Seeing Hans Schabus' recent parallel solo exhibitions was like watching a film and being taken on to the set at the same time - the Kerstin Engholm Galerie showed plans and a model of the work the artist had made for his exhibition at the Secession.
It's hard to say whether it would have been better to be privy to the layout and workings of Schabus' large-scale installation Astronaut (komme gleich) (Astronaut, I'll be right there, 2003) before or after experiencing it. The installation consisted of a replica of his studio in grey painted cardboard on a light wooden frame. It could only be accessed from one direction via a thin winding subterranean passageway that made use of the building's cellar. The featureless entrance tunnel was pretty much like the ones that appear in paranoid dreams, and as a result the tendency was to race through it like a laboratory rat, without necessarily knowing why. It's a matter of taste whether you like to be involuntarily and bodily involved in an art experience in this way, but it certainly created a certain amount of disorientation that heightened the effect of eventually emerging bleary-eyed into an empty, windowless, life-size model of the artist's studio. This faux room-within-a-room had the charm of an abandoned bunker with paper-thin walls. Escaping via a side door into the relative normality of the remaining space around it placed you in a more subtly precarious position - the one in between, with nothing much to see and no obvious exit in sight.
Aimless journeys and tunnelling are something of a recurring motif in Schabus' work to date. In his video Western (2002), premiered at Manifesta VI last year, the artist plays an anti-hero on an uneventful odyssey, rowing his sailing boat Forlorn through the Viennese sewer system. A short peek at the video at the opening put me off - simply because floating organic waste isn't the kind of thing you want to spend much time contemplating. That aside, the video fails to be engrossing despite its obvious and weighty referencing to Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), which features the same sewers, and to Bas Jan Ader's ill-fated transatlantic journey. Apparently on 'The Third Man Tour' you're told an anecdote about Orson Welles' refusal to wade through the muck for the final scene. Schabus, on the other hand, makes a point of being utterly composed about it.
This and another video, Astronaut (2003), were shown on monitors in two utility rooms adjoining the main exhibition hall at Secession. Astronaut documents the artist digging a narrow shaft in the roof of his own studio and dumping earth in an ever-growing pile on one side of the room. Here too the artist and the filming are very matter-of-fact, making the work even more absurd. The final sequence of the video features a claustrophobic spot-lit walk in the tunnel to the accompaniment of heavy breathing and an anti-climax - the end of the shaft is reached, more earth is shovelled.
Schabus' work rewards those who like making connections between things, so although these exhibitions relied more on a cumulative effect than the strength of the individual pieces, there was a satisfying completeness to his exploration of tunnelling as a metaphor for artistic labour, while the displaced material and the hole created by this activity worked as sculpture or installation. Here his use of real and constructed spaces and Vienna's historically saturated earth and subterranean architecture suggested that context is something that artists can either create, worm or sail their way through. The Secession building is like a well-loved brooch worn by middle-aged Viennese women, the type who wrap up in fur in colder months. Schabus mounted a yellow neon sign which read 'astronaut' on its golden globe - a gesture that was the equivalent of hanging a huge digital watch on this nouveau semi-precious jewel of a place. In doing so he seems to be suggesting that outer space is in fact everything that is outside our inner spaces.