaff | April 2011

I’m what you might call a cultural loyalist – several evenings a week, I appear at premieres, readings and recitals, whatever: I’m invited, I’m there. What are friends for?

But in Vienna, my true affections lie with the Vernissage.

With lashings of food and drink and precious little by way of interesting art, gallery openings in Vienna afford little distraction from the true purpose of such meetings:  Gossip, networking, indulgence and shameless display.

So, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that these early evening unveilings don’t just happen in isolation; they are scheduled in packs. On some exceptional evenings, five or six galleries in close proximity will be holding Vernissages in consort. Two Tuesdays ago it was the turn of the chic and slightly bohemian Schleifmühlgasse in the 4th District. (For a description, see the Sept. 2011 Grätzl feature in TVR.) The foremost attraction was a new collection by the British designer Tom Ford – "devastatingly innovative" according to one recent review – of lighting and furniture at "Mood".

Here the well-crafted exhibits weren’t in fact secondary. So along with a generous supply of Sekt and excellent roast beef sandwiches (a nod perhaps to the designer’s homeland), the star attractions were the fittings themselves.

Dixon’s love of geometry was borne out by a wonderfully unstable-looking system of draws, each one pentagonal in cross section and layered, at an angle, on top of another, while his sofas and reclining chairs had menacingly industrial overtones, lurking at near ground level, dark and solid.

However best of all was the fact you could actually lounge around on the furniture! It had that homely Ikea feel which encourages you to test the appointments to destruction, but with the needless-to-say important difference that this gear was selling not for tens of Euros but thousands! How cool was it to chat up my date on an exquisitely trendy – and comfortable – sofa worth €10,000? At this Vernissage, I really felt at home, until of course I returned to chez moi to confront the gloom of my mass-produced reality.

Back at Mood, my reclining was interrupted by an American friend of long standing, John who, having spent his best years in Vienna, had recently moved back to the States to concentrate on his writing career. (While in Vienna, he wrote a thrilling account of the life of the serial murderer and misogynist, Jack Unterweger – so all of you go out and buy John Leake, The Vienna Woods Killer!). He was checking the place out too, but was determined to get to the five or so other celebrations of new collections in the vicinity.

As we moved up the Schleifmühlgasse towards a lively throng of people, my friend told me how New York gallery owners had had their generosity abused by the local homeless. Tramps it seems would get their hands on a listing of openings carried in one of the city’s free papers and would wander of an evening from opening to opening, getting flushed on second rate bubbly for free.

So at the second Vernissage, we began to observe the clientele, and John’s story came closer to home. The other guests certainly were scruffy: too much unkempt hair and too much dirty khaki. Of course, in New York such shoddiness could represent an invasion of the destitute, here in Vienna such dishevelment generally drapes the left-wing avant-garde.

There was much for them to enjoy: some old rubber piping twisted into a vaguely intestinal form, two parallel metal sheets suspended from the ceiling and a long neon tube light in an otherwise empty room. And some fine hors d’oeuvres.

After a few glasses of the complimentary wine – and by golly, faced with such junk, we needed it – John and I moved onto the next gallery. Here after more drink we examined the display: many, many Ipad dispensers, all of which had been smeared (I assume deliberately) with mud. After all the hospitality, though, I wasn’t too bothered: I was just happy to stand outside the shop, admire the buzzing throng on the street and debate asking the pretty girl next to me for a cigarette.

So I defy anyone to tell me Vienna’s nightlife is limited. Her discos may lack the glamour of Rome’s, stuffed as they are with svelte, olive-skinned beauties, or the cool of London’s clubland analeptic of provocatively dressed nightingales and the perfume of frivolous intimacy. Bar life in Vienna is a portrait in nonchalance, and fairly or unfairly, all too often damned by comparison.

Yet, in those rich hours between seven and nine, the Viennese beat all other Europeans in savoir faire.  For Vienna, I smiled to myself as I filed the cigarette girl’s business card in my jacket pocket and careened carelessly toward the UBahn, is the capital of the Vernissage!

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