Carinthia, Austria, summer 1977. A 21-year-old artist sits by a mountain stream, writing. He’s not composing romantic poetry, nor is he indulging in the self-aggrandizement of diarizing. Rather, he is torturing himself with the kind of writing furthest removed from originality and authenticity: he’s copying. Josef Dabernig is transcribing a book, and not even the kind of book that a young artist of the Punk era could brag about. He’s copying a book by a doctor named Franz X. Mayr, word for word, page for page. The book is entitled Schönheit und Verdauung oder die Verjüngung des Menschen durch sachgemäße Wartung des Darmes (Beauty and Digestion: Human Rejuvenation Through the Appropriate Maintenance of the Intestines, 1920).
The habit of copying out books, along with Dabernig’s practice of meticulously measuring bodies and landscapes, stands in sharp contrast to the expression-oriented art practice more prevalent in the late 1970s – as seen, for example, with the ‘Neue Wilden’. Dabernig thus began putting obstacles in his own path. Self-discipline and small moments of redemption were to define his career from this point forward. At the time, he began to write down how many cigarettes he smoked each day; since then, in the 31 years and counting, he has exceeded his limit of four per day only twice. This ritualized self-auditing was not at all in keeping with the dominant zeitgeist. Dabernig’s internal censor imposed a temperance that escalated to the level of obsession. On Discipline was to be the title of a 2011 installation at the Wilfried Lentz gallery in Rotterdam, in which Dabernig ‘re-staged’ the recording of his daily cigarette consumption from 23 September 1979 to 22 September 1980: the catalogues of his sins displayed in a sort of study room.
‘I wanted to get away from a hands-on practice, the material’, the artist told me in a recent interview, describing his beginnings as a student at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts (1976–81). Rejecting the clay modelling element of the course, he instead restricted himself to drawing the three-dimensional phenomena provided. He entered the data from his measurements into tables. ‘I always measured. Measuring was my cross’, Dabernig says. Using a simple mathematical formula, he distorted the recorded data creating abstract diagrams reminiscent of scientific visualizations. He transformed some of these graphics into three-dimensional steel objects evocative of futuristic shrubs (Torvaianica, 1982–84).
In the early 1990s orthogonal aluminium grids supplanted these vestiges of representational figures, rendering them more abstract (for example, Ohne Titel, 1992). Dabernig stresses how the meditative nature of measuring and drawing – and of metal welding – was important to him. By this cathartic process he wanted to attain an essential state, as well as avoiding recourse to subjective perception: ‘I was convinced that my feelings were not to be trusted’, he says. He constantly coded his perceptions in numbers, through which the subjective took on an abstract form. In these early works, Dabernig systematically filtered all things sensory out of his images. Until his 1998 film Timau, in which he used his brother as an actor for the first time, he also avoided every reference to his private life.1
Since 1989 Dabernig has been working on a long-term project photographing empty football stadiums around the world. These works, known as ‘panoramas’, were recently shown in a 2013 solo exhibition across the two venues of the Kunsthaus and Neue Galerie in Graz and were exhibited at the 9th Gwangju Biennale in 2012. For these works Dabernig seeks a position in the middle of a football field and photographs the architecture in six segments: three pictures of the left half of the stadium and three of the right. The actual centre, the playing field, remains empty. Sporting venues are arenas of collective fervour; Dabernig’s austere photographs, by contrast, show only the (unspectacular) skeleton of the spectacle.
Art history of the latter half of the 20th century bears many attempts to dissolve objects into signs, diagrams and numerical series. Take for example, Hanne Darboven’s work Schreibzeit (Time of Writing, 1975–80). Dabernig, on the contrary, has resisted participation in art debates. He sees in them ‘an attempt to sublimate the middle-class Catholic educational model’. Beyond the classic Conceptual approach of uncoupling the making of an art work from its author and demystifying its purported uniqueness, Dabernig’s pratice comes out of a monastic tradition whose last remnants he experienced at the Catholic boarding school he attended in Austria. The Christian exercitationes spirituales, which began in late antiquity as a combination of physical exercise and piety, survived in postwar European grammar schools as enforced, blind obedience.
In contrast to others of his generation, Dabernig did not turn to Indian ashrams or rural communes to seek enlightenment. His decades-long training has provided only the most minimal of high points, such as the mastery of his nicotine addiction and the ecstasy of his completed series of numbers. Is this a pedant working through the traumas of his education? A disciplined ascetic with a compulsive bent? Dabernig’s irony refuses this obvious interpretation – instead it results from the contrast between the claimed demand for order and the imperfect reality. This is also how the artist partakes of the lordly genre of the panorama, albeit in the form of pieced-together rows of images. His usage of the stadium is reminiscent of the steel bodies and collective experiences of neo-Olympic Modernity. But the artist shows the ugly side of these arenas of progress: near-derelict sport cities at the peripheries of towns.
In taking recourse to the palaestra, Dabernig also incorporates physical exercise into his installations. He presented gymnastics as a de-spiritualized asceticism in the exhibition Excursus on Fitness (2010) at the Museum für angewandte Kunst/Gegenwartskunst (MAK) in Vienna. There, gymnastics mats and balls lay in wait in the exhibition space, while an ambient racket issuing from loudspeakers preserved the atmosphere of a gym, ensuring that the sports equipment wouldn’t be interpreted as sculpture.
In 1996 Dabernig began a second artistic career as a filmmaker – and here, too, sports and personal accomplishment have played a central role. For his first film, the short Wisla (1996), which was shot in Krakow, he turned once more to football. Football coaches have a simple code of conduct. Some of them gesticulate wildly and shout at their players. Others follows the action with an impassive gaze, suppressing their emotions even when a goal is scored. In Wisla, Josef Dabernig chose the silent type. Actors playing a football coach and his assistant enter a football stadium, sit down on a bench in the dugout and watch the ensuing match. Dabernig’s coach uses minimal arm movement when giving his team instructions: ‘mark!’ Not much else happens.
Wisla follows the same structure that informs the majority of the 15 films Dabernig has made since: visuals out-of-sync with sound; everyday views of car journeys running parallel to bel canto arias; the background noise in a Polish stadium suggesting the live broadcast of an Italian championship match. The strict application of formal specifications, the avoidance of ‘dramatic’ panning, for example, is reminiscent of the anti-illusionist programme of Structuralist film, with its rhetoric of the transparency of the medium. The elements of film – cutting, sound, material, montage – remain unconcealed. In his films, Dabernig overcomes the barrier of Constructivism; he shifts from enumerator to narrator.
The characters in Dabernig’s films are thoroughly stoic by nature, more indolent than impassioned, more prototypes than individuals. Their clothing – typically the work uniforms of telephone technicians, custodians or waitresses – also suggests a near-socialist indifference to self-expression and to the creativity-oriented competition of the contemporary working world. Beyond this, the artist’s films are marked by a preference for spaces wrought by modern mass society, not just football stadiums but also swimming pools (Aquarena, 2007) and train dining cars (WARS, 2001). Dabernig documents them at the moment of their decay. The functionalist surfaces of facades and interiors appear peculiarly timeless. At the same time, however, they are too dilapidated to fit the cliché of retro-modern chic. Like the landscapes and people in Dabernig’s films, they convey the mood of a peripheral location once gripped by the force of progress, long since gone cold.
Dabernig’s most recent film Hypercrisis (2011), which was shown at the Bergen Assembly in autumn 2013, is set in a former Soviet convascelent home. Here, for the first time, one of Dabernig’s films focuses on an artist. The literary figures seeking relaxation include Boris Martov, a once up-and-coming young talent of the Perestroika era. While his colleagues sit around snacking comfortably, the no-longer-so-young Martov suffers a creative crisis and trudges through the snow reading manuscripts: the caricature of inspired creativity running up against a wall of aimlessness.
Dabernig opposes the myth of artistic autonomy with discipline and renunciation. Is this perhaps a suitable formula for attaining the career goal of independence? In any event, even if Dabernig’s subject matter repeatedly shows traces of decay, and his protagonists must stomach defeats rather than victories, there is something upstanding, something invulnerable to pity and self-pity, about these places and their people. As if a long training programme had made them strong and serene.
Translated by Jane Yager
1Dabernig’s partially paraplegic brother Wolfgang, a Paralympic silver medalist in cycling, has acted in five of the artist’s films.