Miklós Erhardt, Thomas Hirschhorn and Isa Rosenberger at Vienna Secession July-September 2008
‘Seeing a long way into the West’
Austrian artist Isa Rosenberger’s exhibition at Secession consists of a series of projects that reflect on the socialist past in Eastern Europe. Her socially-engaged film, A Monument for the Women’s Centre (2006) focuses on the lives of women who are former employees of a defunct DDR chemical factory and their attempt to combat the media image of East German women as victims of the transition by creating a contemporary monument. Speaking in the distanced tone of the specialist, the artist poses a series of direct questions to the women, such as ‘Why are you a double loser?’
The film Nový Most (2008) takes as its subject the new bridge over the Danube in Bratislava, which was constructed between 1968 and 1972. Again the main protagonists are women, this time three generations of the same family share their recollections and impressions of the bridge and its UFO-style, pillar-top restaurant, interlaced with period footage. In the interview the artist concentrates her attention on the desiring gaze to the West, with questions such as: ‘You can see a long way into the West from the bridge, what was your image of the West in the past?’
The colour red in this exhibition is that of Ostalgie, nostalgia for a time when Westerners were desired and their way of life envied, while Easterners were perceived as the Other. Although the memory of the socialist past is a genuine issue, there is little sense here of the contemporary post-transition point of view. Why pick up on the dysfunctional restaurant high up on the bridge, when life on the streets below is so changed, so full of lounge bars, with the centre of town completely restored and brimming with the energy of New Europe? Rosenberger’s films run the risk of reinforcing rather than challenging the privileged gaze and familiar stereotypes of the old West.
“Havanna is a Snapshot of Hungary’s Recent Past”
Miklós Erhardt has a very different approach to the remnants of the socialist city. His film Havanna is projected onto a free-standing concrete wall in the middle of the gallery, referring to the prefab blocks of the notorious Pest housing estate that was named in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Havanna is home to 20,000 people, who were exposed to the hard edges of economic transition after the system change, facing widespread unemployment and criminality of all kinds. The artist observes that today the process of deterioration has slowed down, most of the flats have been privatised, and there has been a 90% decrease in crime and a revival of local institutions, so that the housing estate can be considered a ‘real functional urban entity.’
The film tells the amusing story of the artist’s search for an entry point into Havanna. Having rented an empty shop, he first set about cleaning and restoring the space. The renovation of the shop was a chance to provoke reactions from passersby, and the artist was filled with horror stories of robberies, mafia and business failures, attracting frequent questions about his intentions. He decided to open an ‘advice seeking office’ and was inundated with business ideas such as: a microwave salon for heating up food, a piercing and tattoo salon, a specialised shop for cheap alcohol, a venue where the booze bought in other shops could be drunk without risk of police fines, an agency for unregistered construction work and a local dating agency with photo-studio. After his three month rent ran out, the artist decided to leave, and work through his experience in Havanna, with the only concrete trace of his sojourn a clean and tidy shop waiting for the next entrepreneurs.
Miklós Erhardt poses existentialist questions to the community and to himself as an artist in an exposed situation. Instead of going there with the question ‘Why are you a double loser?’, he bases his project on exchange, listening to the people and being open to their suggestions. His artistic position is self-reflexive and aware of the potential pitfalls of the community art project genre, with the film characteristically showing the built environment but not any of the local people, in order to avoid objectifying or exploiting his interlocutors.
Footnote to Bare Life – Twenty Six Cardboard Boxes that Contain (Arguably) All My Stuff To Date (2008)
is piled up behind a large glass display window in a nearby metro station, with no chance to verify the contents of the boxes or the bold claim in the title of Miklós Erhardt’s work. ‘Bare Life’ is what the modern state reduces its inhabitants to and in Giorgio Agamben’s influential theory this comes down to the ultimate power the state wields over life or death. The biopolitical intrusions of the state into all aspects of life is further suggested by the video link that maintains surveillance over the work and its public setting. Red in this case is the colour of the radical social theories that the artist frequently deploys, here expressed in the challenge to the values of consumerism implied by the willingness to do without a lifetime’s accumulated possessions.
‘Seeing without understanding’
Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s Das Auge fills the main exhibition space of Secession with a characteristic ‘three dimensional collage’, the organising principle of which is the colour red. As we pick our way through the cardboard and polystyrene scenery, the viewer encounters a catwalk of masked mannequins wearing fur coats with red paint spilt down their legs and placards round their necks, a seascape with fishing boats and countless red-paint sprayed seals, a load of full coca cola packages with crushed figures underneath, numerous plastic chairs with faces stuck on the backs, red wigs in vitrines, national flags with all the colours extracted except the colour red, all spiced up with blown-up bodies of suicide bombers, and above it all, a huge eye surveys the scene. Accompanying the exhibition there is an artist’s statement, the main purpose of which is to clear up any potential misunderstandings about his intentions and in which the artist distances himself from any political message. Accordingly, ‘"Das Auge" 'only' sees, and it therefore remains autonomous’ and consequently ‘"Das Auge" insists on seeing without understanding.’
The red colour here is the red of violence, and the artist constantly frustrates our expectation that the violence is shown for a reason. Hirschhorn has now moved on from mocking protest to the appropriation of ecology, where the melting of ice caps, plight of endangered species, and cruelty to animals are stripped of semantic content and reduced to a purely formal element, and thereby undermined in the eye of the viewer. The supposed autonomy of ‘das Auge’ is brought into question by the fact that although commissioned for a non-profit gallery, the work was clearly conceived with an eye on the art market and an expected future sale. At the same time, the substantial ecological footprint of its production, which reportedly involved a transport of four trucks and ten days work by an army of assistants, not to mention the mountain of non-renewable materials used in the installation, seems today hard to justify, if the intention was merely to create an object of visual stimulation.