Vienna Art Week, “Losing Control”

Novuyo Moyo

December 10, 2021
Various locations, Vienna

The group exhibition “House of Losing Control” gave this year’s Vienna Art Week a theme that proved fateful: just ten days after its conclusion, the Austrian capital went into lockdown after having failed to control the latest wave of Covid-19 cases. The opening night of the show featured installations, performances, and artworks dotted throughout a sprawling building complex in the north of the city that once housed an auto workshop, a club and, we were told, a brothel. All these institutions were functional until very recently; their abandonment is emblematic of the precarity that the latest lockdown (made necessary by the low vaccination uptake in the country) will amplify.

That context of economic decline and ecological disaster made the former auto shop a fitting location for Ernst Logar’s intensely researched works on the damaging effects of the petrochemicals industry. ÖLPEST (2021) unfolded in two parts: a large banner mounted onto the wall on which different translations for “oil spill” were written in crude oil, then on the floor a transparent hose contorted into various formations by the oil being pumped through it. The multilingual work—designed for an international audience—invites us to understand our collective responsibility for this type of disaster and reflect on our contribution to its continuation. In Reflecting Oil Mirror (2008), Logar makes this act of self-reflection literal by using the oil’s slick, shiny surface to act as a mirror.

In contrast, the Polish video artist and filmmaker Michal Kosakowski took a singular catastrophic event for an example of “losing control.” Projected onto a wall in a small room in the auto shop building, Just Like The Movies (2006) splices together scenes from movies set in different parts of New York City to “reconstruct” the day of September 11, 2001 from found material. Film buffs will recognize scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Mary Harron’s genre-blending American Psycho (2000), set with no dialogue to a piano piece by composer Paolo Marzocchi which cycles through jaunty sections to become more unsettling as the day progresses. The work foregrounds how an interplay between reality and fiction, documentary and storytelling, has come to define the moment at which the perceived invincibility of the United States was shattered—a tense blend of truth and fantasy which has continued to define the country’s politics over the subsequent twenty years. In the apartment building that once served as a brothel, the architectural collective Verein für Architektur, Kultur, und Theorie (AKT) cut squares and rectangles into the walls. The intervention AKT 5: EINBRUCH (2021) served to expand the limits of what would usually be visible from a certain point in the space, while still dictating what could and couldn’t be seen. In the context of the show’s theme, the gesture felt like another nod to limited perspectives and infrastructural collapse.

The sense that humans have lost control of the narrative was further apparent in Ines Doujak’s show at Kunsthalle Wien. Though confined to a single floor at the kunsthalle, the exhibition was expansive, including drawings, videos, sculptures, podcasts, even infographics that are an indictment of over-extraction, -exploitation, and -consumption under capitalism. The drawings and sculptures of “Ghost Populations,” an ongoing series on which Doujak has been working since 2016, are prominently arranged on a pickup truck, showing their grotesque, misshapen forms for your viewing (dis)pleasure. Shown alongside Doujak’s other works, such as Economies of Desperation (2018) which critiques society’s anthropocentrism and exploitative habits, the display brings into question what we find repulsive, and why.

That these issues cannot be separated from histories of colonialism was reinforced by Lisl Ponger’s show at Charim Galerie, which critiqued art’s own role in sustaining biased ideologies about cultures from the Global South. Ponger’s staged photographs draw from the distant and recent past, showing how little has changed despite increased understanding of the problems that have long plagued anthropology, collecting, and the exhibition of art in the West. Invoking the work of André Malraux—who was caught smuggling stolen statues out of Angkor Wat for collectors in New York before his conversion into anti-colonial activist—Dancing on Thin Ice (2020) depicts a museum professional standing over a collection of artefacts from around the world, as well as miniature replicas of European institutions; Participant Observer (2016) shows an image of the artist herself in front of her mirror, surrounded by objects she has collected from her trips.

Jennifer Gelardo’s show at Galerie Elisabeth und Klaus Thoman also turns inwards to examine artists’ participation in the gallery system. In “Pick-Up Artist” (2021), she has laid found objects, natural detritus, and photographs on the floor like an offering. In doing so, she draws parallels between the mating ritual of the bowerbird and artists’ own efforts to make themselves attractive to gallerists and collectors. It points to the anguish experienced by artists forced to work within structures characterized by opaque financial dealings, little diversity, and which allow them limited control over how their own works are displayed and circulate.

The propensity toward introspection and self-consciousness could be read either as self-indulgence or as a way of reconsidering our roles as individuals in the various microcosms we inhabit. The best works in Vienna Art Week suggest that, in order to reimagine systems that are no longer working, we have first to change our own perspective on them.

Art Collecting, Biennials, Art Criticism

Novuyo Moyo is assistant editor of e-flux Criticism.

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December 10, 2021

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