History is booming. TV is now one history show after another. German-language television, for example, is full of programmes such as Hitler's Women or The SS - the horrors of National Socialism as a form of living-room entertainment. One recent series, entitled History, consisted of historical investigations into, for instance, the poisoning of a Pharaoh or new evidence about the Kennedy assassination, but reported in a sensationalist fashion. History has been transformed into the creation of an A-list of major celebrities, the accuracy of whose presentation is vouched for by the statements of contemporary witnesses.
In exhibiting current works by 20 artists depicting and interpreting historical events, curators Hildegund Amanshauser and Hedwig Saxenhuber explore the relationship between history and the telling of stories. It is worth noting that the show includes a relatively large number of East European artists. Traditionally, Austria has regarded itself as a mediator between West and East, a role reflected in its German name, Österreich (literally, 'eastern empire'), and now given an added dimension by current cultural and political attempts to redress the balance between the West and its so-called frontier.
A number of works express dissatisfaction with the way history has been written, and endeavour to highlight issues or events that have previously been denied or covered up. Even now, looking back at the 1930s, Austria tends to portray itself as the victim of an invasion by Nazi Germany. When Klub Zwei (Simone Bader/Jo Schmeiser) made a film about Jewish women fleeing Vienna for London, therefore, it touched a nerve. Bei uns in Wien (At Home in Vienna, 2001) creates a kind of counter-history, the history of the exiles - although unfortunately it does so in an extremely drab way that makes the film barely distinguishable from a regular TV documentary.
Another way of understanding historical events can be through re-staging the past. For his 1999 video HOT Gintaras Makarevicius organized a banquet for the former employees of a Lithuanian factory. The camera follows the private conversations of the guests gathered in the factory's cafeteria, endlessly drinking each other's health - until the time comes to say goodbye and go home. The mood is something like at a wake, as though they have come to mourn the passing of the old days of socialist production.
Dierk Schmidt had the only large painting in the show: Berliner Schlossgeister (Ghosts of the Berlin Palace, 2002), which shows an area of Berlin seen from above. On closer inspection you notice that fragments of newspapers and photographs are incorporated into the view of the site, so that painterly elements are integrated with pieces of factual political text. With the painting acting like a noticeboard, you put the pieces together and eventually realize that the painting's principal theme is actually the campaign to rebuild, from scratch, the old Prussian-era Berlin Palace - a cause célèbre amounting to an attempt to erase the memory of the existence of the former East Germany, since it involves tearing down the Modernist Palast der Republik, which currently occupies the site.
Even today The Sound of Music (1965) represents most Americans' image of Austria, and its film locations in Salzburg are important to tourism. Yet hardly anybody in Austria has heard of it - an obvious example of the difference between self-image and external perception. In her installation Ein Stück vom besten Österreich (Made in USA) (The Best of Austria, Made in USA, 2002) Munich-based artist Pia Lanzinger explores the film's impact and records the various ways in which it deliberately distorts history, in order to appeal to a mass audience. In one section of a large wall-painting of the Stars and Stripes, the red-white-red of the Austrian flag is made to stand out by the use of strong, vibrant colours. A series of slides is accompanied by statements from an American and an Austrian tour guide, both produced by 'Sound of Music Tours'.
As '(hi)story' shows, artists, just like the TV programmes, tend to personalize history. But in allowing witnesses to speak, they are not looking for information about glorious heroes and murderous dictators; nor are they are out to create a cult of celebrity. What they are principally interested in is the people themselves, their experiences of crucial political situations - experiences that could help us understand the world we live in today.