Art at the Borders of East and West – and War

The art was hot and the rhetoric hotter at the viennacontemporary art fair. 


When you head to an art fair in Central Europe you might hope to be captivated and/or provoked by unexpected forms of creativity. You probably, though, wouldn’t expect an international incident. But that’s what we got at viennacontemporary, a fair that seeks to bridge Eastern and Western Europe through a large exhibition of work from more than 60 galleries as well as panels and ancillary events around Austria’s capital city. I was there to participate in the panel “Political Homelessness and Contemporary Citizenship,” which included discussing the ways in which this newspaper has always, as I noted in my statement, “sought to question the powerful, expose corruption, and give voice to those who have been too little listened to.” I was joined by activist artist and filmmaker Oliver Ressler; Dessy Gavrilova, a Vienna-based Bulgarian cultural entrepreneur; and Niccolo Milanese, the founding director of European Alternatives. The conversation was rambunctious and far-ranging, and enlivened by slides of some of the more provocative Village Voice covers over the years. 

Our panel set a tone of impassioned discussion, about immigration barriers in the EU and rising authoritarianism in Europe and America, and was followed by the keynote speech, by Alma Zadić, Federal Minister of Justice of the Republic of Austria. After some straightforward comments about ways in which culture enriches a society, and how this can be strengthened, Zadić got more personal: “Many of you know that I’m not born in Austria. I was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and I had to flee the war when I was ten. And the questions of belonging, the questions of identity, were the questions that accompanied my adolescent life — were the questions that shaped me, who I became today. Very often, when I was a teenage girl, and then a young woman, I was furious about the question when people would ask me, ‘So, where are you exactly from?’ Because when they ask me where I’m from, ‘I’m Austrian.’ — ‘But wait, where are you exactly from?’” 

The minister’s complaint was one I had also heard from a number of taxi and Uber drivers I spoke with during our stay in the city. One told me, “Man, I’m from Macedonia, but I’ve lived in Vienna for 35 years. But the people here, they are always wanting to know where do I come from. I’ve been here since I was a kid — I’m from Vienna, man!” (I had some copies of the Voice with me and he was thrilled to get one that featured Lou Reed on the cover.)


Art should never be diplomatic.


Later in her speech, Zadić said, “It took a while, and I had to spend some time in New York, in the U.S., to understand and realize that although this question is somehow putting me in a certain category, I came to the realization that I don’t have to decide. I don’t have to prove that I’m Austrian, I am Austrian. And when I travel back to Bosnia people always ask me, ‘You are not Bosnian, you’re Austrian.’ And I didn’t have to prove that either, that I’m Bosnian, because actually, I’m both.” (At this point, I whispered to my companion, “That’s so true. In New York no one cares where you’re from. Just ‘What do you do?’”) 

But it was the following panel that made headlines across Europe the next day. One panelist, Martin Selmayr, the European Union’s envoy to Austria, seemed, through his bluntly engaging comments, to have accepted the vibe of the evening as one that went beyond politics to something simultaneously more basic and nuanced — those realms of art and humanity. He spiritedly debated with the other panelists the question of whether the Ukraine war might speed Ukraine’s entrance into the EU. And then, discussing the economics of the largest conflict in Europe since World War II, he said, “Oh my God, 55% of Austria’s gas continues to come from Russia,” adding emphatically, “This surprises me because blood money is sent to Russia every day with the gas bill.” He also noted that it was disheartening that no one was marching on Vienna’s Ringstrasse to protest Austria’s hand in financing Putin’s war.

Many in the audience, including me, found the statement impressive, and there was scattered applause, after which Selmayr continued by acknowledging that although landlocked Austria of course needs a steady supply of gas, it also needs to speed efforts to wean itself off Russia’s pipeline.

After the panels and some welcoming festivities, I was happy to retire, jet-lagged and a bit blurry, to my hotel room, and the next day headed out to see a small, tightly focused private collection of feminist art. While chatting with another guest, I mentioned that I’d been on a panel the previous evening, to which  he exclaimed, “You were on the ‘blood money’ panel?”

Taking in my look of surprise, he explained that newspapers all over the EU were reporting on Selmayr’s comments, and that the Austrian government was demanding he be recalled to Brussels. (At the time of this writing, Selmayr still has his job and even has support from Austria’s Greens, though an official of that party wryly noted that the EU representative had no diplomatic training.)

Ah, but art should never be diplomatic, and art was my main reason for being in Vienna. At one of the fair’s side exhibitions, “Not Either Or, But And,” I was struck by a number of works — especially a ramshackle installation by Abdul Sharif Oluwafemi Baruwa. Through delicate wire sculptures and whimsical, angular drawings of anthropomorphic stick figures — pictures Picasso might have done with an Etch A Sketch — the Vienna-based artist achieved a bewitching and fragile pathos much in sympathy with the fair’s focus on unmoored citizenship.

In one of the booths in the fair proper, held in the ornate, Italian Renaissance–inspired Kursalon, which usually serves as a concert hall (Strauss conducted waltzes there after it opened, in the late 1860s), Ukrainian-born artist Lucy Ivanova evanesced an even odder fragility in her painting “Hello To God” (2022–23). White as a ghost, what might be a supplicant drapes over …  an altar? a pew? … like a flayed soul. Ethereal light filters in from above, falling in washy paint over a grid of lightly penciled tiles, the composition coalescing into an eerily inviting sanctuary.

Sculptor Fritz Panzer employs wire to concoct such banal domesticities as a wall clock and shelf brackets. At first glance, these constructions (both from 2023) have a throw-away exuberance that might have viewers thinking them the work of a young hotshot. But spend a bit of time with the pieces and you won’t be surprised to learn that the artist was born in Austria in the auspicious year of 1945, when parts of the country were in ruins as World War II ended in Europe. Simultaneously stolid and rickety, the clock is on time only twice a day, while the shelf brackets will never fulfill their purpose in life as utilitarian objects but only as winking objets d’art.

By the simple maneuver of aligning one postcard, of folks in rowboats in a gargantuan water-filled cavern, atop another, which depicts Vesuvius, the Slovak artist Roman Ondak sets up a palpable tension. A looping stroke of bright blue acrylic paint encloses both the grotto on top and the volcano maw below, formally entwining these opposing scenes and creating a third domain, all of which adds conceptual heft to the title, “Fluid Border” (2022).

Budapest-based Sári Ember recalls the art of antiquity with deceptively simple marble sculptures, ceramic vases, dyed silk hangings, and small — but wonderfully bold — cut-paper collages. With its shimmering orbs and imposingly straightforward plinth, the roughly 8 x 6 inch “Untitled (gold findings on pedestal on blue),” from 2021, comes across as an archeological find from the future. 

Taking a break from the booths in the palatial Kursalon, I took a stroll with no particular destination through streets busy with orderly pedestrians who frowned at a New Yorker unthinkingly jaywalking when there was no oncoming traffic. A destination discovered me, however, in the form of Alfred Hrdlicka’s “Monument Against War and Fascism,” which features “The Gate of Violence,” two huge columns of white Carrara marble carved into contorted figures representing victims of war in general and, after 1938, those who suffered under Austria’s Nazi regime in particular. Although the piece, installed in parts from the late 1980s and early ’90s, has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of victims of Austrian antisemitism, the bronze figure of a balding, bearded man prone on the ground clutching blocky brushes, titled “Street-washing Jew,” viscerally recalls the Nazis’ ceaseless, work-a-day savagery

The savagery inherent in America’s never-extinguished strain of white supremacy is captured in Adam Pendleton’s video “Toy Soldier (Notes on Robert E. Lee, Richmond, Virginia/Strobe),” part of a survey of work by the 39-year-old American artist at mumok, a contemporary art museum in Vienna’s Museumsquartier. This remarkable black-and-white video (2021–22) focuses on an equestrian statue of the Confederate general in Pendleton’s hometown, the camera juddering amid strobing white light and static in sympathy with wailing horns, elegiac strings, and exclaiming shouts on the soundtrack. Bouncing circles frame graffiti festooning the statue’s base, as if searchlights were finally exposing the hypocrisy of celebrating those who fought to the death to perpetuate the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Suffused with anxiety and frustration expressive of the unfulfilled promise in the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” the video slows at one point in order to zero in on a pigeon landing on the traitor’s head, a succinct summation of the absurdity of the South’s “Lost Cause” rhetoric. 

Next stop was the city’s sewers, to visit locations used in probably the most famous film ever set in Vienna, The Third Man, wherein Orson Welles’s Harry Lime sells diluted penicillin on the war-shattered city’s black market and must decamp to the underground tunnels when the jig is up. The 1949 film’s gorgeous noir cinematography gains a visceral verisimilitude when brief excerpts are projected onto rough, stained vaulted concrete ceilings  — as if the Palme D’Or–winning film’s climactic chase scene takes place in one of Anselm Kiefer’s vast, scabrous paintings. 

Back at the fair, however, themes of war shifted from fictional to current events, as seen in Ukrainian artist Mykola Ridnyi’s powerful “Blind Spot” series. After first enlarging photos of the war in Eastern Ukraine, taken from various media sources, Ridnyi occludes the images with sprayed ink, sometimes blacking out the center, other times creating a vignette that frames scenes of wanton destruction, a process that mimics both actual blind spots that can develop in a person’s retina and the obscuring effects of propaganda and misinformation. 

So this year at viennacontemporary, an EU representative landed in hot water for speaking the truth, while in the fair’s booths and in venues all around town, a panoply of artists entranced, provoked, and challenged us by creating images and objects infused with beauty, conflict, and grit. 

Not bad for a long weekend.  ❖




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