The funniest story that I heard during last month’s ViennaFair, May 7-10, 2009, involved an art dealer who supposedly saw someone snatch a small painting from his booth. As he ran after the guy, he wasn’t shouting, "Stop, thief," but rather bragged, "I think I made a sale! I think I made a sale!"
This kind of optimism -- whether blackly humorous or not -- marked this spring in the Austrian capital, as the fifth iteration of the city’s own art fair combined with an extensive program at local galleries and museums to give a real buzz to the Vienna art scene. Art lovers were coddled and cared for, entertained and generally charmed. It was a great time to be in Vienna.
The fair presented 122 galleries from 18 countries in Vienna’s conference center, including 29 dealers from the former Iron Curtin countries, whose participation was underwritten by Erste Bank. These included four galleries from Romania, four from Hungary, five from Slovenia, seven from Poland, four from Slovakia and one each from the Czech Republic, Serbia and Lithuania. The sole U.S. participant was White Columns, which showed some of its editions.
Well-known Vienna galleries active on the international scene, like Georg Kargl Fine Arts, Galerie Nächst St. Stephan and Galerie Krinzinger participated in the fair this year, though other Austrian heavy hitters, notably Galerie Thaddeaus Ropac (Salzburg/Paris) and Galerie Meyer Kainer, were conspicuously absent.
Among the works that caught my eye were the abstract-conceptualist paintings by the Berlin-based English artist Dan Rees (b. 1982), whose diagonal awning-style stripes a la Daniel Buren continued off the edges of their canvases onto the surrounding wall. These works were presented by Galerie Andreas Huber from Vienna, which won a prize from the fair for the initiative.
Other faves included works by the Viennese artist Tillman Kaiser (b. 1972), whose splintered, neo-Suprematist geometries dotted with eyes and faces are becoming quite popular in Europe, at the booth of Layr Wuestenhagen Galerie, Vienna, and some little butterfly drawings by Joan Jonas at the booth of Wilkinson, one of two galleries who traveled to the fair from London (the other was Hidde van Seggelen).
Curated by_vienna 09
Like Berlin, Vienna was divided into four zones after World War II: Russian, British, French and American. This May Vienna was again divided, but this time into four art zones, each occupied by its own curator(s). Organized under the orthographically awkward moniker "curated by_vienna 09," the project grouped 18 Vienna galleries into four sections, each with a curator or two charged with organizing shows among their spaces.
This huge undertaking prompted an unusual degree of collaboration between galleries of all types, of course. The opening night ran until midnight, with a luxurious touring bus toting art enthusiasts around to the four clusters of show -- despite the fact that it is super simple to walk everywhere in Vienna center.
First stop was "Correspondences" organized by Matthew Higgs, director of the aforementioned White Columns, who installed works by two artists in each of five galleries. At Galerie Steineck his pairing was especially good, combining the construction paintings of New York-based artist Noam Rappaport (b. 1974), whose Green Gully (2008) is made from stretchers and canvas that don’t quite match but are overlaid on the wall all the same, with whimsical assemblage sculptures by B. Wurtz (b. 1948), long a member of the Feature gallery stable.
At Galerie Martin Janda, Higgs paired the sweet Outsider Art paintings and typewriter-drawings of Christopher Knowles with a conceptualist installation by Karl Holmqvist (b. 1964), a Swedish performance artist based in Berlin. Holmqvist is larger than life, and mesmerized the crowd with a spoken-word performance on opening night. His installation featured a much-used but empty suitcase, a copy of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in Italian, some Jean-Michel Basquiat-styled writing on the wall, and a 27-minute-long vid titled I’ll Make the World Explode (2009).
"Beginnings, Middles and Ends"
Next up was "Beginnings, Middles and Ends," curated by Gianni Jetzer, director of the Swiss Institute in New York. With 20 artists stretched over four galleries, Jetzer's ambitious show dealt with notions of fractured narrative. At Kargl Fine Arts, worth a chuckle was the framed photo of a chicken with a plank leaned against its edge, as if providing a path for the bird to escape the picture. This was the work of the Tennessee-born artist Marlo Pascual, a recent (2007) MFA grad who now lives in New York, and who has already made a splash with her works combining found photographs with various kinds of lights.
The final work in the show, by Guido Van Der Werve (b. 1977) of Amsterdam, is a short film of a lone figure in a black suit, walking towards the viewer on a vast expanse of white ice, followed by a giant icebreaker ship. Titled Number Eight: Everything is going to be alright (2007), the vid is available on YouTube and is accompanied by piano music played by the artist himself, a trained classical pianist.
Anyone who has been to Vienna is familiar with the city’s six Flak Towers, concrete anti-aircraft structures built by the Third Reich in 1943-44. One has been converted into an aquarium, and emblazoned with a Lawrence Weiner text piece, Smashed to pieces in the still of the night, a reference to Kristallnacht. So it was fitting to see, as part of "curated by_vienna 09," a Weiner wall work at Christine König Galerie reading AS LONG AS IT LASTS, a classic definition of his Conceptual Art.
At Engholm Engelhorn Galerie, the Bratislava-born artist Jan Mancuska (b. 1972) suspended on the wall a very long horizontal vitrine, which he titled Someone Else? (2008) and filled with a variety of glasses, cups and saucers, which were printed with the fragmented text of a conversation between a man and a woman. People found this work totally mesmerizing.
"From Europe to Asia"
The next series of shows -- all solo exhibitions -- was titled "From Europe to Asia and Back, Again. Living in a Suitcase" and was organized by Jerome Sans, who is currently director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing and cultural curator for the Le Meridien hotel chain.
Though it seems as if Sans used his own jet-set lifestyle as inspiration, his most impressive selection dealt not with Europe or Asia but with Africa. Barthélémy Toguo (b. 1967) -- an artist who was born in Cameroon but lives in Paris -- focused on the role the Catholic Church plays in the AIDS crisis in his native country in an installation at Mario Mauroner Contemporary.
Covering the floor with a carpet of flattened cardboard banana boxes, Toguo filled the space with simple wooden beds, sofas and platforms, draped with white gauze and heaped with clothes. In the basement were abstract paintings that include real stuffed parrots sitting on perches that jut out from the canvas surfaces. The cellar was essentially filled with stuffed birds -- creepy.
And then there is the notion of art as crime, i.e. "Inside Job," co-curated by Madrid-based critic Maria de Corral, co-director of the 2005 Venice Biennale, and Prospect.1 New Orleans founder Dan Cameron. Their four two-person shows paired a gallery artist with one from outside the dealer’s stable.
One of the more interesting combinations put Belgian artist Hans Op De Beeck (b. 1969), who shows with Galerie Krinzinger, and Shilpa Gupta (b. 1976), who lives and works in Mumbai and was new to the gallery. Gupta, whose "hear no evil, speak no evil" color photographs were included in "Younger than Jesus" at the New Museum, here presents a spotlighted pile of love letters, which gallery visitors are allowed to take. Op de Beeck is represented by his magisterial, large format black-and-white watercolors of film stills, like Film Noir (Mirror Ball(2)) (2009), as well as the resulting digital animations made out of them.
One of the more outlandish contributions was at Layr Wuestenhagen Contemporary, where the Los Angeles-based Japanese artist Koki Tanaka (b. 1975) had installed Walk Through Test no. 2 (2009) during his residency in Vienna. Though fairly neat, the arrangement of objects attests to a certain dishabille, such as the collection of rolls of toilet paper sitting on the floor, all with one end of the roll attached to a point high on the wall, like a Maypole. A video shows the artist walking around the gallery space with a garbage can tied to his leg. It’s like a scatterbrained Jessica Stockholder sculpture, and somehow endearing.
Perhaps my favorite find was the Portuguese artist Ignasi Aballí (b. 1958) at Galerie Nächst St. Stephan Rosemarie Schwarzwalder. Famous for his extensive inventories (all the news images for an entire year, for instance), Aballí also is adept at the Duchampian gesture, such as presenting collections of pots of dried-up paint as relics of the artist’s drawn-out thinking process (a version of Barnett Newman’s classic quip that when he was looking out the window smoking cigarettes he was "working"). In "Inside Job," Aballí exhibited photos of a polished gallery floor reflecting other distorted artworks (Reflexión, 2005).
But there was still more. "Breathless," organized by Adam Budak, curator at Kunsthaus Graz and co-curator of Manifesta 7, specialized in works from Vienna’s younger galleries. The exhibition space was an unused indoor market hall that is rather the worse for wear. The raw space was perfect for the neo-Suprematist installation of large, freestanding monochrome panels and fluorescent lights by the young Austrian artist Ute Müller (b. 1978). At the entrance, a sound piece by Allsop & Weir, the English collaborative team of Paul Allsopp and Andy Weir, chanted the phrase "whenever I stop to breathe," only breaking the rhythm when the performer stopped to breathe.
New spaces in Vienna
This same night, the new exhibition space known as COCO (Contemporary Concerns) held its opening party, at least until it was broken up by the police for noise violations. Organized by Severin Dünser and Christian Kobald, COCO’s inaugural show presented works only by women in a survey titled, with multiple meanings, "Revolver."
Highlights include a Polaroid of a puzzle of several celebrities (who are identifiable, even though the puzzle is unsolved), by New York artist Anne Collier, and a large Fuck Painting (1973) by Betty Tompkins, which added a stroke of first-generation feminism. Sadly, the curators were not so bold as to face the work towards the public walkway. Then we would have seen a ton more police!
A stone's throw away, Das Weisse Haus opened in its new location with a two-person show of works by Alfredo Barsuglia and Sebastian Walther, both of whom live in Vienna. Walther uses the DIY sculpture method and the whole thing felt like a half-tended workshop. As for Barsuglia, his work is entirely different, featuring realist paintings combined with precise drawings of furniture done right on the walls.
Perhaps the most dramatic avant-garde art gesture in Vienna at present is an installation by the Polish artist Pawel Althamer at Secession -- a white hallway leading from the front door directly through the museum space to a rear exit, open 24 hours a day and completely separate from the rest of the museum. It is, essentially, a passageway through the museum that is nevertheless quarantined from the museum space itself.
The work simultaneously circumvents and impales the museum experience. In a perfect contradiction, it makes a visit to the museum into a nonvisit. No ticket counter or entrance fee, no gift shop or book store, no iconic Secession interior, and no art (or so the uninitiated might conclude). Just a way in and a way out. We loved it.
JULIE RYAN is an artist and writer living in Vienna.