Not Totally Working at the 21er Haus

Bringing the Romantic idea of a “total work of art” into the 21st century: No easy task

On The Town | Veronica Buckley | February 2012

Utopia GESAMTKUNSTWERK at the re-opened 21er Haus, is the first exhibition to be staged in this remarkable building – rusty red frame outside, white girders inside, a big, industrial-chic place with vast windows letting in the Schweizer Garten view and whatever light can be conjured out of a Vienna winter’s day.

The exhibition, designed by Esther Stocker and curated by Bettina Steinbrügge and Harald Krejci, is a presentation of contemporary artists’ reflections on the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. This idea of a total, unified work of art, with all aspects emerging from a single concept, originated in the Romantic age and found its most famous expression in the operas of Richard Wagner. It made its way into the Vienna Secession; traces of it can currently be seen in the Klimt/Hoffmann exhibition at the Lower Belvedere. But the Gesamtkunstwerk also included ideas of viewer participation and the utopian impulse toward social change, and it is these aspects that the 21er Haus is seeking to present, the old dream of a total, unifying idea having been discredited, say the curators, by Europe’s experience of Fascism.

To house the artworks, Esther Stocker has installed a wonderful set of big, black, hollowed-out cubes, a reference to Malevich’s famous black squares of the early 20th century. Stocker’s cubes, differently sized and placed at odd angles to one another, sit marvellously within the angular, open space of the 21er Haus, creating in itself a Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts, before the work of a single artist has been glimpsed.

According to the curators, this exhibition would have been unthinkable without the big names of Nitsch, Schlingensief, and Beuys, and the names are duly there, though not accompanied by very much of the artists’ work. Hermann Nitsch, it is true, has a cube to himself, with two objects and three small-screen selections from installations, reaching back almost half a century. Christoph Schlingensief has three screens, too, little black and white TV sets, sitting on the floor, showing images of cancerous tumours, a small part of the Fluxus-Oratorium, which dealt with the artist’s own cancer and his fear of impending death.

Joseph Beuys is represented by a mere series of news clippings and other documents under a glass plate – the unreproducable Gesamtkunstwerk itself comprises 7,000 trees - but surely some actual example of the work of such an important artist could have been found, rather than just a reference to it.

The same problem occurs with other works, including the Kiesler Manifeste du Corréalisme (1949) and the Obyrama II art-as-city-tour project of the early 1960s – though here the problem is inescapable, since this planned Gesamtkunstwerk never saw the light of day.

A further weakness lies in the absence of any evident link between the Utopia: Gesamtkunstwerk concept and some of the works themselves, leading the viewer to ask why they’ve been included here at all. "The space-creating quality" of Daniel Buren’s 1972 vertical line painting, we are told, "reverses the hierarchies in the museum context and gives the artwork a certain ability to act, to change the given structures." Does it? It looks like a simple, attractive red and white canvas. But "changing given structures" is an aspect of the original Gesamtkunstwerk concept; perhaps that’s why Buren’s work has been described in this way here.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s Tool Family is an agglomeration of tools, books, mannequins, and slogans, stuck together with duct tape on a round platform. It looks like something out of the 1960s, but is dated, astonishingly, 2007. Tool Family is "to be interpreted as a reaction to relations in a world in crisis, which…bemoans the loss of its culture." What relations? Which culture? Hirschhorn apparently can’t be bothered to work it out. The words sound cool enough.

Some works do reveal Gesamtkunstwerk imperatives. Tom Burr’s Derailed and Worn Out, both from 2005, a broken white stair railing and a reddish carpet slipping away from an uneven floor, capture perfectly the perilous uncertainty of our times. Julia Hohenwarter’s Catwalk (2009), a lovely big irregular black staircase leading nowhere, engenders the same feeling but adds enticement – you really want to walk up it, and indeed you’re allowed to; the stairs clunk as you step on them. Paul McCarthy’s powerful 2003 Basement Bunker series, and his creepy Fear of Mannequins (1971), reflect the violence and tawdry disappointments of our me-first, unreality-driven world. Franz West’s 2001 Lemure, a huge, lacquered aluminium head, represents the opposing of the inner with the outer world – Wagner might have understood.

Helga Philipp’s 1970 Kinetisches Object and Marc Adrian’s red Grosses Sylvesterbild (1977) address the "participation" idea – as you move in front of them, the images change, and every change is beautiful.

There are 14 video installations, the largest of them enwombed in hollow cubes. The cubes are great, but no one spent more than a few seconds watching any one of the videos themselves. Ernst Caramelle’s box-man (1986), whose little eyes are TV screens, is painted with wine; this is "to be understood as a reference to temporary, performative artistic processes."

Who’d have guessed? Apart from Esther Stocker’s design, much of this show is more about words than anything else, and there are at once too many and not enough of them. Without the explanations, there’s often little to connect the viewer with the object; with them, we head down an Alice-in-Wonderland hole into a world of pseudo-philosophy that masks the artist’s inability to produce a work that can stand on its own. Commentary is helpful, but too many artworks in this exhibition are meaningless without it, and it’s doubtful that’s intended as a sly reference to the Gesamtkunstwerk idea.

The museum’s publicity material states, "We are experiencing a generation of artists who ethically question their own existence as artists, and discuss a new sense of responsibility… With all due scepticism, contemporary artists are returning to the [Gesamtkunstwerk] concept and thereby critically examining social history." Maybe, but with all due scepticism, for most of them, it’s hard to see how.



21er Haus, through 20 May 2012

3., Arsenalstraße 1

Wed – Sun 10:00 – 18:00

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    the vienna review February 2012