ViennaFair: A Rebirth of Art

Supporting galleries and artists, and shining a brighter light on the ideas and initiatives of the contemporary scene

On The Town | Oleksandrina Vyshnevska, Laurence Doering | July / August 2011

At the turn of the last century, artists declared a war on traditionalism in art. Employing slogans like "Make it new!" and "Subjectivity is the new reality", they initiated an irreversible artistic transformation. Famously, Marcel Duchamp, the inventor of "ready-mades" long before Andy Warhol took up the idea, even proclaimed the death of art.

To this day, however, the autopsy has been inconclusive: while some maintain that we are once again witnessing the murder of originality, others sense the birth of an exciting new era of proliferating viewpoints.

A recent event in Vienna re-opened the case: ViennaFair, the city’s annual contemporary art show at the Messe Wien Congress Center, May 12-15, and Austria’s largest international trade fair for contemporary art, presented a comprehensive body of evidence: 127 exhibitors from more than 20 countries showcasing virtually every known area of fine art, from graphic art, sculpture, photography, painting, and installation, to media and performance art.

The new organizers, Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer, chose from the long list of candidates clamoring for a place at the trade fair. Notably, they advanced the fair’s stated mission of promoting artists and galleries from Eastern Europe; a full third of the exhibitors were from the region.

The Austrian art scene was represented by both flegling and established galleries, such as Ernst Hilger, Mario Mauroner, and Kerstin Engholm among many others. While some of the Austrian exhibitors ignored the focus on Eastern Europe, others highlighted their long-standing engagement with the region. Gallerie Hans Kroll, for instance, entertained and arrested visitors with Russian artist Ivan Brazhkin’s DVD Rebel Karaoke, which encourages viewers to sing along to the chants of protesters in Moscow and Paris.

Among the German exhibitors, Barbara Thumm, Antje Wachs and Gregor Podnar were the most prominent contributors. Also represented were Chez Valentin from France, Bernard Jordan and Eva Presenhuber from Switzerland, Visor and Palma Dotze from Spain, and Carbon 12 Dubai from the United Arab Emirates. Accordingly, apart from the high quality of the works on show, it was the diversity of contributors that resonated most among critics: Sabine Vogel, for instance, writing for Die Presse, highlighted the "varied, young, and global" nature of the fair.

The global focus seems to have struck a cord with collectors, who rallied particularly around the Eastern European exhibitors: Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie’s works, for example, showcased by the Galerie Charim under the headline Communism Never Happened, sold out even before the fair officially opened. It seems, indeed, that communism did little to detract from Eastern European gallerists’ commercial acumen.

The focal point of the fair is to support participating galleries in their business endeavors and to attract international collectors, especially those from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, in whose collections Western European art has been so far under nurtured. The Vienna School of Collecting Theory program advised collectors with critical opinions of major art theoreticians, artists, critics and curators in the relaxed atmosphere of the center’s VIP lounge and outside of the ViennaFair’s marketplace.

Accordingly, Matthias Limbeck, ViennaFair’s managing director, told The Vienna Review he has seen a constant rise both in the number of visitors and in purchasing demand over the years. Seemingly, contemporary art is finally gaining prominence in the eyes of the public, and at least in part due to ViennaFair’s own outreach efforts; The Fair has made it a priority to help artists gain recognition across Europe, educating audiences, and building bridges between art producers and the wider public. Artists today can no longer complain about neglect and lack of patronage – at least not in Austria; as in previous years, ViennaFair was able to rely on Erste Bank as its main sponsor.


A Diversity of Currents

"The world is all that is the case," Ludwig Wittgenstein once said. The ViennaFair seems to prove that in the world of art, "all that is the case" is, if anything, expanding.  Contemporary art in Europe, toying with political issues for decades, now seems more serious. Many artists focus on globalization and mass consumerism, often in the setting of a modern urban metropolis. Some works express explicit social criticism, while others hint at an existential dilemma. Artists like Santiago Borja, Szilard Cseke and Onur Gulifidan extensively explore these topics in their works.

But there are other trends. Recently, artists have rediscovered painting, for example – that’s something that conventional art seekers will find appealing. Ranging from Abstract and Minimal Art to the realistic technique of figurative painting, this turn of events will prove worthwhile to those nostalgic for a good brushstroke. The themes still remains post-modern, nonetheless, in some instances-quite existential. Xenia Hausner, Herbert Brandl, Mircea Suciu and Sebastian Schrader are all worthy contributors.

Many found satisfaction at this event, the art connoisseurs and contemporary art devotees, but also those nostalgic for modernism and its aesthetic standards. Political issues, amorphous form, conceptual art, feminist perspectives, serial art and photography all had a living presence at this year’s ViennaFair.


For more detailed information on the illustrations, see the VIENNAFAIR website at

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