Art Metropolis, Living Memory

For the eighth year in a row, a consortium of cultural institutions hosted Vienna Art Week, with dozens of museums, open ­studios and gallery events; plus conferences and afterparties

Top Stories | Nina Prader | December 2012 / January 2013

Vienna Art Week kicked off with a performance art piece, staged at the former Telegraph Office, as part of Predicting Memories (Photo: Florian Rainer)

Variety caters to the pleasure principle, but it also creates a painful, existential dilemma: You’d have to be a loaf of bread sliced very thin, I decided, to spread yourself around to all the events of Vienna Art Week and Gallery Weekend.

Predicting Memories was the overall theme as well as the central exhibition held at the former Telegraph Office, using the famed late-19th-century venue to cement Vienna as a contemporary hub for the Arts, equal in prestige – though with its own individual flair – to Berlin, New York, Paris, and London. It was a dense agenda, admitted Robert Punkenhofer, director of the Dorotheum auction house, which he hoped would "not predict a lapse of memory, but predict sweet memories" still to come.

Alongside the Dorotheum’s pieces, private collections like TBA21, a number of museums, ranging from the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) to the Freud Museum, and various art academies and other institutions, like the Academy of Fine Arts, and the Union of Galleries and Artist Studios, opened their doors simultaneously to the public.

This year’s festival boasted over 100 events and artists, 38 participating galleries, several open studios, and a range of conferences, with the support of the BMUKK (Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture). Overall, Vienna Art Week’s displays were gold and bold in content: In Punkenhofer’s words "an arch spanning from Baroque to the present", embracing the richness and breadth of contemporary art. Vienna’s ambition to become a kind of "cultural switchboard" of modernity had stretched the scope of the agenda, creating a common theme of the human body as the locus of a politics of memory, labour, and identity.

TBA21 was celebrating its tenth anniversary and, at the same time, the work of American artist Sharon Lockhart in collaboration with Noa Eshkol, choreographer, theoretician, and artist. The two were showcased in the film Five Dances and Nine Wall Carpets, for the first time creating a poetic dialogue between Eshkol’s exquisite carpet-tapestries and dance.

Chairwoman Francesca Habsburg sees TBA21 as having an obligation to present unique projects and strives to create a niche away from the "certain thrust of the art market". This private collection is not meant to replace art institutions or mimic art fairs: "Vienna doesn’t need another Kunsthalle," she said. But rather, having vacated the former Gustinus Ambrosi Atelier in the Augarten, her collection "is always about content". Sharon Lockhart’s multiple channel work memorialising Noa Eshkol uses the contours of the body with gestures of intervention, bringing the space alive -- acting out Eshkol’s theories that "nothing is ugly" and that there is no hierarchy in the human body.

In contrast, the "Dildo, Anus, Macht" Conference at the Academy of Fine Arts put parts of human body in question, relating present-day post-porno politics to queer identity and alternative sexualities, through surprisingly tasteful performances, lectures, and art objects. Gallery Christiane Koenig’s selection of photography by Fergus Greer, Looks, also hyped the body in androgynous fashions and expressions of the counter-culture. It also referenced the Leigh Bowery’s Xtravaganza at the Kunsthalle ("I think of my self as a canvas") with similar themes. The Lust Gallery showed the link between sexuality and surrealism through Hans Bellmer’s etchings inspired by the Marquis De Sade. The Nitsch Foundation remembered the physicality of Viennese Expressionism, melodically using Hermann Nitsch’s musical scores.

During the week, the off-scene was also hard at work: Open Systems exhibited The Organism No.1 by Warren Neidich, an American artist who lives and works in L.A. and Berlin. To Warren, "Vienna is the Paris of the German art world. Berlin is the avant-garde, on the move [...] but Vienna is a city that believes in culture’s role in the society, a city that respects the mind, full of romantic people."

But in his work, the romantics were confronted with tough issues of non-physical, creative work and artists’ working conditions, and questions of measurable visibility in the art world.

The exhibition Predicting Memories at the Telegraph Building dealt with a similar theme introducing various contemporary debates that absorbed "the art world" over the years; a timely prognosis, some thought, in light of the impending apocalypse!

The show and workshops at the Generali Foundation Counter-Production and the 21er Haus’ Keine Zeit dug into the problems of production methods in the current climate of economic pressure, and the consequences these realities impose on the body: Burn-out and recuperation. And given the wide range of events, even for a casual visitor, these syndromes can easily lead to indifference by overstimulation.

So how much of a good thing is too much?

During Vienna Art Week, the city itself becomes a construct, of how the viewer or the body situates itself in the culture, how it absorbs and processes history, memory and the present. The wide variety of events was an impressive display of shared purpose by Vienna’s artistic institutions, attempting to establish them as a community of the Arts rather than as businesses. The venues, collections and performances were public and private, off and established, young and old – overlapping, intersecting, and homogenising themes and mission statements.

"We’re here for a good time, not a long time," international art mogul Damian Hirst (also under the hammer at the Dorotheum) once told The Daily Telegraph. Not so MAK Director Christoph Thun-Hohnstein, whose prefers to quote composer Gustav Mahler:

"Tradition is there to pass on the fire." And with this year’s Vienna Art Week, the city has dramatically raised the bar, rekindling its cultural fire, a torch for all to see.

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